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Sustainable future coming

With a digital technology leap, Swedish tech company Orexplore offers new possibilities for Swedish mining to become more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable.

As early as in the 1990’s, geoengineer Anders Ullberg questioned the traditional method used by the mining industry to map minerals and elements in rock. Ullberg believed the process to be ineffective and have too much of an ecological footprint. In addition, only a small portion of each drill sample was analysed. During the 2000’s, Ullberg and his business partner, radiology professor Ragnar Kullenberg, devoted themselves to developing X-ray technology that would make mapping faster, contain more information and be more environmentally sustainable. 2010 Ullberg and Kullenberg patented their technology. The same year Orexplore was founded and Kevin Rebenius was brought in as CEO.

The drill samples would be X-rayed on site at the mine and, unlike with the traditional process, the entire drill sample would be examined. New software would then allow geologists, for the first time ever, to see straight through the sample and analyse it”.

Data-rich block models

Orexplore’s process would revolutionise the value chain by providing continuous high-resolution unbiased mineral information in near real-time. With access to more information, the mine can make more informed decisions, dynamically plan drill holes where they add most value, and resource models can be made more accurate using data-rich block models. Apart from the aim to increase mining operation’s profits, an improved mining process leads to a smaller environmental footprint. However, in the beginning of the 2010’s, the available instruments were not powerful enough to detect gold in a drill sample at the required speed. Instead, the company re-focused and started developing a machine for the base metal industry, mapping minerals and elements, being within reach for the technology at the time.

On the threshold of a revolution

Today, almost ten years later, Orexplore has caught up with its vision and is once again on the threshold of a revolution. At the head office in Kista in Stockholm, a GeoCore X10 production line has been built. The X-ray machine can be set up at the mine and in just a few minutes X-ray a one-metre drill sample. The company has also developed Orexplore Insight, a tool to work with tomographic 3D images, linear and planar geological structures, particle sizes and distributions, density etc. The drill core becomes available in a digital archive, a Virtual Core Farm for straight forward integration with ore modelling software.

“Now, the time is right. You have to remember that the mining industry has mapped minerals using the same principles for hundreds of years. Sustainability is higher on the agenda now, and we have a crying need for what is called rare earth metals. Metals that are required for electric car batteries, for example. Technology that can find more metals in a faster and more sustainable way is more important than ever”, says Mikael Bergqvist, R&D Manager at Orexplore.

Sweden has the metals

Today, China accounts for about 90 percent of the production of the 17 metals classified by the EU as strategic metals. But the rare earth metals are not only found in China. Sweden has all of them, and one of the richest ore deposits is located in Gränna in southern Sweden. A deposit that is believed to contain 20 percent of the world market’s need for yttrium, often used by the laser industry. But for the time being, planning has been stopped.

“The traditional views stand in the way for mining in Gränna. Opening a mine there is believed to affect the environment too much. But if the process was to be carried out in a modern way using more efficient mapping and surgical-like methods, I think the metals could be excavated with very good control over environmental impacts”, Bergqvist continues

At Orexplore, we believe that from an economic, environmental and social perspective, it is better to extract minerals in a controlled manner in our own country. Today, we don’t take responsibility for where the Cobolt for electric cars is mined. It could very well be by child labour in the Congo”, Rebenius adds.

A more attractive industry

The term “mineral shame” does not yet exist. But the fact is that the mining industry has to act on sustainability. Yes, sustainability is about leaving smaller ecological footprints and being a good corporate citizen. It is also the way to gain acceptance in society, attracting future generations to the industry and ensuring that green tech minerals are made available, crucial for the transformation to renewable energy production.

“To us, it's also about social sustainability, knowing that the metals have been extracted in a decent way. Our technological leap means facilitating sustainability. And not least, we make the industry attractive to a new green generation – one that will not set foot near the industry unless it becomes much more sustainable on all levels”.