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Innovation determines the future of the Swedish mine

In only a few decades, the Swedish mining industry has passed several milestones in its quest to become a safe, more climate-friendly and productive industry. At the same time, the challenges for this industry, which is often called into question, are increasing. In order to reach the goal of being a fossil-free industry by 2045 and, at the same time, meet an ever-increasing demand for metals, major changes are still required. This applies within the mining industry, throughout trade and industry and at societal level.

In 2012, when the mining company Boliden installed the world's first Wi-Fi in a mine, it was world news. Being able to communicate digitally underground completely changed the conditions for production control, with advanced possibilities to, for example, control machines remotely, something that could lead to increased productivity as well as improved safety for the miners. Peter Burman, Programme Manager for Mine Automation at Boliden, also points out these new conditions as some of the single most important breakthroughs for the mining industry in several decades.

"Connectivity and positioning, that is being able to connect machines and people and also know where they are, have been fundamental," he summarises.

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Peter Burman, Programme Manager for Mine Automation at Boliden

He thinks the fact that Sweden has been a world leader in driving this development is down to our high salary costs, safety requirements and stricter environmental requirements. Requirements for increased productivity and a zero vision for work-related deaths in an industry that is traditionally associated with great risks for the employees and where the work in many less developed countries still puts the workers' lives at stake, have put the Swedish mining industry in a unique position.

"For many years, safety has been our top priority, together with higher productivity, and although personal injuries still occur, we can now say that it's safer to work in a Swedish mine than on a normal construction site," states Peter Burman.

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The Swedish mining industry has a long history of successful innovation which has had great significance for the mining industry in Sweden as well as globally. The image shows a selection of milestones.

PIMM paved the way for 5G

However, the mining company quickly became aware of the limitations of the first underground Wi-Fi network. When the telecom giant Ericsson was looking for partners in Swedish industry to apply telecom solutions in various industry branches, Boliden was therefore quick to raise its hand. The project that was set up, Pilot for Industrial Mobile communication in Mining (PIMM) is the reason why you have 5G coverage on your mobile when you take the lift down a Swedish mine shaft today.

Peter Burman believes that society's image of the Swedish mining industry has not kept up, as today it is a high-tech operation which, together with the rest of Swedish industry, influences the development of the mining industry throughout the globe. Alongside the mining companies themselves, large industrial players such as Sandvik, Epiroc, ABB and Volvo Construction Equipment are world-leading suppliers of various types of mining equipment many times over, and the innovation journey that the industry is on spans all branches in new and old industries.

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Control room at Aitik, Boliden. (Photo: Stefan Berg) Control room at Garpenberg, Boliden. Photo: (Tomas Westermark)

At the same time, becoming a sustainable industry is a top priority. Today, the mining and mineral industry accounts for around 8% of Sweden's total carbon dioxide emissions, but by 2045 production will be fossil-free according to the industry's "Roadmap for a sustainable mineral and mining industry", which was submitted to the government in April 2018.

Hydrogen to provide a fossil-free process

processes involved in the refining of iron ore, metals, lime and cement. In the refining process, existing technology will need to be developed and technology shifts will also take place, Peter Burman explains. The iron and steel industry led by SSAB, LKAB and Vattenfall is investing in hydrogen as a reducing agent in the HYBRIT project, but research and development are also needed to find solutions for fossil-free production of other metals and minerals.

On the other hand, a great deal of work is already being done to replace diesel-powered machines with electric ones.

"It is a challenge for our subcontractors when, for example, we have vehicles as big as houses that need a 19-metric ton battery to fulfill their purpose," says Peter Burman.

It is hoped that by transitioning to biofuel where electricity cannot be used, machines and internal transport will be fossil-free throughout the industry as early as 2035.

In addition to the automation and streamlining of mining, digitisation has also made it possible to optimise, for example, the ventilation of the mine galleries, which has made it possible to significantly reduce the total energy and fuel consumption.

Much remains for the mines of the future

However, while mineral and ore-mining has advanced rapidly and continues to develop at an even faster pace, we have only scratched the surface of what it is necessary – and possible – to achieve. ­That is what Lawrence Hooey, Technology and Innovation Manager at Swedish Mining Innovation, a strategic innovation programme initiated by Vinnova, the Swedish Energy Agency and Formas.

"The mine of the future is fossil-free and safe. No work that requires human presence will need to be carried out in the active mining areas. It is environmentally sustainable and can carry out its operations in harmony with the surrounding communities," summarises Lawrence Hooey.

