European Geologist Journal 49
How can universities and students increase domestic raw material knowledge to help production? Possibilities through examples
by Máté Zs. Leskó, Lívia Majoros, Gábor Jakab, Richárd Z. Papp, Ferenc Kristály1
Institute of Mineralogy and Geology, University of Miskolc, Hungary
The European Union is one of the world’s largest raw material consumers; however, the EU’s share in global mineral raw material production is small. This creates a risk, because the economy depends on other countries/regions. To avoid this situation the EU encourages its members to increase exploration for and better exploitation of mineral resources. There are many historical and abandoned mining areas across Europe that could have high economic potential in the future. In this paper we would like to present through examples a method demonstrating how universities and students can provide data and new aspects for prospective research, governments and exploration companies. Our study shows that students with an interest in economic geology during their education could give us new perspectives and possibilities for supporting the national economies and the EU, as well.
The raw material supply-and-demand system in the world economy and in the manufacturing industry always has trends and these depend on many factors. This has accompanied mankind throughout history: people always looked for the best raw materials applicable: flint (in the Stone Age), copper (Copper Age), tin and copper (Bronze Age), iron (Iron Age), and now rare earth elements in our age. Cultural evolution through millennia has created an ever rising trend especially since the industrial revolution in the 18th century accelerated and diversified the raw material demand. The strength of a country or a community (e.g. the European Union) depends on many factors: financial stability, industrial development, education, military, politics, etc. These factors form a complex interlinked system, where they affect each other.
Raw materials within the borders
There are many thousands of abandoned mines and mining areas in Europe or more specifically in the European Union. The mining activity may have occurred in ancient times or the mine may have been closed only a few years ago. Exploration and extraction of raw materials are processes that have been determined by demand and supply during the history of the mankind. Chert (flint) was essential to Stone Age man to survive, therefore to find and mine chert was a matter of life or death. They dug shafts several metres deep to reach the silicolite strata. Ignatius von Born (mineralogist and metallurgist) wrote in the 18th century in his travel letters about how important the financial return is during mining activity (von Born, 1774).
Most of the abandoned mines were closed because the mining grade of the ore did not reach the actual cut-off grade, or the mining method was not economical: e.g. open pits or drifts stopped because the gangue/ore ratio was too high. Until the Medieval Ages most mined materials were utilised only locally, since the transportation possibilities were cumbersome. Some rare, strategic or expensive minerals, such as rock salt or lapis lazuli, could be transported to larger distances. With the discovery of the New World’s continents and technological advancement, a lot of minerals and metals were shipped to Europe. In the globalised world of today it is frequently possible to buy and transport raw materials worldwide more cheaply than mining them in a European country. In some cases a country can grow into a significant metallurgical supplier without having supporting mineral resources. For example, Iceland is a large aluminium producer (USGS, 2020), although it does not possess any bauxite –cheap electricity and low cost sea transportation makes shipped bauxite processing profitable. The European Union is one of the major and important world economic focus points alongside North America and East Asia. It has a significant share of the world’s manufacturing industry, but its raw material demand is much higher than its internal production; the EU produces around 4 % of the global mineral output but consumes 35 % of the products exported from the world market.
Importing products (especially raw materials) from the world market has supply risks. During history there were episodes when a country could not obtain the required raw material (quantity or quality): wars, politics (e.g. cold war) or embargos. In our society today there are only few countries that are isolated from the global market (e.g. North Korea).
In the past the market-influencing factors acted far more slowly than they do today: to prepare for a war the governments and people had to stockpile goods and minerals to survive. The conflicts escalated more slowly and lasted longer. The markets in the global society today (demand-supply system) can be influenced very rapidly by different news or events: military intervention/terrorist act; political decisions, pandemics, new technological developments or the discovery of giant deposits.
