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Paul Hanna

Become – High Profiles
June 14, 2019

Don’t be fooled by his olive green suit. Behind the façade of a humourless businessman, Paul Hanna is a playful serial entrepreneur whose varied ventures range from the zany (inventing the sport of indoor cricket) to the altruistic (pioneering a heart monitoring device that detects heart attacks). His latest effort in innovating breakthrough technologies has brought him to develop a world’s first in an industry of virtual treasure hunters.

While the majority of the populace has been on a sustainability high, extolling the benefits of eliminating plastic straws and dining ethically, Paul has been working behind the scenes, tackling an equally significant environmental issue that isn’t talked about as often—the use of cyanide, mercury, acids and other toxic agents to extract gold.

The primary method of gold mining since 1887, cyanide leaching is favoured for its cost-efficiency and practical efficacy. It has led seekers of precious metals to turn a blind eye to the dangers of leaks, spills and improper disposals of cyanide-laden waste whose death toll includes massive ecosystems of marine life and a handful of unfortunate souls. In spite of its obvious hazards, it remains prevalent in modern-day mining.

Stepping in with a portable, scalable and infinitely more ethical alternative is Clean Mining, an Australian tech start-up established by Paul in 2019. By sheer serendipity, the founder went into partnership with scientific government agency CSIRO, and together developed an unprecedented technology that replaces cyanide with a solution that uses a non-toxic reagent containing thiosulphate to dissolve fine gold from ores. The gold is then recovered and the reagent can be reused.

As something of a lifestyle environmentalist himself, Paul walks the talk as well. “I don’t use plastic bottles. Why would you need a plastic bottle when you can get a glass bottle? I also walk to work in Perth, even though I can drive,” he shares. It’s clear the Australian enterpriser, who doesn’t like to talk about himself much, cuts a different figure from the average captains of industry. Yet, as exceptionally laid-back as he is, Paul is far from blasé, simply preferring to create change away from the spotlight.

How Serial Entrepreneur Paul Hanna Pioneered Ethical Gold Mining

Founder & Chairman, Clean Mining Limited
Text by Angela Low
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

ANGELA LOW: How did Clean Mining come about?

PAUL HANNA: We were looking for a solution to using cyanide in the gold fields of Western Australia about three years ago. We couldn’t find anyone with a solution at that stage, but luckily, we ran into someone that told me about CSIRO, which is Australia’s premier research company owned by the government. I rang them up and said we’re interested in knowing more about their technology.

Within two or three weeks, we signed an agreement to collaborate because they wanted to take their findings in the lab and put it into a bigger scale pilot plant. We had the location for them to do that, so jointly we built the first pilot plant to see if what they found in the lab worked at scale in the industry. That’s how we started. At that stage, we hadn’t formed Clean Mining because we were still doing the research. It started as Nufortune Gold, which is a traditional gold company. Then, we morphed into Clean Mining, which is a technology company.

ANGELA: Clean Mining focuses on producing the technology that aids clean gold mining.

PAUL: Very much so.

ANGELA: How long has it been since people started using cyanide and toxic chemicals to extract gold?

PAUL: Oh, they’ve been using cyanide for well over a hundred years.

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ANGELA: Why has it taken so long to come up with a solution?

PAUL: Cyanide was going into lakes, but no one really cared. In the last 10 years, a lot more governments have been pushing cyanide out so I think it has exacerbated the growth of trying to find a solution. CSIRO has been at this for over 10 years. It’s not an easy thing to solve. I’m sure other people have tried.

ANGELA: Was it because of the lack of awareness of the dangers of using cyanide?

PAUL: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it. No one really cared. Mercury and cyanide go hand-in-hand in the mining industry. The millennials are pushing to remove it though.

ANGELA: What are the dangers of using such toxic chemicals?

PAUL: It kills everything. It kills the environment. It kills the fish in the waterways. It can kill you if you drink it. It’s just a dangerous toxic product.

ANGELA: Does it affect the gold itself?

PAUL: Gold is attracted to cyanide and that’s why they use it. It grabs the gold. People have been using it for so long because it does the job.

ANGELA: When the extracted gold is turned into jewellery, for example, is it possible to clean out all the cyanide? Would there be any traces of it left behind?

PAUL: There would be tiny little traces, but you wouldn’t bother about it. I think it’s more about the cost of getting it. It’s not actually in the gold. It’s the extraction of the gold that’s the problem.

ANGELA: Is it more cost-effective to extract gold with your technology, or with cyanide?

PAUL: Apples for apples, we’re comparable. We don’t necessarily want to go head-to-head with the cyanide producers because we don’t need to have tailings dams to hold the tailings. We can actually save a lot of money on the footprint for the client because we can have a dry tail, which is a big breakthrough. We can do that because we’re non-toxic.