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Lawrence Hooey, Swedish Mining Innovation. (Photo: Viveca Osterman)

The work required to get there is extensive, he notes, and on Swedish Mining Innovation's agenda there are projects and initiatives ranging from finding solutions to how local reindeer herders can herd their animals undisturbed by mining traffic, to developing high-tech solutions for recycling metals. The mining industry not only has to tackle the technological challenges and environmental goals, but also satisfy the local population and political agendas. Everyone wants metals, but no one wants a mine in their backyard. Various land interests are at odds with the mining companies' plans for expanded mining, which has led to lengthy disputes.

From finding solutions to how local reindeer herders can herd their animals undisturbed by mining traffic, to developing high-tech solutions for recycling metals

Environmental requirements elevated the mining industry

Since being considered as a business in liquidation at the end of the 20th century, it is precisely the increasing demands for a green transition that have put the mining industry high on the agenda in politics and industry. Green technology in the form of wind power, electric cars, charging infrastructure and solar cells etc. requires metals, and for that you need mines.

"We need to implement a shift towards a fossil-free mining industry and, at the same time, we need more and more metals. It's a challenging combination. We need society to understand the challenge. Nobody builds a mine because there are metals in the ground there. The mine is built to meet society's demands. There's basically no process in the world where metals are not involved," says Lawrence Hooey.

Green technology in the form of wind power, electric cars, charging infrastructure and solar cells etc. requires metals, and for that you need mines.

Europe is currently responsible for 3% of global metal production but consumes around 25%. Add to that the fact that basically all special metals that are often required in new technology are manufactured outside the EU, often in countries where the ethical and environmental requirements are far from Swedish standards. Cobalt and lithium, for example, are required for the production of high-performance batteries needed for climate-smart technology. The Democratic Republic of Congo accounts for 70% of global cobalt production, some of which comes from small-scale mining that is completely unregulated. China is the world's largest metal producer and the only country that produces rare earth metals, which are needed in wind power and electric car engines. The EU's import dependence is also increasing rapidly. When the European Commission's Raw Materials Initiative first published its list of critical raw materials in 2011, 14 metals and raw materials were on the list. With increased demand for more types of metals for new innovations, that list has now been expanded to include 30 raw materials. As regards the Russian metal sector, large parts of their exports are spared EU and US sanctions, as we simply cannot do without them. More supply-side options are needed, says Lawrence Hooey.

"China is a geopolitical risk and their production is neither transparent, ethical nor sustainable. And we see how a crisis like the Russian invasion of Ukraine can quickly overturn our systems. We need to develop greater resilience to risks of this kind," he says.

Swedish production on the agenda

A crucial issue is whether Sweden should expand mining by starting to extract metals that are not mined here today, on the one hand, and by expanding existing mining operations on the other hand. At present, mining operations mainly take place for the base metals copper, zinc and lead, as well as precious metals, and Sweden is also the EU's largest producer of iron ore. A piece of news that recently received a lot of attention was LKAB's announcement that the mining company had identified Europe's largest known deposit of rare earth metals in the Kiruna area. However, actual mining of the raw materials is approx. 10 to 15 years away.

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In connection with the inauguration of the Swedish presidency, LKAB's President and CEO, Jan Moström, announced that in Kiruna they had found Europe's largest deposit of rare earth metals to date. The photo shows Jan Moström and Minister for Energy, Business and Industry Ebba Busch at the inauguration. (Photo: LKAB)

One reason for the long lead times is the current process of approval. Advocates of expanded mining and the establishment of new mines are clear that an immediate review of the existing process is needed.

"The industry needs a predictable process of approval that allows a mine to open when we find resources, taking into account the local context and environment. We must find the right balance," says Lawrence Hooey.

However, for Lawrence Hooey it is mainly about how we can buy metals that are ethically produced, rather than where they come from. If production takes place in Swedish mines, environmental standards and ethical sustainability are among the highest in the world but, at the same time, Sweden and the EU as buyers can make demands on international production, which in turn can further development.

"In many areas, Sweden can play an important role thanks to our knowledge. However, it's important that we avoid hubris and look at how we can use our strengths and the strengths of others in collaboration. We're facing global challenges. Cooperation between clusters, trade and industry, research and universities and between countries is vital and by working towards our goals for the environment, society and equality, we can help further development by showing what can be achieved," he says.

A good example of these collaborations, according to Lawrence Hooey, is the work with the Canadian mining area Sudbury, in northern Ontario. The lands around the mining area were so damaged by the nickel mines and smelting plants that in the early 1970s they were used by NASA to train astronauts for lunar flights because the surface was as dead as the moon's. The name Sudbury became synonymous with serious levels of pollution. 40 years ago, extensive work was started by authorities, companies and academic institutes to clean up the poisoned lands and restore a functioning ecosystem. Recently, the 10 millionth tree was planted in a ceremonial manner, in the presence of British anthropologist Jane Goodall and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among others. The mining operations that still take place in the area today are conducted in a sustainable spirit.