The production of raw materials seems uninterrupted in the European Union, unlike in some other parts of the world (those suffering from wars or in political/financial crisis). Nowadays the raw material production and use ratio in the EU is not optimal, so the EU has to face the effects of the world market: fluctuating trends and price changes. The negative effect of the China’s REE embargo from 2011 had serious consequences: countries where the main raw material supply is from the world market realised their economy and industry depended on other countries. In response to the situation the EU established a list in 2011 (COM (2011) 25), where the critical raw materials were listed. This list is upgraded every three years: in 2011 it contained 14 elements, in 2014 it had 20 and from 2017 there are 27 elements on the list (COM(2017) 490). The next upgrade is expected in 2020. Most of the elements on the list are imported in more than 50% (even 100% as well) of the quantity used and their lack may have a serious impact on technologies and create a supply risk. One of the biggest problem is that most of these materials cannot be recycled with today’s technology (COM(2017) 490).
The EU supports exploration and reconsideration of abandoned mines in its territory to mitigate these negative effects and to protect its industry and economy.
The importance and possibilities of the universities and the students
Today there is no continuously operating ore mine in Hungary anymore. The last one in Úrkút, a manganese-ore mine, was closed in 2016. The last periodically operating ore mine is located in Bakonyoszlop (coal and bauxite; it is also the last underground mine) but its production is negligible. In the last two decades there have been only a few explorations, which were carried out by small companies. Although there seems little chance for opening ore mines in Hungary in the next few years, the universities and the students can provide available new data for everybody. The data and knowledge could be useful now or in the future as well. For instance, in the second half of the 20th century an assistant geologist investigated microfossils as a hobby, and those data are used today to know the age of the sedimentary rocks during hydrocarbon exploration.
Several generations of geology students have been working to understand our environment better and getting familiar with the raw materials under the surface, and this knowledge will assist in the future’s exploration and mining. Universities and their students are capable of contributing to the EU’s directive in multiple ways (Figure 1):
- Basic and applied research in the universities
- Re-evaluation of abandoned mines closed decades or centuries ago.
- Translation and data mining of old local-language exploration reports to connect to international scientific and industrial world.
- Participation in national and international project teams
- Industrial and academic cooperation
- Joint projects: BSc, MSc, and PhD theses
- R&D contracts with industrial companies
- Analytical measurements (SEM, XRD, XRF, etc.)
- Competence in certain topics, special domains
We would like to demonstrate with a few examples from Hungary that universities and their students can provide new valuable data and knowledge that can lead towards the principal aim: increasing the domestic (and EU) commodity supply.
Figure 1: Possibilities of universities and their students to support the EU’s aim.
Graphite re-evaluation from archive data
From the mid-1950s till the early 1990s (in the Soviet era) in Hungary there were numerous explorations because of the “planned economy”. A significant amount of data piled up from those explorations.
Some 30–40 years ago there were preliminary graphite explorations revealing interesting local showings which had not been followed up on. Their re-evaluation started a few years ago at the University of Miskolc (Figure 2). With the new instrumental technologies that were commercialised in the last 3–4 decades, we can investigate these occurrences more accurately (SEM with higher resolution, Rietveld method in XRD, Raman spectroscopy, etc.), which can give us reliable quantitative results. Thus, the graphite-bearing rocks in NE Hungary were analysed. The graphite deposit type was identified and the graphite was classified into international industrial groups (Majoros et al., 2019). Most of the Hungarian exploration reports were re-evaluated and results were disseminated in different international conference presentations and scientific papers.
Figure 2: Sample collection: graphite-bearing rocks in NE Hungary.
A new barite deposit
In NE Hungary there is a major shear zone, the Darnó shear zone, alongside which are located several ore-bearing zones, with the Recsk porphyry copper at its southernmost exposure. There are many iron-rich metasomatic zones and Rudabánya was the largest iron-ore mine. Iron-ore mining in Rudabánya ceased in 1985, but ever since Cu, Pb, Zn and barite exploration have been taking place in this area. There are at least 6 different ore forming processes represented here, starting from the early Triassic until the Pliocene (Szakáll, 2001).
Martonyi is located in the far NE part of the Darnó shear zone. It had an active iron mine until the early 20th century. The early explorations for iron ore did not recognize its base metal and barite potential. In 2011 and 2018 MSc students worked on a mineralogical investigation in Martonyi (Figure 3) and detected base metal and barite assemblages. In a later thesis (Jakab, 2019) almost all of the ore forming processes were identified which are also recognised in Rudabánya. Among the different ore forming processes, barite accumulation could be the most interesting part. This has led us to more investigations and hopefully our results will lead to a follow-up professional exploration, as well.
