Minerals are an indispensable part of modern life, but their extraction and use has shadowed the development of human society for thousands of years.
In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra used ground lapis lazuli and malachite for make-up, and archaeologists have demonstrated the existence of copper mines in what is now southern Israel three thousand years ago. Key periods of human history – the Bronze Age, the Iron Age – are characterised by the dominant mineral resource at the time.
The European mining industry is fundamental for the continent’s economic well-being. Consumption of aggregates, industrial minerals and metals in Europe has grown rapidly over the past decade. Today, Europe is almost self-sufficient in producing many industrial minerals and aggregates. However, it is a significant net-importer of most metals and metal ores.
Minerals are used in everything from construction materials – whether for infrastructure, buildings or roads – to the production of a broad range of essential goods, such as foodstuffs, fertilizers, computers, steel, cars and medicines. The average house contains around 150 tonnes of industrial minerals in various forms, and a typical car has at least 100 kg of them.
Oil and coal are, of course, also mineral resources, and they remain among the most heavily extracted and exploited of all. Phasing out their use will occur over several decades as the world moves towards a low-carbon economy driven by renewables.
However, many other minerals are incapable of substitution, and the production processes they require, being heavily dependent on heat, inevitably emit pollutants including CO2 and nitrous oxide, whether as process emissions or from burning fossil fuels to generate the high temperatures necessary.
Mining and mineral extraction, therefore, will remain important features of the European economy, even as it moves towards a net-zero carbon goal – not least because, as recent global crises have shown, control of minerals at the earliest possible step in the value chain is an essential element of strategic autonomy.
There is also the question of the industry’s contribution to jobs and local communities. In 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, industry association Euromines stated that the sector employed around 350,000 people in Europe.
However, the minerals sector, as one with a demonstrably visible effect on the environment in many cases, and as an energy-intensive industry, is not immune from the shift towards greater sustainability and efficiency.
A growing emphasis by policymakers on the circular economy is undoubtedly promoting more recycling of minerals, but attention is also focusing on making production processes as least environmentally harmful as possible.
Europe’s minerals sector is looking to demonstrate global leadership in this respect.
“The mineral sector is one of the most energy-intensive industries, and this lies in the fact that the energy requirements to a very large extent relate to heat, as the majority of processes in the production process are thermal processes,” says Dr. Nikolaos Margaritis from the Centre for Research and Technology-Hellas (CERTH), a leading research centre in Greece.
“Furthermore, the energy supply of a mineral plant can pose fundamental problems, because in many cases the energy sources are located at a great distance from the production unit and the energy transfer is one of the highest costs.”
“Therefore, the main challenges for mineral industry are related to meeting the thermal requirements, increasing the energy efficiency of the production process and ensuring a secure, timely and low-cost energy supply.”
CERTH’s expertise is currently being deployed in a Horizon project, BAMBOO, which is part-financed by the EU budget and which seeks to reduce fossil energy use, and the associated emissions, in some of the most energy-hungry industrial sectors, including minerals.
CERTH is working with Grecian Magnesite, a prominent producer in Greece of various grades of this versatile mineral, on an experimental demo to explore ways to reduce the use of fossil fuels in mineral production
One way in which Grecian Magnesite is taking immediate steps to reduce carbon emissions from fuel combustion is to use biomass as a feedstock in its furnaces.
“We use dried sunflower husks and wood chips in combination with pet coke in a 2:1 ratio, wherein the biomass contribution to the overall energy potential of the fuel mix is 50 per cent,” says Michael Tsoukatos, the company’s development manager.
Recovering waste heat is another integral element at the demo site.
“The main types of heat loss are sensible losses, through flue gases, and losses in the sintering process. By maximising heat recovery, we retain up to 15 per cent of the input energy, which is equivalent to around 15 tonnes of pet coke every day,” says Michael, highlighting this innovation’s clear contribution to reduced carbon emissions.
“We continuously make an effort to improve the efficient energy use in our process, but we also focus efforts on enlarging the range of the fuels that can be used in our process including alternative fuels. Today it’s biomass, but in the future, hydrogen. We need flexibility to select fuels based on sustainability criteria,” he says.
The techniques that CERTH and Grecian Magnesite are exploring together suggest that the European mining industry despite its long tradition, is today among the continent’s most modern and most innovative industrial sectors.
An emphasis on research and development will continue to drive the industry’s competitiveness as it seeks greater circularity and efficiency.
Deploying alternative fuel feedstocks and recovering process heat have the potential to reduce costs, cut carbon emissions and reinforce Europe’s position as a crucible of industrial creativity.
By Stephen Jones