The growing demand for raw materials is putting pressure on the development of mining techniques. "We cannot fully eliminate the environmental impact, but we are moving in the right direction by reducing the carbon footprint and restoring the former environment faster," states mining engineer Erki Niitlaan.
"Mining may be considered a hot topic, but as a matter fact mining has always existed at some level," says Erki Niitlaan, founder and head of Estonia's largest mining engineering firm Steiger. The existence of mining is matter of survival—humanity can't just do without it—and it can be classified in several levels of intensity. On a first level, he points out the extraction of minerals used in construction, which every country usually extracts locally, because the closer the quarry is to the place of use, the cheaper the material becomes and the smaller the overall ecological footprint is. "In the second level there are smaller and medium-sized projects of regional importance. Estonia for example does limestone processing, where lime and cement are produced, as well as the extraction of oil shale from peat." "The third level includes quite large mining and industrial enterprises with big quarries and mines on several continents, for example. They do not exist in Estonia, but many may know about the large underground iron mine that exists in Kiruna, Sweden,” Steiger's manager describes.
Although much has been said about the need for raw materials and the green revolution, it is true that humanity has depended on the Earth's crustal resources for thousands of years. "With the development of technology, this dependence is deepening," confirms Niitlaan. "At the same time, there is still a demand for everyday raw materials. Let's take for example the mining of construction resources, where there is a clear connection in which the richer the country, the more construction resources are consumed. There are wider and more multi-level roads, and more square meters of living space needed per person. Raw materials from within the country need to fulfill this demand, ”confirms Niitlaan. "The circular economy offers some relief, but only to a limited extent. Other challenges have also emerged— such as the need for rare-earth elements, certain industrial minerals, or energy resources. We cannot turn back from this road unless all of humanity agrees to live in the Prehistoric Age. ”
Higher energy classes and more IT
But how much the mining industry has changed and developed? "There have been several great tech leaps in the history of mining equipment. Firstly, the transition from purely manual to mechanical solutions. From there, the technical capacity as well as the productivity and the degree of automation have also increased, ” said Niitlaan. "The more time passes, the more efficient we become in all technologies. Efforts are made to ensure that as much of the energy put into the process is employed in a useful way. Modern mining technology is therefore more energy-efficient. A good parallel would be the energy classes of the washing machine. Current washing machines are much more energy-efficient class than 20 years ago. It uses less water, electricity, and laundry powder, but they still wash 3 kilos of clothes at a time,” explains Niitlaan.
The next big leap in development has reduced the role of man in mining activities. "More and more work is being done through algorithms. Machines are precise, there are no accidental hand movements and efficiency is achieved. On top of this, one person can operate multiple machines.” According to Erki Niitlaane, some solutions already in use include self-propelled vehicles for underground transport. "They move following their own set path and the operator only intervenes at certain moments, for example when the bucket needs to be filled. Control is then transferred back to the computer. Later, as the machines learn more, the operator will eventually become only an observer and an emergency solver. As a result, people no longer have to be physically present underground and in their quarries, and can do their work from their desks. In addition to be more efficient, this definitely improves the working environment. ” Niitlaan points out that while such technological innovations may be already in use around the world, smaller mines still have to wait. "For starters, this is still a very expensive technology, and these kind of innovations need to hit large volumes, to pay off the development costs. If they become cheaper, consumer versions will also emerge, and perhaps robots will one day replace our village carts, ”believes Niitlaan.
The laws of nature also apply to Earth crustal engineers
The main concern with mining is always the environmental impact, which is also the main reason why the opening of new mines is generally unpopular among society. “The environmental impact of mining is always there, it is not possible to reduce it to zero. However, the development of environmental technology can partially reduce this effect—work can be more efficient, can be completed faster, and machines are more energy efficient. Some of the technology is already running on biodiesel or electricity, a trend that is sure to continue. ” According to Erki Niitlaane, there dedicated engineers that work so that the ecological impact is as small and short-term as possible so that the environmental recovery starts as soon as possible.
Erki Niitlaan himself studied mining at Tallinn University of Technology. His former curriculum at the Institute of Geology is now part of the "Earth Systems, Climate and Technologies" study plan. This degree is coordinated by the Institute of Geology in cooperation with the Institute of Marine Systems. "By choosing it, a young person can benefit the community in which they lives and contribute to its development," he is convinced. “This also applied to myself—I have been able to have a say in shaping the mineral resource policy of Estonia and the European Union. By working as an international consultant, my mining career has made possible for me to travel to virtually every corner of the world, from the Nordic countries to the southern tip of Myanmar and Chile, and to visit places that the average person never gets to, and exist a kilometer deep." According to Erki Niitlaane, contact with nature and understanding it is crucial in geotechnology. "That's why I'm very pleased that TalTech's curriculum combines engineering with science. After all, mineral resources come from the natural environment, and we must act in a way that values nature and cares about the environment. For example, even in a simple calculation of slope stability in sand gravel quarries—how this natural material behaves is a result of human labor. Or with groundwater— it is important to know how to avoid damaging it with your actions. Last, knowledge of protected species and nesting areas is key. A person working in this field must be very versatile, ” states Erki Niitlaan.
TalTech's Institute of Geology is part of the Faculty of Science and combines science, engineering and IT. Graduates of the Institute's renewed undergraduate program "Earth Systems, Climate and Technologies" can become green innovation and crustal engineers, climate scientists, marine scientists, geologists, or data analysts.
Contact us to learn more:
TalTech Institute of Geology