Increasing Europe’s mineral reserves

Materials World magazine
4 Jan 2017

Chris Broadbent considers the contribution of EU-funded research and innovation to the renaissance of the European mining industry.

In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, Europe was at the forefront of mining and mineral processing technologies. But there has since been a gradual decline in the importance of the indigenous mining sector to the European economy. Indeed, many European citizens could be forgiven for believing that mining was dead within Europe and certainly the perception of many used to be that the EU was anti-mining. The industry was regarded by the authorities as an archaic, polluting industry with no relevance to modern European economies.

European industry and lifestyle is still dependent on the provision of many raw materials. But, whereas in centuries gone by these materials were supplied from Europe’s mines, they are now mostly imported from outside of Europe’s borders, with China dominant in the supply of many raw materials. In 2010, the European Commission introduced a methodology to identify raw materials deemed critical to the EU, resulting in the 2011 publication of a list of 14 critical raw materials (CRMs). This list was revised in 2014 and expanded to cover 20 CRMs. These are non-energy raw materials linked to all industrial sectors across the supply chain. The EU considers these to be crucial to the development of many applications, including environmental technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and energy efficient lighting.

The EU launched a raw materials initiative in 2008, which was further consolidated in 2011 when the CRM list was first published. The principal aim of this initiative was to secure sustainable supplies of non-energy, non-agricultural raw materials based on an integrated strategy including three pillars, which connected EU external and internal policies. 

Research and innovation

The EU raw materials initiative is implemented through the European Innovation Partnership on raw materials, Horizon 2020 (H2020) programme. This programme funds research and innovation projects running between 2014 and 2020 with a budget of €77bln. H2020 was devised as a response to the economic crisis of 2008 to invest in jobs and growth and address people’s concerns about their livelihood, safety and the environment. It also set out to strengthen the EU’s global position in research, innovation and technology, enabling 20% of the EU’s 28 countries’ GDP to be delivered by industry by 2020.

Raw materials initiative is only one branch of the EU initiative. However, the raw materials sector is seen as an important part of this strategy. The projects funded from the 2014 H2020 call for topics amounted to €68 million, including:

  • Mining of small and complex deposits and alternative mining technologies
  • Viable alternative mine operating systems
  • Real time mining
  • BioMore – bioleaching of deep ores
  • FAME — Flexible processing technologies and mobile economic processing
  • OptimOre – optimising crushing, milling and separation technologies for tantalum ores
  • Substitution of critical raw material

Flexible and mobile economic mineral processing (FAME) represents the pragmatic approach the EU wishes to see. It is a project driven by industrial partners with more than 50% of the original consortium members SMEs. The EU is keen to avoid H2020 becoming labelled as ‘academic’ and FAME will only be judged to have been a success if it can be demonstrated that it has contributed to job and GDP growth. Industrial partners include four late stage exploration companies – Eurocolt Resources, Keliber Oy, Saxore Bergbau GmbH and European Metals Holdings Ltd – with projects in Portugal, Finland, Germany and the Czech Republic. It is relatively early days, but already FAME-generated data, especially comminution data, has been provided to these companies as part of their process towards entering production.

Unlike traditional EU projects, FAME is slightly unusual as a project, focusing on ore types rather than individual commodities. Three ore types that are abundant within Europe, namely skarns, greisen and pegmatites, were chosen as within the EU28. These ore types display complex mineralogy and are frequently relatively small resources that are not commercially viable using existing, ‘traditional’ mineral processing flowsheets. Furthermore, they contain significant amounts of the European CRMs, including beryllium, fluorspar, gallium, niobium and zinc.

The six FAME reference sites, used to generate bulk samples for the R&I test programmes were chosen by the Natural History Museum, CSM, Wardell Armstrong as well as colleagues from Germany (GKZ) and Portugal to ensure that the mineral processing concepts can be applied to other similar ores but it can also facilitate development and progress towards exploitation of the deposits. 

Mineral processing

A major objective of this project is to assess the potential for innovative, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly mineral processing advances. Comminution test work is advanced on all six reference ores. Work commenced with determination of standard crushing and grindability tests, including bond rod-mill work index, bond ball-mill work index, bond abrasia index and bond crushing work index. One of the reference ores, supplied from the Cinovec lithium/tin project in the Czech Republic by European Metals, has been subjected to SAG mill comminution testing at Wardell Armstrong International in Cornwall, UK. 

BRGM, the French Geological Survey, is investigating the potential use of high-voltage pulse (HVP) electrofragmentation techniques using a device manufactured by high-voltage pulse power products company, SelFrag, Switzerland. Work is in progress but initial results indicate that HVP assisted comminution could be useful to reduce the overall energy demand and prevent the formation of very fine particles for ores where there are large contacts in the electrical conductivity of the constituent minerals. In the case of the Portuguese pegmatite FAME reference site, Gonçalo, the strong difference seen between muscovite, albite and lepidolite indicates that electrofragmentation into a process flow sheet could be especially beneficial and lead to significant energy savings and recovery increases.

The next step will be for FAME to develop flow sheets with industrial partners, such as GBM. It is the strong desire of H2020 and projects such as FAME that the research and innovation (R&I) programme is tailored to industrial needs and that FAME not only delivers cost-effective mineral processing solutions but also facilitates late-stage exploration projects becoming operational mines. 

The EU is playing a significant and often underappreciated role funding R&I in the European minerals industry and we are hopeful that the successful conclusion of H2020 projects in this field will help deliver a renaissance of the European mining industry.

Chris Broadbent BSc PhD CEng CEnv FIMMM MAE is Director of Wardell Armstrong, UK, specialising in engineering and the environment.