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
Europe is severely dependent on imports of such materials,
despite the fact deposits are widespread across the
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
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
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 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
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
Two analogous processing pilot plants have been set up in
Germany and Greece.