Frances Wall - Responsible manufacturing - geologists help get it right from the start
Updated: May 31, 2020
Geoscientists should not be afraid to take a trans disciplinary view and step out of our ‘geo’ comfort zones into the world of manufacturing to make sure that our efforts to help responsible sourcing of raw materials are well-communicated and connected to the downstream value chain (manufacturers, retailers, customers and recyclers). Especially in circular economy viewpoints, ‘extraction’ often has negative connotations. But extraction is essential and must expand if we are to have secure supplies of the minerals and metals needed to make digital and clean technologies and decarbonise our economies.
As we exploit new ore bodies, and new kinds of ore bodies (especially for technology and critical metals), geoscientists can play an important role in ensuring responsible sourcing right from the first stages exploration and mine design. This can involve finding deposit types and establishing processing routes that are least expensive environmentally and financially. Mining must always contribute to sustainable development. There are more mineralogical and geological characteristics than you might think that connect to responsible sourcing. We can (and should) always try to incorporate these when making new geological models for deposits (such as in the Hi Tech Alk Carb project, www.carbonatites.eu).
Features such as process mineralogy,potential pollutants and U and Th contents are possible to incorporate, and can be reported from pre-feasibility study stages. Likewise life cycle assessment (LCA) predictions and optimisation of environmental performance can also be done and reported at this stage and presented to investors. LCA is also particularly useful for links to the value chain; talking the same language as the manufacturers. We might also make more of terms such as ‘natural capital’ and ‘circular economy’.
The Earth’s natural capital certainly does include its subsurface resources and yet the term is often taken to mean nature above the ground. Sub-surface natural capital is indeed extracted in mining but metals are durable materials – not burnt like coal, gas and fuel oil (or eaten like food). With good materials stewardship, they can be looked after and used and re-used for a long (long) time. Geoscientists need be champions of this view. Everything being reused or recycled started out in the Earth and geoscientists can make sure the first steps in the‘external lifetimes’of all our subsurface natural capital are done well.
Frances Wall is Professor of Applied Mineralogy at Camborne School of Mines (CSM), University of Exeter and specialises in technology raw materials, especially rare earth elements, with interests in geology, processing and responsible sourcing. A former Head of CSM, Frances leads two international consortium research projects on rare earths and other critical metals (www.sosrare.org, www.carbonatites.eu) that include interdisciplinary approaches to making new geomodels for these ore deposits. The models will include environmental and social factors relevant to responsible sourcing. Frances also works on the MIREU project, (www.mireu.eu) that is creating a network of European Mining regions, representing Cornwall, UK. This project includes design of a toolkit to help European mining companies gain public acceptance and support. Cornwall is experiencing a resurgence of interest in technology metal ores, and geothermal energy, and has a strong mining business cluster that works worldwide (https://cornwallminingalliance.org/).
Camborne School of Mines
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