Tallinn University of Technology

The speech for TalTech's 101st Anniversary was given by professor Michael William Hitch.

Estonia’s Future and the Sustainable Minerals Challenge

Dear Rector, colleagues, students, ladies and gentlemen. I wish you all a very happy 101st birthday. It is truly an honour to be participate in this auspicious event today. This is a very special time for our TalTech family as we take these first bold steps into this next hundred years; a century that will be characterised by societal, environmental and economic challenges that will continue to define Estonia and distinguish Estonians world over, as leaders and innovators of technological discovery and development. Many of the people, particularly the new Doctorate recipients here today will be those leaders, and I salute you.

These outcomes will shape our sustainable society in terms of environmental integrity, economic sufficiency and social wellbeing. To an ever-increasing extent, this future I speak of, depends on the discovery, development, extraction, manufacture, use, and reuse of mined raw materials.

From the moment your head lifted off the pillow this morning, you began to experience the wonders of mined materials. No doubt, that alarm that took you away from your dreams came from a mobile phone that contained some 72 mined elements with exotic names such as neodymium, terbium and dysprosium: all three of the rare earth metals that give your phone the power to vibrate. 

As you stumble into the kitchen to get that ever important cup of coffee underway, you enter a literal Disneyland of mined materials from the stainless steel of your appliances that came from Brazil, the countertops from Italy, the electricity generated in Estonia delivered to your home along copper cables from Chile, and those lovely warm tiles you are standing on from China with that in-floor heating manufactured in Germany.

After your breakfast cooked in a Teflon coated aluminum pan produced from metal from New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and fluorite from Argentina or that piece of toast that came from milled grain, it’s off to the shower where the soap, containing talc, soda, and vegetable oil products from who-knows-where awaits…. Even the toothpaste on your electric toothbrush from China contains three mined raw mineral products likely from North America.

Time to get dressed and ready to impress! Your clothing is made from materials that likely came from one of two sources: cotton that was farmed in Egypt or Turkey, or synthetics that came from distilled and refined petroleum products from the Middle East… or maybe even recycled PET water bottles from other parts of Europe. The car you drive or public transit you ride on contain still more and more raw mined materials… all of which you daily existence has become dependent on.

I think you are beginning to get the picture. By the time you have made it to work, you have interacted with hundreds of tools, products and creature comforts that just could not exist, without the extraction, processing and availability of mined mineral products sourced from all over the world. How very different our morning has been as compared to the mornings of our grandparents or even since we were children.

So how has the world changed? There has been a rapid and increasingly insatiable demand for raw materials in a much wider dimension today, and more and more often we, here in Europe, hear of a general problem regarding the security of supply of raw materials and is particularly important in relation strategic raw materials that are crucial to the development of any new technologies and the manufacture of many of the technologies we have come to rely on today. Can anyone in this room imagine a day going by without access to your mobile phone?

One example of this rapidly increasing need for mined raw materials is the use of copper in renewable energy. Contained in each typical wind turbine that we might see along the highway to Narva, 3-4 tonnes of copper is required per megawatt of production capability. A single wind farm can contain between 2 and 7 thousand tonnes of the red metal. In Europe, this equates to 12 times more copper being used than in traditional systems. Electric vehicles require 3 times more copper as a conventional car. The demand for copper, by far outstrips what can be supplied by all of the currently operating mines around the world, and new deposits need to be discovered and developed in order to meet expected demand.

Another example of this realization is the European Union Battery Alliance. This initiative was formed in response to the lack of a domestic European cell manufacturing base and a very real risk to the security of supply chain. If Europe has any hope of moving away from a carbon-based energy system, cheap, high capacity storage cells will play a critical role. There is a concerted effort underway to source the raw materials, develop the manufacturing technology, distribution and the application of high-efficiency storage cells in response to emerging renewable energy adoption. Here in Estonia, we have undeveloped and certainly unrealized mineral resources that could potentially supply strategically important materials into this alliance.

Estonia is endowed with a remarkable bounty of mineral and other resources.  Other than the well-known mined raw mineral products such as oil shale, peat, and limestone, we also have significant deposits  as phosphorite shell beds and manganese nodules found at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.  Phosphorites have the potential to be potent fertilisers for increasing yields in agriculture, but additionally they contain minute quantities of strategically important and critical rare earth elements… even some of those elements in your mobile phone.

