By Andrew Burnyeat
The I²MINE, or 'innovative technologies and concepts
for the intelligent deep mine of the future’,
aimed to secure European access to the 15 lanthanides as well
as scandium and yttrium, which are increasingly needed as
materials for smartphones, computers and hi-tech car
Europe is severely dependent on imports of such materials,
although deposits are widespread across the continent.
Kent Tano, spokesperson for Swedish mining company
Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB, which is co-coordinating
I²MINE, told IM: "The project will
minimise the effect of mining [on the environment] in several
aspects. The mining will be purely underground and there will
be more pre-processing of the mine itself. This will lead to
less damage to the surface. We will also degrade waste
materials underground so as to not create waste deposits on the
New technologies had been developed during the project,
including tougher cutting-heads that are better-designed for
working in hard rock.
The project is deemed essential if Europe is to improve
self-sufficiency in REEs and reduce dependency on imports. The
new cutting-heads can cut through hard rock at 250 megapascals
of pressure, removing the need for blasting and drilling.
In addition, new sensor boundary layer detection techniques
have been developed to find REE deposits.
The I²MINE project costs about €25.92m ($29.56m)*
in total, with about €16m in EU contributions. According
to Tano, the European Commission was firmly behind the project
and that there was no need for legislations or regulations in
order for the project to progress.
This was confirmed by a spokesperson for the
Commission’s directorate-general for environment,
who said: "This is a project which is necessary for
Europe’s future growth, especially in
technological industries and other industries that will rely on
technology, such as automotive, because these industries depend
ultimately on access to REEs."
Meanwhile, project manager Horst Heiny said that years of
negative perceptions about mining had held back the development
of technology that could one day enable countries with a mining
industry to dig much deeper into the ground to source REEs.
He said: "Mining is sometimes seen as a 'dirty’
industry and unsustainable. What we have done is to show that
mining can be clean, efficient, deeper than ever before and can
help Europe meet the raw material demands of modern industries
He stressed that new technologies must be developed soon for
this to become a reality: "We have the research, but we have
not yet developed that research into reality. This is the next
The latest developments have shown how mining at depths
greater than 1,500 metres can be done in a way that is
"invisible" from the surface and, at the same time, safe and
"We have been addressing the sustainability of mining
operations by increasing energy efficiency, reducing waste and
starting the approach of an 'invisible’ mine that
operates underground to the maximum extent possible. Ideally,
only the final product will come out of the ground," Hejny
Another technological development has been improved
management of mass flows of materials and the pre-sorting of
ore, which can be carried out very close to the surface. This
keeps waste rock underground and improves the sustainability of
mining. Emissions caused by mining can also be kept underground
to a significant degree, he added.
Robots have been introduced to spray rock walls with
concrete to improve the safety of mineworkers.
I²MINE aims to create what has been described as "the
smart mine of the future". In so doing, said Heiny,
citizens’ standard of living and access to
technology will be protected while minimising damage to the
environment in line with the EU’s Europe 2020
In a test demonstration in Sweden, a 6.50 tonne sample of
mineralised rock was collected before being crushed, ground and
magnetically separated. Around 1.9 tonnes of REE enriched
mineral concentrate was recovered, along with 3.7 tonnes of
nepheline and feldspar by-product.
Nepheline and feldspar are used in ceramics, paints and
cosmetics. Operations will now be scaled up as
Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara AB starts the process of obtaining
market approval for the project’s outcomes. The
project ran from November 2011 to March 2016.
The company uses magnetic separation techniques to avoid the
need for processing chemicals. All activities comply with
existing EU environmental legislation.
Two processing pilot plants have been set up in Germany and