ANGELA: How does this breakthrough technology work?

PAUL: It’s just a replacement for cyanide. We need the same things any miner needs to produce gold, but we just replace the cyanide tanks with our tanks. The main difference is that we can be small-scale. Our business plan was always to be a mobile processing plant, whereas if you’re using a normal cyanide carbon-in-leach process, it’s static and starts at US$20 million. We can descale it right down to a solution within US$2 or US$3 million. There’s no other alternative at this point in time.

ANGELA: What’s in your tanks, as opposed to cyanide?

PAUL: The secret herbs and spices. [laughs] It’s the formula that’s been developed.

ANGELA: So the equipment is all the same?

PAUL: Largely, yes. It hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. It’s amazing because you’re talking about precious metal here. I think you’ll find that there’ll be a lot more innovation. We’re going to keep innovating and finding better ways and better equipment.

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ANGELA: Can you trace the history of extracting gold by the various methods over the last century?

PAUL: A lot of the west Australian gold fields were found in the gold rush of the 1850s and 1860s. Men just went into the gold fields with their horses, carts and picks, stayed on site, and looked for gold. In Western Australia, particularly, a lot of the old diggers really led the way. Where they stopped, modern technology took over because you couldn’t get any further down.

ANGELA: After the manual process of digging came the process of using cyanide?

PAUL: They used mercury first. Mercury is a nasty thing and it’s used particularly in Africa and Indonesia. It extracts the gold, but you’ve got to burn the mercury off to get the gold. If you breathe it in, and the mercury goes into you, it’s extremely dangerous. I think it was in the 1940s or 1950s that mercury started to become less popular. They still do it today, but it’s going to be banned by 2020 around the world. After mercury, they used cyanide.

ANGELA: Are there other alternatives to producing cleaner gold?

PAUL: People are recycling gold, such as the gold in electronics. But it was produced at source, probably using cyanide, so you can’t really say it’s clean gold. I’m sure there are other alternatives. The Chinese use a formula, but it’s got chlorine in it, and chlorine does bad things.

ANGELA: How do you estimate the value of raw gold?

PAUL: You weigh it. A gram of gold is worth about AUD$58. There’s a standard price. The world standard of gold prices is unstable, so you know you can sell it. You’ve always got a market for gold.

ANGELA: Is gold most valuable in its rawest form?

PAUL: If you find a big nugget... There was one found underground in Western Australia recently that was worth $50 million. Raw nuggets and chunks like that get a higher value because it’s a little bit more collectible than the raw bar that’s been processed. People want to see the natural gold.

ANGELA: Do you know how much of the world’s gold has been extracted, and how much there’s left?

PAUL: That’s a good question. I think there’s about 54,000 tonnes of gold stored.

ANGELA: What happens if we, one day, extract all the gold?

PAUL: You never will. [laughs] Well, it’s an interesting question because they say that it is running out. The big gold mines are coming on stream, but there’s still plenty of gold out there because technology is getting better and people are going down further. Africa particularly has got plenty, but it’s dangerous. It’s not stable with the governance. I don’t know how much more there is.

Because of the gold standards we had way back in the 1960s and 1970s, you had your currency linked to gold. If you had a dollar note, it’s backed by gold. Now, that’s blowing out, particularly in the States. It’s just paper now. You get 40 to 60 times the paper that you’ve got in gold. But the world is wanting to go back to gold as the standard so there’d be a lot of currency wars. Who’s got the gold wins. That’s what I think is going to happen.

ANGELA: Have you always been passionate about finding clean solutions for gold mining?

PAUL: Not always, no. It just came along. It was an opportunity, really. I was looking for a solution, but it wasn’t like I woke up one day and said, there it is.

Paul-Hanna-Art-4

"I started life as an entrepreneur and I’ll probably end as one."

ANGELA: How did this journey begin? How did that opportunity come about?

PAUL: The opportunity came because I heard there was a solution at CSIRO. I rang the guy at CSIRO, and he said to come and see him. It’s incredible, if you think about it, that he was looking for someone like me, and I was looking for someone like him. Let’s just put it down to good luck.

ANGELA: Before being in the gold industry, what were you doing?

PAUL: I’ve done a lot of interesting things. Basically, I started life as an entrepreneur and I’ll probably end as one. It’s just in me. I like project work, where you can look at finding solutions, and figuring out how to sell it, market it and distribute it.

ANGELA: Any specific industries?