Figure 3: Sample collection in Martonyi.
Although there are several indications of tantalum, niobium, cobalt, gallium and indium in Hungary, systematic exploration with modern analytical work had not been carried out. Within the CriticEl project (2012-2014; http://kritikuselemek.uni-miskolc.hu/index_en.php) student projects were set up to investigate such geological formations. In 2016 a master’s student investigated In and other trace element content of sphalerite and related sulphides from the Recsk polymetallic mineralisation for his thesis study (Csámer, 2016). In addition to In, Ga, Ge and Te were detected at levels below 1000 ppm, with occasional enrichment of Se in galena and pyrite. The occurrence of these metals is linked to hydrothermal mineralisation produced by intermediary magmatic intrusions in tertiary sediments. Indium is mainly trapped in sphalerite, associated with Cu anomalies, suggesting coupled substitution or In-bearing chalcopyrite inclusions.
REE in bauxites and red mud
Another topic in CriticEl was the REE content of bauxites, investigated at the level of an MSc thesis (Márkus, 2014) and scientific publication (Szabó et al., 2014). The work is being continued in a more recent project, REEBAUX (http://reebaux.gfz.hr/about/).
The CHPM2030 (Combined Heat, Power and Metal extraction; https://www.chpm2030.eu/) Horizon 2020 project involves industry and academia and aims at developing a fluid state extraction technology for ultra-deep ore deposits with a single process of combined ore, heat extraction and power (electricity) generation (Hartai et al., 2019). It is a very innovative program initiated from the academic sector that supported student work, as well. A new geological model of the deep-seated Recsk porphyry copper deposit was created during the research linked to an MSc thesis (Miklovicz, 2017), indicating the deep intrusive root of the porphyry copper complex.
Co-operation between industry and universities
During the exploration phase companies often turn to universities. They order different investigations (e.g. XRD, XRF, SEM, fluid inclusion thermometry) for their samples. If the relationship between the company and the university (or professors) is good, the measurements can be carried out by students as a thesis project: the company that leads the active barite exploration in Rudabánya gave a chance to a student to join the project. The student’s work was used during the exploration.
An operating mine often has co-operation with the nearest university. A small mine has its goods investigated there, because it is cheaper than establishing its own laboratory, or it can validate its own measurements. During the mining activity problems and tasks may turn up that can frequently be solved by students as their thesis projects: for instance, in the Úrkút manganese ore mine (underground) the old pneumatic load-haul-dump (LHD) machines were changed to diesel engine varieties. A student was given the task to investigate whether the ventilation in the mine was sufficient or if the owner needed to improve it.
One aim of the European Union is to increase raw material (mainly critical raw materials) exploitation within the European Union borders. This could decrease raw material imports and mitigate the occasional negative effects of the world market. This aim is actively supported by universities and students, who can seek for and provide valuable data and knowledge to academic and industrial professionals in several ways:
- Scientific interest, which may lead to important deep knowledge about deposits
- Within national and international projects
- Within academic-industrial co-operation.
Technological development is continuous, which means today’s knowledge could be tomorrow’s treasure.
The described article was carried out as part of the EFOP-3.6.1-16-2016-00011 “Younger and Renewing University – Innovative Knowledge City – institutional development of the University of Miskolc aiming at intelligent specialisation” project implemented in the framework of the Széchenyi 2020 program. The realisation of this project is supported by the European Union, co-financed by the European Social Fund.
 The “planned economy” was characteristic for the socialist countries. The economy was not controlled by the market but by the government. The government prescribed what and how many goods should be produced regardless of whether it was economical or not.
COM(2011)25: Communication from the Commission to the Institutions Tackling the Challenges in Commodity Markets and on Raw Materials. Brussels: European Commission.
COM(2017) 490: Communication from the Commission to the Institutions on the 2017 list of Critical Raw Materials for the EU. Brussels: European Commission.Csámer Á. 2016: Indium and other trace elements in the sphalerite dominant base metal mineralizations from Recsk Ore Complex. MSc thesis, Institute of Mineralogy and Geology, University of Miskolc, Hungary.
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This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 49 – Mineral raw materials in Europe – Chances and challenges for domestic production
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