Background

A Partnership that boosts European Innovation

Europe has been actively mined over many centuries and many easy-to-access mineral deposits are mostly depleted, while deeper lying ones have not been fully explored. The major opportunities to access raw materials within the EU are in greater depths, in remote, but also in populated areas, in former mine sites, in low grade deposits, and in small deposits where larger mining operations may not be feasible. Estimates indicate that the value of unexploited European mineral resources at a depth of 500-1,000 metres is approximately €100 billion.¡VAMOS! will contribute to ensuring the sustainable supply of raw materials to the European economy whilst increasing benefits for society as a whole by introducing a number of concrete research and innovation actions regarding automated mining, mining of small deposits and alternative mining.

The European Union consumes about 25-30% of the world’s metal production, whereas the extraction of metals in the EU accounts only for about 3% of the world’s ore production. Despite the efforts to develop recycling technologies and material science, dependency on metal imports is growing every year. The EU’s industry needs in metals are met by importing about 200 million tons of minerals each year. The rate of import dependency on metallic minerals ranges from 74% for copper ore, 80% for zinc and bauxite, and 86% for nickel, to about 100% for high-tech minerals such as rare earths, PGM, antimony, germanium, gallium, niobium, indium, beryllium, cobalt, tantalum and tungsten. This was emphasized in the Criticality Report4 compiled by the European Commission in 2010, in which 14 mineral raw materials were explicitly named as highly critical for the industrial development of the European Union.

Declines in Global Average Grades since 2005

Secondly, and more importantly, modern techniques and higher prices of mined substances enable a reassessment of what is mineable. Therefore, it is becoming possible to extract some of the remaining high-grade ores that have been left behind. The vast majority of these remaining highgrade deposits are submerged, either through flooding of mines after abandonment or in unmined deposits which are below the EU water table.

In addition, a number of physical, economic, social, environmental and human constraints limit exploitation of the existing high-grade ores:

Stripping ratio

A high proportion of metalliferous minerals is formed volcanically and has (semi)vertical ore bodies. The stripping ratio therefore increases with depth. The increasing ratio of tonnes of unwanted material requiring removal to mine each tonne of attractive ore has prevented extraction of deeper reserves.

Cost of underground mine development

The transition to underground methods for these deposits is expensive, takes time and involves significant up-front capital costs to build a shaft and associated headgear, spiral access roads , development tunnels (often in extremely hard host rock) and other infrastructure. For many deposits the option of underground extraction has often been ruled out.

Blast noise and vibration

All but the softest minerals are mined using drill & blast techniques. Blasting weakens pit sidewalls and limits the allowable stability and hence steepness of pit sidewalls. The associated ground vibration and noise often detrimentally affects nearby communities. Many mine licence applications have been refused due to this social impact. In many cases, buffer zones are left between mines and urban areas or other sensitive infrastructure.

Equipment fleet noise

Large fleets of equipment used in an opencut mine, which are necessary for upkeep of haul--roads and other ancillary tasks create noise which is a nuisance to local communities – especially at night and in general where low cloud coverage or inversion layers exist.

Mining dust

Surface mines create airborne dust which causes nuisance problems with respect to neighbours and is dangerous to mineworkers’ health.

Discharge of mine water

Almost all mines (with the exception of some at high altitude or those in extremely arid areas) collect water and discharge it. The source of the water is generally from rain and from seepage into the pit from aquifers. Removal of this water to enable mining is sometimes expensive and can require treatment before discharge into surface water courses. In some cases, a discharge licence is not made available due to the environmentally sensitive nature of the surrounding water systems.

Hydrological problems

Some mines have been stopped due to the presence of high-pressure aquifers (flooding risk, construction of water barriers and mine dewatering costs are preventative). Others have been limited by the effect of aquifer draw-down which can cause problems to vital groundwater wells, disappearance of wetland areas, drying out of crops, parched national park forestation areas and other local habitats.

Geotechnical problems

With some deposits, high tectonic stress levels have prevented underground development and extraction.

Other physical limitations

As underground mines go deeper they inevitably face increasing difficulties in relation to increased rock temperature. In some cases this makes it impossible to provide fresh air of the right temperature and humidity to allow safe human access. In some instances, the mine air supply requires treatment with expensive refrigeration plant.

Other Human factors

Despite increases in automation, the mining industry is still killing its workers with collapses of openpit walls, inundations and flooding of mine workings, roof collapses and explosions underground.

Public pressure on environmental and economic effects

Environmentalists challenge decisions which allow mining in areas near Natura 20005 sites and ecologists are concerned that old infrastructure, such as water reservoirs, may not withstand modern production in cases where abandoned mines are reopened. In addition, NGOs point out that the mining activities may harm the economy if their impact on the natural landscape discourages tourism. Local communities and business owners also raise environmental concerns.

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