[email protected] Project: Switching on to sustainable mining

A pioneering UK venture, the [email protected] project is determined to spark an ethical, sustainable, and global mining revolution. The project is led by Universi...

Dale Benton
|Jul 22|magazine18 min read

A pioneering UK venture, the [email protected] project is determined to spark an ethical, sustainable, and global mining revolution. The project is led by University of Exeter geology experts and looks to tap into a number of small metal deposits in Europe and beyond.

Furthermore, they aim to establish SOSO (switch on, switch off) mining as a widespread industry method. SOSO could potentially enable mining companies to excavate materials that are most in demand in any given period. For further details, Mining Global quizzed project lead Dr Kathryn Moore.

What is your role and involvement with the [email protected] PROJECT?

In 2012 I took up a new position (funded by the British geological survey) as a lecturer on critical and green technology metal, which was a slight step from my previous role as a geologist. The role was quite a diverse role, a lot of it looking at the geological origins of the critical metals that we use in all the new technologies. The role’s involved into a whole systems perspective, so it’s not really just about the geology it’s about access or the peripheral topics around mining that actually make it work.

How did your background in geology prime you for work on the [email protected] project?

I’ve been through several years of thinking about these issues and talking to a lot of people from a lot of different perspectives, from the raw material producers to the end product manufacturers. That’s not often something we would do as geologists - there does seem to be a little bit of a disconnect between the raw material production and manufacturing. Several years of talking to a lot of related people across the value chain has put me in a good position to link to all of the disparate partners that are in this consortium, because this consortium is very much about taking this whole system to you, and thinking, “if you can actually deal with the technology, if you can actually understand them geologically, what does it take for that new mining approach to actually work in practice?”

There’s a widespread, blanket perception that mining is an unethical practice. While working in on the [email protected] project, what has been your experience of this?

It’s a huge issue and particularly for Europe, it on the top five challenges facing the mining community. In terms of accidents and environmental contamination, if you look at the statistics, it’s not actually the worst industry out there. However, when incidents do happen, they have the tendency to be absolutely awful. The mining industry has to be very careful about how its perceived, because its perceived generally very negatively. There’s good reasons for it - obviously we have the occasional catastrophic incident. Historically, where mining was operating in societies that didn’t have environmental protection and through the industrial revolution it was all about people having jobs and staying alive basically. There weren’t the same checks and balances as we had now. The problem that we have now is that the checks and balances we have in place are very different in different places in the world. Mining communities that are based in Canada, Australia and Europe are very conscientious and like to employ best practice, but that isn’t the case across the globe, so you need to think very carefully about the whole acceptability of mining to society.

What specific challenges does the industry face when mining in Europe as opposed to say, Australia, or Africa?

The issue we have in Europe is that our supply root is generally from other countries and that means that we have an inherent risk in European manufacturing. The issue in Europe is that the world class huge deposits are generally mined out, as the world class deposits are in other countries. Europe has vast resources, but they’re largely in small high-grade complexes, which don’t attract as much investment. We have the potential to mine for ourselves, however the small deposits we have aren’t necessarily going to be competitive with the world class deposits in the production costs-per-tonne. With the world class deposits you’re working with economies of scale essentially. The only way for Europe to be competitive in terms of production is to find a way of mining that can be done in a very cost-efficient way that doesn’t require as much investment - that’s what the technological side is about. The benefits of world class deposits are that you’re going to employ a large work force over a long space of time. If that’s not the case, we’ll have to design the mining approach to work around the community and increase the life of mines by decreasing production. There’s a lot to work out, but if we can do that, then the small European deposits could theoretically operate in competition to international world class deposits.

Can you talk about the timescales involved in the [email protected] project?

This has really come from debates with manufacturers. The manufacturers at the very end of the value chain are making decisions about the release of products based on how long they can be sure to have reliable access based on particular metals. They may be deciding whether or not to take a particular product to market or if their supply from one particular mine runs out, where do they go elsewhere? The issue is that geologically we don’t have a problem in access to resources. Geologically the resources are available for all these technologies. The real issue is how long it takes from identifying a new deposit geologically to having that mineral deposit actually in production. Going from identification in the ground to mine production can take decades. That’s on a completely different timescale from the manufacturers - if they design a new product, they might want to release it in just a couple of years. Or, if a conflict arises in a metal producing country, that can cut off supply in a matter of months or even less. The timescale of establishing production and the time scale of manufacturing need are a complete mismatch. The idea was if we can target small deposits and get them up and running and operating quickly (which you can never do for world class deposits) we have the opportunity to actually respond, in terms of production at the start of the value, to rapid changes and the end of the value chain. Basically, the manufacturing demand and the production risks create the economic sphere in which you have to decide whether a product is economic or not economic.

Who are [email protected] project’s partners?

We’ve got five industry partners, four universities and one geological survey. The industry partners are mining company Mineco; Metal Innovations, who build and design mining equipment; Rados International who design and build ore sorters; Extracthive, who deal with minerals and processing, and EPSE deal with minerals and processing as well. The University of Exeter and Imperial College London also do mineral processing.

[email protected] project received €7 million funding from the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. Will Brexit have any impact on this?

No, this particular project is safe. We actually found out that we got this funding a week before the Brexit referendum, even with the trigger for Article 50. We’ve started the project, and as you know, we’re not out until we’re out. The Horizon 2020 programme is something that the UK bought into, so even with a hard Brexit, that’s going to be a commitment that the UK has. For this particular project, which ends in 2020, we’ll be able to see it through. We don’t really have to worry about.

What is SOSO (switch on, switch off mining)?

The [email protected] project’s (SOSO) ‘switch on-switch off’ method to mine many critical metal and other small complex deposits will look to develop targeted, technological innovations in mining equipment design, as well as mine planning. The innovations will not only reduce the feasibility studies required, but also improve the quality of the extracted material, infrastructure, land use, resource consumption and waste. The team believe that this model can be adopted by European and national policy makers, as well as the wider mining industry in general.