PAUL: Not really. I was the inventor of indoor cricket, which was one of the first sport franchises back in the 1970s. We ended up being the second biggest participation sport in Australia at one stage. That was interesting. It was also the most meaningful project I’ve been a part of because I had to design the game, sell it, write the rules, market it and launch it. I played a form of cricket indoors and thought it’d be a good idea to make it a bit more electronic, put the score behind the umpire, elevate the umpire, and create a competition.

ANGELA: What other projects have you been involved in?

PAUL: Currently, I’m in partnership with some people in Melbourne. We’re entrepreneuring a heart monitoring device. In fact, we’re doing it in Singapore. We’re doing some clinical trials to see if there’s a way to detect pre- and post-heart attacks.

ANGELA: Your ventures are quite diverse. Are they based on your varied interests and where they take you, or are you simply on the lookout for opportunities and problems to solve?

PAUL: It’s probably more opportunity-based, but I think as you get older, you try to get the ones that will be less risky. You don’t want to risk too many things, although invariably, you’ll have your ups and downs.

ANGELA: What were you like as a child? Were you one of those kids that was always buying and selling stuff in school?

PAUL: Yeah, I was. I’ve always been that way. I remember taking Monopoly money to school in grade one, and swapping them for lollies and money. [laughs] I’ll give kids $500 in Monopoly for a lolly or something. I’ve always been in my own business. I’ll never work for anybody. You are what you are, really. If you’re true to yourself, you can’t do anything else. I could never do anything else.

"There’s been a lot of winners and probably more losers in this industry. They fall because they don’t have a cash flow. That’s the biggest weakness."

ANGELA: Tell me about the first gold mine you discovered.

PAUL: It was way back in the early 1970s in Kalgoorlie. I bought the mine, but I ended up selling it for next to nothing because of various situations.

ANGELA: What happened?

PAUL: I just took a punt on this particular gold mine. I didn’t know enough about it, to be truthful. I didn’t know what I had. Something else came along, and I sold it. Years later, it turned into a major thing, so I missed that.

ANGELA: What made you buy it?

PAUL: It was just a project that came along. I thought gold mining sounded like a thing to get into.

ANGELA: After you sold it, you just left…

PAUL: Yeah, I left the gold industry and did other things. Now, I’m back in it. I learnt to do a lot more research. Let’s just say everything that glitters is not gold. There’s been a lot of winners and probably more losers in this industry. They fall because they don’t have a cash flow. That’s the biggest weakness. We’re now a cash-positive company, which I suppose is pretty good for three years.

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"There’s nothing more exciting than finding gold. Treasure hunting is a fun thing because you’re looking for the Holy Grail, aren’t you?"

ANGELA: Have you always been obsessed with the gold industry?

PAUL: I wouldn’t say it’s an obsession, but an interest. There’s nothing more exciting than finding gold. Treasure hunting is a fun thing because you’re looking for the Holy Grail, aren’t you?

ANGELA: How many gold mines do you have currently?

PAUL: We’ve got two, maybe three in Western Australia.

ANGELA: How do you intend to bring your solution to all the gold miners in the world?

PAUL: We just launched the project at the 3rd Asia Pacific Precious Metals Conference. Our roll-out plan is to joint venture it with people in territories. We’ll have a partner in Africa, and a partner in South America. In China, we’re currently talking to some people to become our partner. We don’t want too many, just about eight or nine partners. That’s our plan.

ANGELA: Do you think the technology will be easily duplicated by other gold miners?

PAUL: In years to come, it’s invariably going to happen, but we’ll keep innovating in our company. We’re researching all the time for better, quicker ways to do things. The strategy is to be the first to market, and be the first clean mining company. We’re also looking at some blockchain technology at the moment, so you’ll be able to trace the gold from finding it at the source right through to the jeweller.

ANGELA: How will your innovation change the industry and other industries related to it, such as the electronics and jewellery industries?

PAUL: We have a jeweller in Perth that is actually selling our gold. He’s got the certificate from us saying that it’s clean gold. People are asking him for it as well, so it’s driven by the retail market. He’s produced two pieces, both sold. He’s also getting a premium for it, which is a big thing. The market is actually prepared to pay a premium for clean gold.

ANGELA: How much more are they paying for clean gold?

PAUL: It’s 15% to 20% extra as a premium.

ANGELA: In the process of extracting gold with your technology, how much does it actually cost to do that?

PAUL: It’s difficult to answer because not all ores are the same. Some need to be crushed more, and crushed finer into powder to release the gold. When you have free gold, it’s great because you don’t have to unlock it. You can just use the old gravity system. But a lot of gold is locked up. It’s surrounded by sulphites. You release it by roasting it or crushing it.

ANGELA: What’s your ultimate goal when it comes to your work?

PAUL: We want to see clean gold everywhere in the world as a trademark.