Europeans would be forgiven for thinking that mining in Europe had been well and truly consigned to history. Over the past 50 years the mining industry in the European Union (EU) 28 countries - the UK, Finland, Ireland, Austria, Belgium, to name but a few - has slipped into obscurity, so much so that many may not remember that the UK, for example, was once the world's largest coal producer and home to the world's largest copper mine. Today Europe produces only 3% of the commodities it consumes.
Now, however, after years of a somewhat anti-mining stance, EU HQ are concerned the Union's indigenous skills base will be completely lost if nothing is done. This is one of the reasons why the Union has reversed course and in September 2014 awarded €7.4m to a mining initiative aimed at finding new ways to process certain ore bodies commonly found in Europe, such as pegmatites.
The grant came from the Raw Materials Programme at the EU's Horizon 2020 initiative - the EU's biggest research and innovation programme with nearly €80bn of funding available over seven years. The grant has been given to mining engineering consultancy Wardell Armstrong, which will project co-ordinate the initiative, spreading grant money between sixteen to seventeen academic and business partners from seven different countries over four years.
"The project has come about because the EU recognised that Europe imports most of its raw materials, and virtually all its critical raw materials, from outside, and that mining and metallurgical skills were being lost in Europe," says Chris Broadbent, a director at Wardell Armstrong's London office.
Breaking down ores
The initiative, called FAME, was kick-started by a German-led project called GAIN, run by GKZ, which focused on biohydrometallurgy - using bacteria to leach metals out of ores. GAIN proposed "fairly novel concepts", says Broadbent, of bioleaching using natural organisms that are tolerant to high metal content ores but which will allow the metal to dissolve much more easily than using conventional acids.
"So a less aggressive and more environmentally friendly way of treating ores, perhaps," suggests Broadbent.
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GAIN morphed into FAME, which officially started in January 2015. The initiative has chosen six different reference ores from, among other places, Finland and Portugal. These ores can be considered typical of ores from other European countries, such as South West England and the Czech Republic, and are frequently associated with economically viable deposits. These rock types include pegmatite, greisen and skarn ores, which are often associated with tin and tungsten.
Samples of the ores are currently being collected and will be sent to the Camborne School of Mines at Exeter University and the Natural History Museum, both part of the consortium of partners, to be characterised.
Jens Anderson from the Camborne School of Mines, who is working on the characterisation part of the project, explains why the characterisation process is important.
"One of the things people have come to realise very recently is that in order to best work with an ore, it is best not to just know how much metal is in it, but to know where it sits; what it is associated with? What are the potential aspects in an ore that could either fit a by product or be detrimental to the extraction? That's where mineralogical examination really comes into it.
"Because we can say how much of a metal you have in an ore, we can say what minerals it sits in; whether it carbonates and anything else that will affect the processing and essentially predict quite a lot about the processing."
Once characterised, process testing - crushing and grinding and other mineral processing testing- will be done in Germany, the UK, Czech Republic, France and Portugal, in order to find a cleaner, more efficient way to process the ores.
"I think it is highly unlikely we are going to come up with a brand new way of doing things," adds Broadbent. "It is entirely likely we will take a traditional processing method and say 'if you do things in a slightly different order, maybe applying novel reagents at this stage could be improved' e.g. a higher proportion of the metal could be recovered in the product."
The initiative will try and add a level of standardisation so new knowledge can be transferred. "So, for example," Broadbent say, "looking at how you process pegmatites as a generic theme could be useful for understanding how to process the different pegmatites within Europe."
If one of the members in the initiative discovers a new processing method, patents will be applied for but the information will be freely available and, it is hoped, used by SME miners, who perhaps do not have the in-house resources to develop cost-efficient methods to utilise small deposits themselves, to develop similar deposits around Europe.
"Criticism of EU projects in the past has been that [they have] excellent science and research but are very academic and theoretical - this is much more practical and hopefully just as good science, and just as good from a technical perspective, but much more driven to how can you apply it and commercialise the results," says Broadbent.
As well as including world-class research facilities like Camborne School of Mines, the majority of the partners are made up of SME businesses - for example, one partner, Keliber in Finland, has a pegmatite deposit - that could directly benefit from any processing advances made.
Investment appetite for the EU?
Anderson admits that it is probably going to take more than a "single project" to kick-start a mining revival in the EU, but it's clear the EU is out to promote mining in order to significantly increase gross domestic product, jobs and indigenous resources. But can the EU compete with resource-rich regions, such as Africa, which has more relaxed environmental legislation and cheaper labour?
"The way I see it," says Charles Gibson from Edison Investment Research, "there is this misnomer that Europe doesn't have any world-class ore bodies, which is completely wrong."
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"Europe is one of the best endowed regions in the world for mineral resources and the reason there isn't more mining is much more an economic one. If the costs of labour and other factors were regularised around the world you would find a lot more mining would naturally come back to Europe."
It has tentatively started already. Two Canadian companies are working on gold mines in Northern Ireland; a tungsten mine is opening up in Devon, South West England; in 2012 a fluorspar mine opened in Derbyshire, England; the Rio Tinto mine in Spain is to be reopened this year; Portugal signed eight mining contracts in 2012; and there are a number of mining projects in the Balkans and Scandinavia.
Anderson says that as well as traditional metals, such as gold, tin and copper, Europe also has metals that people haven't necessarily been looking for, such as gallium, germanium and indium - metals that are being used quite substantially in modern technologies. The benefits of mining these resources could be substantial.
"From a social perspective, these mines are generally in remote areas, where there are few opportunities and can therefore offer employment opportunities, which the EU desperately needs. One project could easily employ 100,000 people," says Lara Smith, managing director of Core Consultants.
Also, if the conditions are right, the financial markets will support European mining projects, says Gibson. But he also warns that "the City will be well aware of permitting risks" and will be less inclined to fund projects where there is public opposition - which is perhaps one of the biggest barriers to mining in Europe. Broadbent says the public perception of mining is that it is something "we used to do but doesn't happen now". In Greece, a country with a struggling economy, mining has been fiercely rejected and mining company Eldorado even had its licence revoked after months and months of public pressure and protests.
Broadbent says FAME will be holding open workshops with the public to try and engage them in the initiative, to discover more about mining, and that it is not something to be scared of but "something that can improve their community".
EU open for business
Gibson says it is also regulation "that can not be described as pro-mining" that has contributed to the downfall of the EU mining industry.
"The issue with Europe is there is a lot of competition for the use of land and it's a highly regulated environment and the stringent environmental conditions and high wages make mining in the EU relatively costly," adds Smith.
"Given that the mining industry does not exist in isolation and any mining or processing initiative or project that does take off will have to compete in a global setting; this represents a risk to the investment."
She adds, however, that the mere fact that the EU has funded this initiative could attract investors to the region.
Smith and Gibson both applaud FAME as a start to a new EU attitude toward mining.
Gibson adds: "€7.4m is not going to transform the industry overnight to a world beating leviathan but it is better than nothing."
The FAME initiative is still in its infancy - ore samples are currently being collected, and between July and January 2016 the consortium will be discussing what to do with them. It then has three years of lab work to come up with something new for industry.
The project faces many technical and logistical challenges ahead - not least organising sixteen, soon to be seventeen, partners speaking seven different languages - but its existence may just mark a turning point in EU mining history: EU-28 countries are now officially open for mining business.