The raw materials crisis is increasingly affecting our choices, which creates an excellent opportunity to take further steps towards a green economy. We all want a clean environment, which is why we are trying to implement green technologies that enable us to use fewer resources to manufacture products. ‘In truth, the raw materials crisis has been caused by our desire to use high-tech tools,’ says Veiko Karu, head of TalTech’s Mining and Mineral Technology Division.
‘Globally, the high demand for raw materials has arisen partly due to the pandemic: people are forced to spend more time at home and have found themselves in need of technological devices for their home offices. This shift came unexpectedly and has created an unprecedented demand for these technological devices, where, over a short period of time, people bought more computers, tablets, monitors, printers, and even cars than before. At the same time, the shift to green energy is increasing demand for wind turbine and solar plant materials – as a result, the demand for rare earth metals has skyrocketed. And now we are left trying to address this shortage as best we can,’ Karu explains.
According to Karu, researchers are actively exploring raw material deposits around the world. ‘We actually have a pretty accurate idea of where mineral deposits are located across the globe. Based on previous geological surveys, researchers can draw up overviews of where mining operations could be restarted or where further exploration could be carried out. We have been extracting minerals from the Earth since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Since our first attempts at separating ore from waste involved manual labour or immature technologies, we know that a lot of valuable material was left behind in mining waste.’
Many waste heaps have become heritage sites over the centuries, which, as it happens, is good for protection, because metals cause chemical reactions. If we were to reopen a waste heap, exposing it to oxygen, this could trigger some environmentally hazardous reactions. This is why researchers need to investigate which waste heaps are worth processing in the first place. There is no harm in investigating – it allows us to learn about which raw materials are out there, in what quantities, and what their properties are. In Estonia, the heaps generated by oil shale extraction operations in Ida-Viru County have attracted similar interest, but there also points of interest elsewhere in Europe as well as in South America and Africa.
‘The first question here is whether it is economically expedient to commence mining in these locations. Investigations take at least 2–3 years. Among other things, it is necessary to consider how much it would cost to enrich the ore and what the environmental impacts would be. In addition, the mining infrastructure would need to be created, which also takes time,’ Karu claims. ‘And then there is the matter of principle that while, on the one hand, we want to increase the share of green technologies, then, on the other, no one wants the mines to be set up in their own backyard. What is the solution? A shift in mentality, I think.’
Businesses welcome to seek advice
‘One of the foundations for this shift in mentality is the concept of a circular economy. Here’s a simple question: how many old phones do each of us have at home, in addition to other electronic devices? Multiplying the number of these by, for example, the number of families living in an apartment building in the city, would yield a colossal figure. Old phones that are still functional could be handed down to others, while the rest of our unused/broken electronic devices should be recycled,’ Karu asserts.
He says that the wide concept of a circular economy is making our lives greener, but we still have a long way to go. ‘Businesses are certainly taking it seriously – they already have a fairly good idea of what kind of waste their processes are producing, and are looking for ways to put that waste to use. Taavi Madiberk, founder and director of Skeleton Technologies, has said that the circular economy is the biggest opportunity since the creation of the internet to do global business and thereby change things for the better. If we were looking to change something about the circular economy, then our best bet would be the first half of the chain: geology, mining, and processing. All smart and entrepreneurial youth who want to make a change in the world should come and learn and apply their knowledge at the very start of the value chain, because from there the effect will be transferred downstream. In addition, for the future, we need to make our products and services processable and lower in CO2. The future of the field of engineering could be very bright.’
Karu finds that businesses should systematically review their processes: to identify the types, properties, and quantities of the waste they generate. Is it a sufficient quantity that could be an attractive raw material for the businesses itself or, if not, then at least to others? One example of a good exchange of waste between businesses is offered by the collaboration platform materjalivoog.ee, which empowers manufacturers to valorise their waste materials or to source materials for use as production inputs from other businesses. In other words, it makes what is waste for one business into an opportunity for another.
We already have several good examples of a circular economy in Estonia. In January, TalTech is launching an international technology project in collaboration with Europe’s largest producer of copper, where metallic and non-metallic components will be separated from old computer circuit boards in a more environmentally friendly way and with lower CO2 emissions than before, in order to obtain a metal concentrate that is easier to add to metal smelting processes to obtain pure metals. In addition, some companies are developing proprietary technologies to extract oil shale residues from oil shale slag and to produce crushed stone and calcium carbonate from local limestone. Here, we are talking about minerals that have already been extracted from the ground and have been standing in heaps for years, which are now being given a new life. Another excellent example is this project, where the environmental company Ragn-Sells is working with researchers from TalTech and the University of Tartu to help Estonia get rid of shale oil ash heaps that have accumulated over decades by using technology to transform the ash into calcium carbonate, thereby also capturing large amounts of carbon dioxide in the material.
For businesses who are interested in implementing a circular economy and recycling practices in industrial and manufacturing processes, Veiko Karu recommends contacting the Department of Geology of TalTech. The Department can point businesses towards the right research team to find a suitable solution for the company.
This article was first published in December 2021 in the journal Kõik Tööstustehnikast