German scientists are using drones to discover the raw materials needed to create an energy efficient future, with the goal of environmentally-benign exploration.

While the need for coal, oil and gas is decreasing, the raw materials needed to make energy efficient systems – wind turbines and solar panels, battery and hydrogen storage – are still required. Metals such as copper, cobalt, platinum-group metals and rare-earth elements are in short supply.

“In the new energy technologies, we largely use the same raw materials as we do for other high-tech products,” says Jens Gutzmer, Director at the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology (HIF), which is affiliated to the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf, a leading research laboratory specialising in matter and energy. “Because Germany has essentially no mining industry of its own and the recycling rates for raw materials like rare-earth elements or indium, tellurium, gallium and germanium are very low, Germany is dependent to a very high degree on imports of metalliferous raw materials and intermediates.”

The German government has therefore created a raw materials strategy, which includes: improving access and monitoring of raw material; supporting research into raw materials and substitution, as well as transparency and good governance in raw materials production. This has included the establishment of the HIF, as well as a German Mineral Resources Agency (DERA) at the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resource, and an Inter-Ministerial Committee on raw materials.

“By exploring, continuing to develop mining, and processing technologies and with increasing market prices, geopotentials and resources can be transformed into reserves,” Gutzmer adds.

Richard Gloaguen, head of the Exploration Division at HIF, and his team of 20 researchers have been investigating how mineral raw material exploration can be conducted in a socially-acceptable context, using non-invasive methods to minimise environmental and noise pollution.

Rather than diggers and pneumatic hammers, they have developed a series of drones equipped with high-performance cameras and sensors to map the Earth’s surface and point out indicators for the presence of raw materials below ground.

The cameras and sensors on the drones capture the sun’s reflection from the Earth’s surface. Because minerals reflect the sunlight with their own particular characteristics, the spectrum of reflected light may be interpreted in terms of mineralogy. “Our color sensors capture far more than red, yellow and blue in all their different nuances and can thus read the signature of the respective minerals,” says Gloaguen.

Another method includes measuring magnetism and electrical resistance, differentiating iron-rich minerals from the surrounding rock. In addition, drones bearing laser-induced fluorescence sensors, illuminate the material from the sky with a laser beam to explore the fluorescence in the material.

“This is all made possible by very high-performance data processing which already exploits the potential of machine-learning and artificial intelligence,” Gloaguen says. “We want to use it to support the geologists’ work and provide them with three-dimensional images of the areas explored. Together with them and in close cooperation with sociologists we can develop scenarios for extracting raw materials in a socially and environmentally-friendly way. Above all, we can tell people in the areas affected exactly what exploiting the raw materials will mean for them and for nature, which methods will be used and what the geologists on the spot will have to reckon with.”

The development has caught the attention of the mining community worldwide. The European Union has assigned Gloaguen’s division a leading role in coordinating the recently-launched EU project INFACT (Innovative Non-Invasive Fully Acceptable Exploration Technologies). Over the next three years, the project partners will investigate the potential of exploration that is not only highly efficient, but also environmentally and socially benign.


(via  HZDR magazine, The Guardian)

Featured image: Researchers at HZDR in Germany are developing more environmentally-friendly resource exploration. Photograph: Tina Schulz/HZDR