According to Alan Butcher and Simon Michaux, specialists should work in closer cooperation to develop mineral production chains. Large-scale interaction would help to resolve problems related to the sufficiency of minerals and to produce innovation.

A firm grip over geomaterials

Changes in the value chain involving the use of minerals present challenges to all parties in the field. The Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) is responding to these challenges by increasing its research on geomaterials and applied mineralogy.

Text: Timo Hämäläinen

– Minerals are everywhere around us. They are part of our everyday life. We use minerals when we do the laundry. Our windows are made of silica, many different minerals are needed to make batteries, and our roads are founded on crushed stone, Alan Butcher says.

Butcher started working at GTK in spring 2017 as Professor of Geomaterials & Applied Mineralogy. Through his appointment, GTK can broaden its current areas of research and expert services.

Geomaterials include minerals, rocks, sediments, soil and dust, as well as all the materials made from them, such as cement, glass, bricks and metals.

Applied mineralogy is needed to resolve any problems encountered in mineral exploration, mining and ore processing. More recently, however, you may see references to applied mineralogy in diverse fields, such as medical geology, extraterrestial geology, forensic geoscience and construction.

– GTK’s expertise puts us in an excellent position to participate in various studies. At the moment, we are considering what we should do next. We cannot focus on everything; we need to make choices.

Currently, the data and expertise produced by GTK are used particularly in mineral exploration, mining, societal construction, the design of geoenergy plants, water and environmental protection, and the planning of nuclear waste disposal.

Processing piles of waste

Like Butcher, senior scientist Dr Simon Michaux brings international experience
to the organisation. Michaux started working at GTK in spring 2018. Both have already had long careers working in other countries, for example, in Australia.

Michaux develops mineral informatics at GTK. The aim is to collect data about minerals located in Finland and consider how they could be used in the best possible way.

– In addition to deposits deep in the ground, we are interested in secondary sources, such as adjoining rocks from mines, piles of waste and industrial side streams, Michaux says.

Michaux is also leading a geometallurgical project for battery minerals at GTK, in which surveying and development focus on the value chain of the battery business, ranging from mineral exploration to the recycling of raw materials. The project is led by Aalto University and, in addition to GTK, it involves the University of Oulu and various mining companies.

– The project is funded by state-owned Business Finland, which aims to create new growth by helping companies to expand internationally and by supporting and funding innovation activities. Our clear goal is to produce concrete results, Michaux says.

Value chains in turmoil

Michaux and Butcher believe that the level of recycling will increase
rapidly. They agree that developing
the circular economy is one of the key drivers that improve the ability of
European companies to produce battery minerals for European markets.

– However, we need to keep in mind that minerals still need to be explored and extracted from the ground. We cannot fulfil the need for industrial minerals using recycled materials, not even if we recycled all electrical and electronic equipment, Butcher says.

In any case, recycling is changing industrial value chains. The circular economy requires that products are originally designed with an eye on any reuse of components and the recycling of materials.

Michaux is talking about a revolution in mining.

– Over time, mining and the recycling of minerals will walk hand in hand. When companies prepare profitability calculations, they are increasingly considering the entire value chain, from the extraction of raw materials and the processing of minerals to recycling. Seeing the big picture may produce completely different results than placing focus on the maximised supply of main components.

– Geologists have a lot to give when analysing all the different elements contained by minerals, including penalty elements, Michaux says.

Technological development and the resulting changes in the demand for raw materials may also change what we consider to be valuable minerals and what kinds of deposits are worth exploring and processing. For example, cobalt has so far mainly been produced as a by-product of other materials. However, plans are underway to establish a mine in Finland exclusively for the production of cobalt.

Butcher and Michaux believe that, during the next decade, completely new types of batteries will be developed, requiring completely new battery minerals.

Butcher calls for cooperation and interaction between different parties, such as geologists, mining companies, producers of mineral products, manufacturers of end products and product designers.

– Interaction between geologists and product designers would certainly be a fruitful source of innovation. If we knew what they wanted, we might be able to find the raw materials needed and produce minerals by design.

Getting ready for changes

Butcher and Michaux speak highly of GTK’s research resources and versatile analysis equipment.

– We can quickly characterise any type of geomaterial. A full understanding of minerals and mineral textures is a key factor when developing suitable methods for mineral processing.

Butcher is also impressed by GTK’s digital geological map material, which covers the whole of Finland. The material is updated and specified constantly according to new research results and needs.

Michaux wants to point out that GTK Mintec is one of the leading mineral processing research institutions in Europe. Mintec provides its customers with all types of surveys related to mineralogy and mineral processing technologies. It studies the entire production process in realistic simulated conditions at its testing facility. A typical sample size ranges from 20 to 300 tons.

– We are expecting significant changes in business models, technologies and markets related to the use of minerals. GTK is ready for these changes. The high level of geological expertise in Finland offers excellent opportunities to build ecosystems that cover the entire value chain, Butcher and Michaux say.

According to Alan Butcher and Simon Michaux, specialists should work in closer cooperation to develop mineral production chains. Large-scale interaction would help to resolve problems related to the sufficiency of minerals and to produce innovation.