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Major EU funding for raw materials research at Uppsala University

2017-10-10

The bioreactor in Kiruna which is now being scaled up in the NITREM project.

Three EU projects that include Uppsala University, one of which is led from Uppsala University in the EIT RawMaterials innovation initiative, have recently been awarded funding for the period of 2018–2021. The budget for the project led by Uppsala University is EUR 4.8 million, of which EUR 2.5 million will be financed by participating mining company LKAB.

The Nitrogen Removal from Waste Rock (NITREM) project is led by Roger Herbert at the Department of Earth Sciences at Uppsala University. Other project participants are researchers from SLU and the Spanish state’s highest scientific council, CSIC; mining companies LKAB and Boliden; and consulting firms WSP and Cedervall Arkitekter. NITREM is based on a formerly Vinnova-supported project with a focus on nitrogen removal from mine waste, primarily from waste rock.

Roger Herbert

“My doctoral student Albin Nordström and I have worked in Kiruna for two years with a pilot-scale plant to remove nitrogen from the water,” says Roger Herbert. “This bioreactor worked so well both for us and for LKAB that we decided to seek funding for a full-scale plant.” 

Innovative bioreactor technology

EIT RawMaterials is one of the initiatives in the European Institute of Innovation and Technology EU partnership, which will contribute to innovation and entrepreneurship in the raw materials sector. The goal of NITREM is to bring a technology to the market that can be commercialised.

“We have three years to build and study this plant in Kiruna. The ultimate goal is for this to lead to more job opportunities in the EU and to technical development in the mining industry in Sweden,” says Roger Herbert.

Some of the funds will go to building a so-called waste rock disposal area for dumping waste rock from ore mining. A nitrogen-rich leachate will be produced in the disposal area, which will be treated and purified in a number of adjacent bioreactors. Roger Herbert is primarily a hydrologist and hydro-chemist.

“As Uppsala-based researchers, our expertise is in how water flows in these systems and the chemical processes that take place in them. We understand the water flow and which chemical and physical processes occur both in the disposal areas and in the bioreactors. The problem of nitrogen leakage exists all over the world, not just in mines, but also in quarries and in the process of tunnel construction,” explains Roger Herbert. “Even when blasting into a mountain in conjunction with building the Stockholm Bypass.”

“The difference between Sweden and other countries is that we are at the cutting edge when it comes to environmental monitoring and environmental legislation. The environmental agencies have set requirements for mining companies here in Sweden, especially for LKAB in Kiruna, to reduce their nitrogen emissions.”

Energy-efficient operations

“NITREM’s project budget is EUR 4.8 million, which is around SEK 50 million. Of this, LKAB accounts for EUR 2.5 million. This is a necessary investment for the mining industry, but it’s also advantageous because operating costs for the bioreactor technology are extremely low,” says Roger Herbert.

“The actual purification isn’t energy-intensive at all; we have no pumps, no electricity – the water just runs naturally through the system. The costs are in building and supervision, but the actual operation involves no electricity consumption.”

What do you hope this work will lead to?

“It would be great if the actual technology had a broader spread, so that we could have the chance to apply it in other areas as well. The other is more research-related: we want to gain a better understanding of both the water flow in these systems and even the governing microbiological processes in the bioreactors. I hope we get this by building a larger plant that can be studied for a longer time.”

Uppsala University is part of one of Europe’s larger raw materials consortia under the auspices of the EU’s biggest innovation initiative for the raw materials sector, the European Institute for Innovation and Technology (EIT) RawMaterials. All university projects are included in EIT RawMaterials’ so-called Knowledge and Innovation Communities (KICs): a network of companies, research centres and universities that collaborate in projects with business or other social benefits.