Global material extraction has risen more than 200 % since 1980 with important impact on the environment. The EU-funded IMPaCT project focused on a switch on-switch off (SOSO) mining paradigm similar to plug-and-play for electronics. It cost effectively accesses ore deposits while facilitating an ethical relationship with the community and the environment.
Small-scale mining versus small deposits
Small-scale mining has the potential to operate on both small, high-grade deposits and on large deposits to minimise economic risk. Project coordinator Kathryn Moore of the University of Exeter, Camborne School of Mines explains: “We differentiate between mining of small deposits and small-scale mining. The term small-scale relates to the size and complexity of mining operations and their impacts. The concept of small-scale mining has multiple possible modern contexts: mining of small deposits, low-footprint and low-risk mining of large deposits, and artisanal mining.”
Flexible tools for the mining industry
A small underground mining tool works with more surgical-like precision, extracting the desired rock while damaging less of what is left behind. Its cutting head controls particle size at the rock face, reducing the subsequent crushing required. Sorting technology separates the ore from the waste prior to crushing. A portable processing plant can accommodate various types of ore deposits. Finally, the infrastructure can be mobilised in standard 20-foot containers, decreasing the associated environmental impact of transport and deployment. The SOSO business model decreases capital investment costs by renting adaptable total mining and processing solutions, savings that can be used for operating expenses. Tests at two sites in the Western Balkans showed that the time to install the equipment varied from a few days to only a few hours. Reducing energy consumption is critical. Modelling showed that the IMPaCT system dramatically reduced energy consumption and that biomass or combined biomass-diesel energy provision in the Western Balkans is as reliable and more cost-effective than fossil fuels alone. A policy brief was prepared to address required policy and societal framings to promote modern best practice for mining expansion in Europe.
No time like the present
The mining industry is facing unprecedented challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The dramatic decrease in metal prices from March to April 2020 has been compared to that of the financial crash of 2008-2009. Small deposit mining by small-scale operations could not have come at a better time. “IMPaCT demonstrated that it is logistically possible to rapidly design, construct, deploy, refit, and redeploy modularised mining and processing equipment, powered by renewable or hybrid energy on existing mine sites. Importantly, the technology now exists to extensively apply best practice and responsibly access resources from more diverse types of ore deposits,” Moore concludes. To help end users identify and locate small, high-grade complex deposits, the team has extended the European Minerals Knowledge Data Platform with a data/visualisation layer dedicated to small complex deposits. IMPaCT outcomes will help Europe rapidly initiate small-scale mining in response to high commodity price or rapidly increased demand, and transfer operations to other locations with minimal environmental impact when economic viability for large-scale mining decreases.
IMPaCT, mining, energy, small-scale mining, small deposits, biomass, switch on-switch off (SOSO), European Minerals Knowledge Data Platform, modularised