Europe funds domestic rare earths mining project I2MINE

By IM Staff
Published: Saturday, 21 May 2016

An EU-funded project has developed innovative deep-mining strategies that are set to cut Europe’s dependence on the imported rare earth elements (RE) within four years, while also curbing environmental damage.

By Andrew Burnyeat

The I²MINE, or 'innovative technologies and concepts for the intelligent deep mine of the future’, aims 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 components.

Europe is severely dependent on imports of such materials, despite the fact 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 surface."

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 rare earths (RE) 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 RE."

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 RE.

He said: "Mining is sometimes seen as a dirty and unsustainable industry. 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 and products."

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 step."

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 environment-friendly.

"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 said.

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 strategy.

In a test project carried out in Sweden, a 6.50 tonne sample of mineralised rock was collected before being crushed, ground and magnetically separated. The company used magnetic separation techniques – all compliant with existing EU environmental legislation – to avoid the need for processing chemicals.

The test project ran from November 2011 to March 2016. Around 1.9 tonnes of REE enriched mineral concentrate was recovered, along with 3.7 tonnes of nepheline and feldspar by-products, which are used for ceramics applications as well as in 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. 

Two analogous processing pilot plants have been set up in Germany and Greece.