RESOURCES

Mineral man

Embedded deep in rock, minerals - each with their own specific chemical composition and physical properties (hardness, colour, density and magnetism) - are the cornerstones of technology and the economy. To safeguard a degree of independence, Europe must expand its mining activities, especially of metallic minerals. Such action will call for state-of-the-art technology and research.

Exploitation artisanale de l’or, le long du Mékong, à Houay-Gno, dans la région de Luang-Prabang, au Laos.
Artisanal gold digging along the Mekong River at Houay-Gno in the Luang Prabang Province of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos). © BRGM im@gé/Valérie Laperche

Source of civilisation

Humans have been exploiting the properties of rocks and minerals since the beginning of time. In the Stone Age, 2.5 million years ago, they fashioned flint tools for hunting, then used stone for building and religious practices. Next came the Copper Age, in around 2 500 BC, which saw the birth of a secondary craft industry where native metals were worked by cold or hot hammering of nuggets.

The Bronze Age marked the advent of metallurgy - a technique for extracting metals from ore that required the mastery of hightemperature furnaces for melting copper at 1 084°C to make bronze (an alloy of 90 % copper and 10 % tin). Lastly, the Iron Age arrived in around 1 100 BC when humans learned to smelt iron oxide at temperatures higher than the melting point of iron. Weight for weight, steel makes for much harder-wearing tools and weapons than bronze. Iron alloys and steel artefacts have played a key role in the development of human civilisations and technologies, one that does not seem set to diminish in the future.

Minerals everywhere you look

Products from the mineral industry can be found in all sectors of today's society. The microprocessors in our computers are made from silicon, gallium and germanium. There would be no question of oil prospecting or tunnel building without bentonite, an easily drilled clay. Paper owes its whiteness to talc and kaolin. Toothpaste contains limestone powder. Buildings are made from sand, gravel and cement.

Apart from energy sources like radioactive elements, there are three main categories of minerals. First there are the metal-bearing minerals such as copper pyrite, haematite (iron), pentlandite (nickel) and sphalerite (zinc). Some, like gold and silver, are found in a pure state. Next there are industrial minerals, including talc, silica, salt, phosphates, graphite and potash, to name some of the commonest ones. Lastly, in the construction field, we find limestone (cement, dressed stone), sand and gravel (backfill, concrete), clay (brick), as well as granite, marble, slate and schist (dressed stone). All civil engineering works rely on these aggregates: Europe's construction industry consumes around 3 billion tonnes of sand, gravel and crushed stone every year.

Many downstream industries, including the automobile, aeronautics, glass, ceramics, plastics, paper and cosmetics industries, rely on the mineral sector, which provides Europeans with millions of jobs. However, growth in the world economy and the arrival of new countries that are heavy mineral consumers has increased competition for resources. For instance, China has increased its ore and metal imports by a factor of between 2 and 10 in the past decade, while conducting a trade policy of export restrictions using quotas and taxes.

As a result, the price of all minerals has rocketed in the past four years, especially nickel, copper, zinc and iron ore. For example, in 2001 the average price for 1 gram of gold was less than $9 but by early 2008 (a mere seven years later) the price had almost quadrupled to around $32. The price of zinc shot up by more than 300% between 2004 and 2007.

European dependence

As the EU consumes between 25% and 30% of world production whilst mining barely 3% of its own metal requirements, this growing demand poses a threat to its supply. The cessation of mining activities in many EU countries is also undermining European exports of technology, equipment and related services, putting Europe's know-how and research in jeopardy. Industrial and research policies are clearly crucial for restoring and maintaining the balance between mineral resource consumption and production.

To remain in the race, the mineral industry, like other sectors, needs research and development, especially in remote sensing, metallogeny, geophysics, geochemistry, geographical information systems (GIS) and modelling techniques. "This is no time to rest on our laurels, as a decline would have very serious consequences. Brussels appears to be waking up to the threat and is planning to relaunch geological research, mineral processing, metallurgy and mining," Pär Weihed, from the Lulea University of Technology (SE) and Head of Exploration at the European Technology Platform on Sustainable Mineral Resources (ETP-SMR)(1) is happy to report.

He adds, "Even though resources are unevenly distributed, the Union's current mining level is still too low. There is geological potential in a number of regions, which are underexploiting their deposits for legislative or ecological reasons. The fact is that Europe is reliant on imports for between 80% and 100 % of its requirements for cobalt and elements in the platinum, nickel and iron group, even though deposits of these metals exist in Europe."

Although it was not a viable proposition in the 1980s and 1990s, mining needs to be reconsidered in view of escalating prices. "In my opinion," he adds, "Europe's market share of world production could be upped from 3% to between 5% and 6%, which is more in line with our share of the world population. Modern exploration and geological research will step up the domestic production of not only ferrous and base metals, but also precious metals."

New exploration technologies

In fact, this is the direction that the European Technology Platform takes in its strategic agenda, which gives priority to new exploration technologies for four-dimensional modelling of mineral resources. A multi - disciplinary European project, Promine, will optimise mineral evaluation data in order to increase the industry's investment capacity.

Next-generation geological information will be stored in GIS databases in three-dimensional (3D) form. Today's two-dimensional geological maps will become redundant before long. The 3D geological modelling effort will start with regions for which subsurface data is available, such as mature mining areas.

After this, Promine plans to model the same regions in 4D form, by integrating data on the geological history of hydrothermal systems, metalliferous zones, tectonic deformations, hydro geology, geochemistry, magnetism, gravity, earthquakes, electromagnetism, natural electrical conductivity and natural radio activity. This 4D modelling will depict the geological evolution of these regions up to around 5 000 metres in depth, over a period of several hundred million years. It will serve as a guide for locating new deposits hidden deep underground. The €30 million project will be 50% funded by the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development.

This type of geographical modelling already exists in countries that have always supported geological research, like Australia and Canada, where it is known as CEM (Common Earth Models). In Europe, for logistical reasons, it will take 4-5 years to complete full 4D coverage.

Delphine d’Hoop

  1. European Technology Platform for Sustainable Mineral Ressources (ETP-SMR), www.etpsmr.org

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Your weight in minerals

Perhaps you doubt the importance of mineral resources in our lives? If so, take around 730 tonnes of stone, sand and gravel, 30 tonnes of cement, 15 tonnes of iron ore, a touch less salt, 9 tonnes of phosphate rock, 9 tonnes of clay, 2.7 tonnes of bauxite (aluminium ore), 600 kg of copper, 420 kg of lead, 300 kg of zinc and 50 kg of gold. Throw in 30 tonnes of other ores and metals and you have the estimated ore consumption of a single American in their lifetime (a total of approximately 840 tonnes).

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