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INESC TEC participates in European project to explore minerals under water

INESC TEC is participating in a €12,6M H2020 project where the goal is to explore underwater mines. This will be a unique opportunity to explore Europe’s underwater mineral resources using safer and more environmentally friendly techniques.

€12,6M pioneer project is being developed as part of the Horizon 2020 Programme

INESC TEC, Minerália and EDM are the three Portuguese partners in project ¡VAMOS!

The Research and Development (I&D) project ¡VAMOS! (Viable Alternative Mine Operating System), which started in February, will have a duration of 42 months and involves three partners in Portugal: INESC TEC, Minerália and Empresa de Desenvolvimento Mineiro (EDM, mining company).

The goal is to develop technology, namely a robotic prototype for underwater exploration and the associated launching and collecting equipment, which will make it possible to mine deposits of raw materials. These are usually called “open-cast mines,” in which the minerals are distributed vertically.

The majority of these mines have been abandoned over the last decades, not only for the economic unsustainability of the techniques available VS the richness of the deposit and the market price variations, but also due to the environmental unsustainability caused by the continuous occupation of these spaces by factories and housing.


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What was the context for ¡VAMOS! ?

Over the last years, some organisations (companies, R&D institutes and higher education institutions) in this consortium have worked together to develop technologies that make it possible to mine underwater environments remotely.

Most of these organisations had already made the commitment to work with the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) for raw materials. For that reason, when a call for applications was launched as part of the H2020 to incentivise mining in Europe, this consortium was already prepared to submit a research proposal in this area.

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Tests will be conducted in four different locations in Europe

The technologies will be tested in two locations in Portugal, more specifically at the S. Domingos mine in Alentejo, and in the Bejanca mine in central Portugal, near the surf at the coast of St. Ives Bay in the United Kingdom, and in Vareš in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, the teams believe that these technologies will be explored in the future throughout Europe and all over the world.

The importance of doing underwater mining on land

“The mines where we will be applying this technology are those where minerals are distributed vertically or semi-vertically, and simultaneously have a very high groundwater level. For us to be able to collect the material to be processed we need to take large amounts of unwanted material, and for the extraction team to access deeper levels we need to continuously pump water from the mine. Consequently, the unwanted material and the pumped water are deposited in tailings dams, which pose great environmental threats as time goes by,” states Eduardo Silva, coordinator of INESC TEC’s Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CROB) and representative of INESC TEC in project ¡VAMOS!.


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But there are other advantages to using this type of technology, such as:

- The danger of accidents occurring or workers being exposed to hazardous environments no longer exists, as this work is done remotely;

- It is no longer necessary to carry out explosions to access the material to be extracted. This way, the structure of the mine’s walls is not damaged, and neighbouring populations will not be disturbed by noises and vibrations.

- It is no longer necessary to use large logistic means to operate the mine.

- Because the operations occur under water, populations are not disturbed by dust.

- Discharges of water from the mine and other hydrological problems are prevented.

According to Eduardo Silva, there are other economic and technical advantages that will be clear as time goes by after the solution is implemented.


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INESC TEC know-how

“In this project, INESC TEC will not only improve the perception, navigation, positioning and spatial awareness technology for underwater environments, but also provide an integrated solution to monitor, in real time, the parameters which have an environmental impact,” the researcher explains.

EDM and Minerália are responsible for providing access to two testing locations in an underwater mine on land in Portugal.

Annually, Europe imports 200 million tonnes of minerals

The fundamental idea behind the ¡VAMOS! is the fact that most mineral deposits in Europe are in aquifer levels. This technique makes it possible to remotely operate the equipment, without affecting phreatic surface. With this method, it will be possible to explore inaccessible deposits, and abandoned, flooded or new mines.

“Europe has a history of mining, but deeper areas are still unexplored. The value of unexplored mineral resources in Europe at a depth between 500 and a thousand metres is about 100 billion euros,” Eduardo Silva stresses.

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The European Union uses between 25 and 30 per cent of metals in the world, but the extraction of metals in the EU represents only three per cent of the world population. It is believed that Europe imports 200 million tonnes of minerals annually.

“Europe depends on other areas of the globe for minerals: about 74 per cent for copper, 86 per cent for nickel, and 100 per cent for minerals such as antimony, cobalt or tungsten, among many others,” the researcher explains.

Consortium includes 17 partners

Coordinated by the BMT Group Ltd and technically managed by Soil Machine Dynamics Ltd, the project will be developed by a consortium of 17 partners from nine European countries – INESC TEC, Minerália Lda and Empresa de Desenvolvimento Mineiro SA (Portugal), Soil Machine Dynamics Ltd, Fugro EMU Limited, Marine Minerals Ltd (United Kingdom), Damen Shipyards Group and Trelleborg Ede Bv (Netherlands), Zentrum für Telematik e.V. and Sandvik Mining and Construction G.m.b.H (Germany), Montanuniversität Leoben (Austria), Geological survey of Slovenia (Slovenia), La Palma Research Centre for Future Studies (Spain), European Federation of Geologists (Belgium), Federalni zavod za Geologijo and Fondacija za obnovu I razvoj regije Vareš (Bosnia and Herzegovina).

This European Consortium involves a team of 100 technical and research staff.

At INESC TEC, the project is led by CROB, coordinated by Eduardo Silva, with the participation of the Centre for Applied Photonics (CAP).

The INESC TEC researchers mentioned in this article are associated with the following partner institutions: IPP.

Photo Credits:

- Cover photo – Mineweb

- Photos 1,4, 5, 7 – Flickr

- Photo 2 – Dinheiro Digital

- Photo 3 – Sul informação

- Photo 6 – LSA/ISEP

- Photo 8 - Nautilus Minerals Inc

- Photo 9  – Project ¡VAMOS!

- Photo 11 – The Global Mail

INESC TEC, March 2015

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