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Germany has benefited hugely from its mineral resources. Ever since the Middle Ages, different types of salt, ore, coal, stone and earth have been mined here. In a constant quest for better ways to extract, prepare and process these underground treasures, the TU Bergakademie Freiberg was founded back in 1765 – the world’s very first mining research institution.
Mining has shaped countless lives
For centuries, mining has had a profound influence on the landscape, culture and lives of millions of people all over the world – especially coal mining in Germany’s Ruhr region. The industry was one of the engines of the German "economic miracle" after the Second World War. But all of that is history, as the last mine will be shut down in 2018.
The mining industry needs to reinvent itself
Germany still mines more lignite than any other country in the world. This will have to end sooner or later for reasons of climate change mitigation, however, as no other energy source generates more greenhouse gases than lignite. On the other hand, Germany – being an industrialised country – is one of the major importers of mineral resources. The future of conventional mining thus lies elsewhere, for example in Chile, nearly half of whose exports are natural resources such as iron, copper and lithium. Miners have to drill ever deeper to reach them, however, while the proportion of valuable resources contained in the rock is declining. The challenge for this South American country is to modernise its mining industry.
InnoMine Chile – impetus for modernisation
Chile is receiving valuable impetus in this context from InnoMine Chile – a joint initiative of "Research in Germany" supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the German Academic Exchange Service(DAAD) and run by the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft – Europe’s largest application-oriented research organisation. Funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research(BMBF), the initiative brings universities and businesses from Germany and Chile together. The goal is to make mining in Chile more efficient and also more environmentally friendly. Competitions were staged to find innovative ideas which the researchers and developers then presented at a two-day InnovationPlatform in Santiago de Chile and during a one-week InnovationTour of Germany.
High-tech innovations for a centuries-old industry
The ideas that the teams from companies and universities developed include laser- and X-ray-based sorting systems capable of more efficiently ascertaining the raw material content of mined rock. Close monitoring of machinery can also reduce costs – while at the same time preventing accidents. With this in mind, researchers at RWTH Aachen University’s Institute for Mineral Resources Machine Technology teamed up with the company Etersys to design an infrared camera system that is able to quickly identify any tears or other damage to conveyor belts.
Renewable energies for environmentally-friendly mining
Working with the company Smart Hydro Power, engineers at the Institute of Mineral Resources Engineering (MRE) at the university in Aachen have come up with a low-cost and environmentally-friendly alternative to using diesel to power the mines. Their power plant uses wind, hydro and solar energy and is particularly suitable for use in remote regions.
How can mineral resources be mined sustainably?
Besides the technical universities in Aachen and Freiberg, other institutions in Germany are also conducting research into mining. For example, the NamiRo research project for sustainably produced mineral resources run by the universities of Kassel, Ulm and Hohenheim and by the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) is focusing on social and environmental standards for the extraction of mineral resources – such as tin in Indonesia or iron ore in Brazil. The consortium intends to draw up a sustainability standard and to find ways of monitoring its application.
Research into culture and mining
Situated at the heart of the Ruhr coal mining region, the German Mining Museum (DBM) Bochum is devoted to the coal and steel industry, past and present. How was mining carried out around the world in the past, and how is it done today? Which mineral resources are the focus? The museum answers questions such as these in wide-ranging exhibitions. What is special about the DBM is that it is a research museum of the Leibniz Association, with numerous scientists conducting research into mining in many different projects. It is not only technical developments that are in the spotlight, but also social and cultural developments – after all, these continue even after the mines have been shut down.
In the “InnoMine Chile” initiative funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Research Foundation (DFG) are searching for innovative ideas and interdisciplinary solutions with the potential to lead the Chilean mining sector into the future.