Estonia has the opportunity to capitalize on its deep and innovative skills and expertise to make current production more efficient, lower cost and greater resource efficiency. Resource efficiency implies that once we develop a mining operation, we take all of the material of interest, not just what is easy or economically attractive at the time. Materials that are marginal or considered waste byproducts also have value and can be important inputs into our manufacturing streams. Much of this research and development is taking place right here, at TalTech. Researchers are working on ways to better define, and use the complete resource more effectively, but also better ways to extract them in a way that increases yield or recovery, and minimizes the impact on the physical environment or locally affected communities.

Like all good things, resource endowment has its limits…. Once a resource is mined or excavated it is not replaced or regenerated unlike Estonia’s famous forests or even the mushrooms I saw in the forest this weekend. This means that we have to be mindful of sustainable consumption and recognizing the role mining and resources play in our local communities and our society as a whole. We have a moral obligation to use these resources wisely.

This mindful consumption may be best illustrated by the valuable materials contained within our remaining oil shale reserves. Perhaps the value of the hydrocarbon component is much more valuable and contributes more to society than just burning it for electricity. The production of important building materials, pharmaceuticals and other derived products may have a greater benefit to society, when alternative ways of generating electricity are available. With the increasing installation of renewable energy plants in Estonia, a closer look is required to extract maximum economic and societal value from each tonne of material mined. This is what I refer to as sustainability.

The concept of sustainability and sustainable development is now a widely used term in many areas of activity related the life of man. We first started hearing about this term in the second half of the 20th Century largely as a response to the uncontrolled use of natural resources and a realization that resources are finite.

Michael Hitchi kõne

If I was to do a Google search “Definition of Sustainable Development”, I would find 505 million hits! I think you would agree the term has become somewhat difficult to define.

The most frequently quoted definition and the one I find some comfort in, is from the early 1990s, Our Common Future, also known as the Bruntland Report: ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. It integrates economic activity with environmental integrity, social concerns, and effective governance systems.

These three pillars cannot stand alone and are deeply interconnected much like our society is… like the legs of a stool perhaps, without all three legs working, it isn’t much of a stool!

Economic integrity suggests that there is an equitable share of the financial benefits of mining a resource. Social wellbeing must be respected and even enhances as a result of any mining activity and of course the environment needs to be protected to the greatest extent possible.

The clearest way to understand sustainable development is to appreciate the role that mine materials in in minerals play in the development and the development maintenance and potential advancement of our society.

Economic growth means achieving long-term sustainability both in terms of production volumes and meeting the needs of customers, but more so achieving economic efficiency and reapplication of revenues from sales. The protection of natural resources and the environment mean concern for the rate of depletion of them. More revenues need to be applied to the advancement of alternate business opportunities particularly in communities that have the potential to become dependent on any single operation.

Eesti Energia is a fine example of a company actively seeking a futuristic business model. The eastern oil shale resources are limited and with added European Union pressure to move to a carbon neutral future, Eesti Energia through EnEfit Green is looking at renewable energy production from wind, solar and biomass. Not only does this bring carbon-free or green power to our communities, it begins the process of re-skilling and up-skilling a traditional mining workforce. This is resilience in the face of change!

The mining and raw materials sector has an extraordinary potential contribute to social and economic development. You can transform the lives of employees, their families and communities for the better. Realizing mining’s full potential to contribute to sustainable economic and social progress requires collaborative action between governments, companies, civil society and academia. We call this the knowledge triangle, where different approaches, viewpoints and perspectives generate the most beneficial outcomes.

Social responsibility, or taking into consideration the nature of the mining environment, means ensuring safe working conditions, but also concern for the social aspects of mining, including families of miners and the environment.

Investment in the raw materials sector can catalyse economic growth and reduce poverty in low- and middle-income countries. And in post-conflict and fragile states, mining has helped to kick-start economic and social development where other investors have been more wary.  In essence, mining and raw material production is the way that we create value and prosperity for the very first time. What really has little or no value sitting in the ground can, with the application of good science and smart engineering, become something of great added value that contributes to the full range of development opportunities for society.

While large-scale mining typically contributes a significant amount economically at the national level – in particular from foreign direct investment, exports and government revenues – this contribution does not automatically flow down to the local level. Mining’s local economic contribution can be enhanced through direct, indirect and induced employment in host communities; local enterprise development; economic diversification; enhanced revenue management; strategic social investment; and effective resolution of disputes.

Mining has an impact on communities. That impact can be positive – catalysing social and economic development, transforming people’s lives for the better– but risks being negative should a company act insensitively. Responsible mining companies recognise that they need to proactively engage with communities to build strong relationships based on trust and respect. They seek to minimise negative impacts and maximise benefits, building long-term mutually beneficial relationships. This relationship is commonly referred to as social license.

