Research Professor - Bergen
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New technology can meet the growing need for sustainable minerals
In a new EU Horizon Europe project, researchers are developing new earth observation technologies. The purpose is to seek raw materials like critical metals in mine sites, reduce waste and aid environmental management.
The researchers will identify and map potential areas of raw material and acquire data that can provide an improved overview of mine tailings and waste. Simon Buckley, researcher at NORCE, is the scientific coordinator for the m4minig project.
Mining gives us useful metals and minerals, which are used across our society in industrial and consumer products. However, it can also create major environmental impacts during the extraction process as well as long-term effects from its waste materials.
In this project, researchers are developing drone and satellite-based methods for rapid mapping, analysis and visualization of data from active and inactive mining sites.
- We want to make the extraction and site management process more efficient and environmentally sustainable, says Simon Buckley, principal researcher at NORCE, and scientific coordinator for the project.
The EU project m4mining is coordinated by NORCE, and partners are Norsk Elektro Optikk AS, Helmholtz Zentrum Potsdam Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum GFZ, Luleå Tekniska Universitet, Prediktera AB, Geological Survey Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment of Cyprus, University of Patras, The University of Queensland, and ReSe Applications LLC.
- We already have some of the main technology building blocks required, and a really strong consortium who has worked on hardware, software and sustainable mining research for many years. Now we will develop the technology further to achieve real-time monitoring. There are still several technical and scientific challenges to be solved - the hardware and software, new algorithms, and making it safe, fast, and robust enough to work in challenging operational environments. No available solution is currently delivering real-time results, so m4mining aims to provide a step-change for future commercial solutions and best practice, says Buckley.
3D model courtesy ReMon project, GFZ Potsdam
The m4mining project will provide 3D models with mining and environmental mapping results, using drones and satellite data, such as in this former mine site.
- Having key partners in the consortium throughout the whole processing chain is our biggest strength, says Friederike Koerting, principal researcher from Norsk Elektro Optikk AS.
- We will be able to cover all bases, from collecting high-quality drone-based hyperspectral data ready to be analysed and validated by our renowned university and research institutes, to comparing these datasets to lower-resolution satellite images from sites all over the world, says Koerting.
Having access to the mining and tailings sites and being able to compare and validate the algorithm and mapping results is fundamental.
Society is in an ongoing energy transition, which means an increase in the electrification of society globally. This leads to increased demand for minerals that are necessary for the production of, among other things, electric cars, wind turbines, batteries, and electrical components.
But there is limited availability of mineral raw materials within European territories.
The green transition can take significantly longer and cost much more if these critical mineral needs are not met.
Alternative technologies are expected to help reduce dependence on several raw materials in the coming decades, but a strategy is still needed to ensure access to essential materials.
Ensure future industry resilience
The EU has recognized the need for increased autonomy, competence and leadership to ensure future industry resilience, where access to raw materials and sustainable development is essential and existing satellite infrastructure is used and enhanced by new technology and analysis developments.
Conventionally, development of mine sites is reliant on infrequent and low-resolution geoscientific data. Innovation in new methods is one arm of a suite of overarching strategies towards achieving a sustainable future and realistic targets for decarbonization.
For the research consortium, a key outcome will be making the results digestible and usable for non-experts.
The researchers will develop hardware and software for drones, tailored for real-time mapping of the material content in open pit mines, dynamic monitoring of ore grade within the extraction process, and evaluation of hazard risks both in active mine sites and tailings facilities.
Open pit mining is a place where minerals are mined under the open sky, as opposed to underground mines and can therefore be monitored both via satellites and drones. Tailings are non-economic materials leftover from the extraction process, which can be a source of environmental hazards over time, including containment breaches and leakage of toxic chemicals into groundwater.
A holistic and safe approach
The researchers will combine drone technology, different sensor and camera payloads, data processing, and visualization methods. In their opinion, this is key for a holistic and safe approach to mine operations and environmental management.
- We will develop improved maps and techniques to identify and map potential areas of raw material and acquire data that can provide an improved overview of mine tailings and waste. If we succeed, this will be revolutionary, leading to new value for mine operators, says Buckley.
NORCE's scientific role is to gain more reliable results faster by using drones, systems of automation, visualization, and 3D modeling.
Drone with advanced camera payload during acquisition at operational mine site.
The drones will have advanced sensors and hyperspectral cameras. They can fly low and image the steep quarry faces. Being able to receive data on the ground from the drones in real-time will make it easier to direct operations and get results to decision-makers faster.
Satellites, on the other hand, cover a much larger area, and monitor from above and straight down. They can map larger areas over longer time frames and data for time-series analysis of surface changes are already available within the EU Copernicus infrastructure as well as other satellite missions.
- We envision that in the future this technology is used at mining companies all over the world, becoming a standard to give rapid updates to enhance their site management and mine planning, says Buckley.
Several mining stakeholders from the EU as well as Australia will be involved in the project through the project partners and advisory board. Case studies will be at a Bauxite (Aluminum) mine in Greece, Copper-Gold mine waste sites in the Republic of Cyprus, and several mine and legacy sites for Copper, Gold and Rare Earth Elements in Australia.
- Australia is a key raw materials import market for the EU and our Australian partner not only provides access to key test sites but also to an active research community in the tailings monitoring and re-mining community, says Koerting.
Research Professor - Bergen