"I've seen the dramatic change that the area has undergone with my own eyes. The lakes are recovering from acid rain damage and the city has been able to reforest what was once called the "moonscape". This work is noteworthy as it shows how it's possible to save nature that's been damaged in the history of mining operations and that the operations can continue in a sustainable and responsible way, in parallel with the clean-up," says Lawrence Hooey.

The importance of recycling is increasing

From the point of view of sustainability, recycling plays a fundamental role in the future of Swedish and global mining. 90% of iron ore and a large proportion of all copper that is mined is currently recycled. Boliden is the largest recycler of electrical scrap in Europe and LKAB's plans to build a fossil-free industrial park for the recycling of mining waste and the production of critical raw materials, known as the ReeMAP project, have attracted a lot of attention. However, the technology is still too immature for recycling special metals and for a long time new metals and minerals will have to be extracted from the Earth's crust since the metals that have been produced are in use.

"For example, the wind farms and solar panels that are being built today have a lifespan of around 20 years. Therefore, the production of new metal and minerals will be needed for the foreseeable future – there's nothing to recycle yet. However, we need to develop the technology and new innovations today to be able to handle recycling when it's needed," says Lawrence Hooey.

What does Vinnova do?

Vinnova supports development towards a more sustainable supply of metals and minerals by being active in all stages of production – from early prospecting, permits, mining, ore dressing, finishing, metallurgy and recycling. The view of the mining industry's role in a green transition is highly topical and the industry's journey of innovation has also been given top priority on political agendas.

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The image shows a selection of Vinnova-financed strategic initiatives in the 21st century which have paved the way for the mining industry's position and sustainable development.

Tommy Schönberg is an administrator at Vinnova and was responsible for the authority's role in the PIMM projects, offering a platform for knowledge exchange, development and demonstration. He works actively with projects regarding the advanced digitisation of Swedish industry.

"Digitisation is an enabler. Our role is to influence systems where market forces don't always have a clear incentive. This is noticeable, not least, in a project like PIMM, where stakeholders who've never otherwise worked with the mining industry became very important," says Tommy Schönberg, referring to how the software company Mobilaris went from being a start-up with a focus on traffic positioning systems, to becoming a major player in underground navigation with the help of the Vinnova-funded "Research and Grow" project, among other things.

An ongoing project credited with playing an important role in the journey of innovation towards fossil-free mining is NEXGEN SIMS, a project in the European research programme Horizon Europe. Vinnova was involved at an early stage in financing the consortium and project that were set up, and NEXGEN SIMS has so far received the equivalent of around SEK 250 million from the EU. Pontus Westrin is an administrator at Vinnova and emphasises that Vinnova's role and scope are not to contribute large sums, but to make strategically targeted efforts, be able to anticipate future needs and also to act in times when the issue is a low priority from a social perspective.

"In the case of NEXGEN SIMS, Vinnova's funding and mobilisation enabled preliminary studies, development projects and planning grants prior to the work. But our role is also to invest early and strategically. By collaborating on a widespread scale and having insight into industry conditions and the 2030 Agenda, we can direct our efforts to better capture key technologies, policy input and social innovation. Several success stories begin with Vinnova's financing enabling risk-taking and collaboration across silos and industries. Now that the EU is presenting the Critical Raw Materials Act against the backdrop of the geopolitical situation, Vinnova and Sweden are very well positioned to meet the demands and issues raised," says Pontus Westrin.

Which projects concerning the mining industry are of interest to Vinnova today?

"We're involved in a number of projects, all with some kind of connection to sustainability. These include, Arctic Tests, a sustainable, open mine testbed in an arctic environment, for the environment, people and minerals. Through the strategic innovation programme, Swedish Mining Innovation, for example, we fund a project on how better regulations and practice can be developed to strengthen social sustainability in connection with mining industries where indigenous people live and work. Through our participation in ERA-MIN, part of the EU's ERA-NET, we have funded projects that aim to develop more efficient methods for recycling valuable materials from used lithium batteries. Technology like this will be extremely important for the green transition, on the one hand because the production of new lithium in particular is very land-intensive and has a large environmental impact, and on the other hand because the demand for lithium and graphite is expected to increase by 500% between 2018 and 2050, according to the World Bank.


It is a challenge for our subcontractors when, for example, we have vehicles as big as houses that need a 19-metric ton battery to fulfill their purpose.

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Truck at Aitik, Boliden (Photo: Stefan Berg)

What is system innovation?

To create the prerequisites for a sustainable future, comprehensive changes are required at all levels. Innovations alone do not lead to the social change that is needed. System innovation involves change in society's entire social and technical system and occurs as a result of small and large-scale changes.

Innovation on a widespread scale for a sustainable future

Last updated 30 May 2023

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