Social License or Social License to operate as it is often referred to is a metaphor that describes the nature of the relationship between the affected community and the industrial proponent. This relationship is best described as trust. Trust is based on a certain level of openness and vulnerability a willingness to engage in open communication and dialogue, an acceptance and practice of inclusion and cultural sensitivity that goes beyond a simple presence. Once this trust is earned, like any relationship, it needs to be nurtured, fed and kept warm. Once lost, it is very difficult to recover.

Issues, including competing land use, inclusive decision-making regarding what the post mining landscape will look like or how it will be used and managed are important aspects and often points of contention that through simple communication and development of this trust, can result in a harmonious relationship. Operators that are known to have poor track records of social performance often find it difficult to find additional funding from outside sources, access to new projects and a heightened level of scrutiny by regulators.

All of what we have just learned falls within and is part of what we refer to as the Circular Economy. This model of economic health and performance is based on the idea that through the product life cycle, that is to say, mineral exploration, mining, processing, raw materials, design, manufacture, use and reuse, recycling then reinserts into the processing phase as a raw material. The key part of this economic model is that although there are waste streams as a result of each of these unit operations, the waste materials are to be reused and even increased in value from the activity from which they were generated.

Can you imagine, that in the manufacture of a typical 3-Series BMW, almost 60% of its mass is waste produced from its manufacture. Most of this waste consists of lubricants, cleaning solvents, paint and scrap metal and plastics. Clearly there are two issues at hand here…. Firstly, manufacturing processes have to become more efficient and secondly, how does this waste stream become up-valued and reinserted into the closed-loop manufacture of automobile components?

How about your mobile phone? Did you know that only about 10% of mobile phones are recycled? So, if there are almost 18 billion mobile have ever been manufactured, can you even begin to imagine the volume of critical, strategic and precious metals remain unused? This means somewhere there is 60 tonnes of gold is sitting idle. So what about the Rare Earth Elements, Lithium, Platinum Group Metals etc?

Research being carried out at TalTech is indeed addressing aspects of this waste management issue. There is a concerted effort to find solutions to incorporating the large volumes of mine and post combustion oil shale wastes back into the circular economy. For example, work in the Materials Engineering Department is looking at up-valuing burnt oil shale as an aggregate product or ash as an industrial product; my own research focuses on using mineral production waste as a means to capture CO2 and convert it into a mineral form and future consumer products. This work is focusing on how we can disrupt the structural architecture of a mineral particle so that it can adsorb CO2 more effectively and make the sequestration of carbon more effective. This will allow mining companies to turn what was considered mine waste, into a valuable consumer product and qualify for important emissions offset credits.

Other research is looking at using plants as a way to extract strategically important elements without the use of chemicals and stablise and rehabilitate mine sites so that new activities can take place on them.

TalTech’s research in this space goes beyond just the repurposing of industrial waste, but even addresses a more fundamental question of where our next resource base will come from such as defining and quantifying Estonia’s phosphorite resources. The Phosphorite deposits in Estonia are large, but pose geospatial challenges that makes the job that much more difficult.

The future of mined raw materials in Estonia, may not actually from the ground as is traditionally the way it happens. A strong case can be made for Estonia to become a European leader in Urban Mining and the recovery of strategic and other critical substances from wastes. These waste materials can themselves be used as resources and promote industrial synergies and can be integrated into existing value streams and processes. It is suggested that recovering metals such as gold, copper and other metals from discarded electronics is 13 time cheaper than mining for virgin materials. Remember all those discarded and obsolete mobile phones? A literal treasure chest is waiting for us to open.

Due to its geographic proximity to Northern Europe, Estonia is strategically positioned to be leader in Urban mining and reprocessing strategic and critical materials from electronic waste. I see this as an opportunity to use Estonian innovation and technology and the very smart people we have here under this roof to develop a new resources sector, and working with existing resource companies, while preserving and extending our traditional one.

Finally, it is our responsibility to inform and educate society about the importance of raw mined materials and to demonstrate a professional career in the sector, is safe, uses futuristic technologies such as automation, big data, machine learning, contributes to the growth of society and enhances the natural world around us. The world of Georesources is a remarkably vast and infinitely rewarding one.

Mr. Rector, colleagues, students, ladies and gentlemen, I thank you for your attention this afternoon, and hopefully some of my enthusiasm for the future of the Estonian raw mined material sector has rubbed off, and tomorrow morning when you wake up to that nasty alarm, you have a slightly deeper appreciation of what Mother Earth provides us.

Thank You.

Michael Hitchi kõne