The demand for raw materials is rising, while reserves seem to be dwindling. Producers around the world are thus working toward the same goal of generating more with less. The result, which seems contradictory at first glance, is that reserves are increasing thanks to technological innovations.
While our planet boasts a wealth of natural resources, industrial nations and the large emerging countries, especially China and India, grow an ever increasing appetite for raw materials. Furthermore, the reserves – those resources that can be extracted economically and with today’s technology – are often distributed unequally. Most of the large deposits have already been developed, and the resources in the earth’s crust so far cannot be economically used since they are too finely dispersed to be easily extracted or lie in inaccessible regions.
Under pressure from all sides
The phrase “resource crisis” makes the rounds on a regular basis, sometimes with a focus on scarce or uncertain supplies, other times with concerns about the price structure. Geopolitical issues play a role as well, given that access to the deposits is often confined to narrow geographical areas, and on the markets national trade policies consequently meet global industry structures.
On the other hand, the way in which metals and minerals are wrested from the earth is a major concern for environmental protection. The objective is to make the extraction of raw materials more sustainable by reducing both energy consumption and the impact on nature. Not only international companies that process the raw materials, but also more and more consumers call for corporate responsibility.
The objective is to make the extraction of raw materials more sustainable by reducing both energy consumption and the impact on nature.
As a result, raw materials producers are feeling pressure from all sides. Although demand for their products is high, geopolitical frameworks, price sensibility on the customers’ side and demands arising in politics and society are making the business anything but simple. Approval processes are becoming more complicated, the necessary investments are increasing and yields are sinking, such as with gold, which can be found in nearly all electronic products in tiny amounts.
“Statistics show that mining lost one-third of its productivity between 2004 and 2014,” says Andrew Reese, Global Industry Manager Primaries & Metals at Endress+Hauser. “You can only extract about one gram of gold from one tonne of rock.” Against this background, the direction the industry has to take is quite clear. “It has to produce more with less,” says Andrew Reese. The technical trends are already visible.
Trends and transformations
In mining, for instance, complex chemical processes or bioleaching with bacteria aims to make it easier to release the minerals from the rock. The underground mining sector is seriously considering highly automated extraction methods. Real Time Mining, an EU-sponsored research and innovation project, has named two major objectives: decrease environmental impact and increase resource efficiency. Achieving these goals will require continuous process monitoring and highly selective mining operations, thus resulting in less energy consumption and less excavated material.
If the industry is successful in making this transformation, the reserves will continue to grow. This is a trend that has long been observed as a consequence of new exploration and technological advances, such as with copper. In 1970, usable copper reserves were estimated at roughly 280 million tonnes. That number has since risen to between 600 and 800 million tonnes, despite the fact that the industry mined around 520 million tonnes over the past five decades.
Recycling raw materials
Reserves also increase when the recycling loops are actually closed. In contrast to other raw materials, metals can be recycled over and over because they are used, not consumed. A third of copper production is already covered through recycling today. At around 800 million tonnes a year, steel is the world’s most recycled material. Much-discussed urban mining – the process of recovering raw materials from used products, buildings and waste – has so far turned out to be more of a concept than a reality, however. Electronic scrap stored at old and new waste disposals is viewed as a major source of secondary raw materials for the future. However, it’s still unclear how these resources can be systematically developed, not to mention the fact that the mixture of substances requires exceptionally complex separation processes.
Recycling is a topic of discussion in cement manufacturing as well, where enormous quantities are needed to produce concrete for growing cities around the world. The fields of application for recycled materials are limited, but there is much that can be accomplished in other areas. At 65 to 75 percent of the variable manufacturing costs, energy is a critical factor in the burning of the cement clinker. Alternative raw materials, secondary fuels such as sewage treatment sludge, and more efficient kilns, can help to drastically reduce the consumption of rock and fossil fuels, and thus CO2 emissions.
At around 800 million tonnes a year, steel is the world´s most recycled material.
Steel is no different. Up to 40 percent of the production costs are tied to energy utilization. Both industries are under pressure to develop new solutions to satisfy more stringent environmental regulations around the world. That applies to the mining industry as well, with emerging future technologies changing the needs of the market. Because of the electromobility boom, for instance, the demand for lithium, cobalt and nickel is growing.
To date, however, the vast amount of nickel extracted from mines is not suitable for electric vehicle batteries. This is forcing mine operators to drastically change their processes to satisfy the growing demand.
Data is the key
Although the primaries industry operates in a markedly physical world, the various segments have one thing in common: to implement the necessary innovations, precise and continuous data is required – and it has to be linked so that all of the individual processes can be flexibly controlled in minute detail.
“There are a lot of things that we could use this data for, such as faster mine planning, more efficient system operation, automation of the extraction process and improving the processing technologies,” says Michelle Ash, Chair of the Global Mining Guidelines Group, which is driving the transformation of the global mining industry. Generally speaking, current developments suggest that the real catalyst for fundamental change in the way materials are produced could be cyber-physical systems. Maybe scarce resources won’t necessarily mean dark times for the industry after all. Perhaps it’s just the opposite: a brighter future through better technology.
Scarce resources won’t necessarily mean dark times after all. Perhaps it’s just the opposite: a brighter future through better technology.