CERN, as an international research organization with a considerable impact on our society, can play a role in development of advanced technologies that could help the society to tackle the challenges linked to sustainability and environmental protection. The feasibility study for a post-LHC particle collider, like the proposed Future Circular Colliders (FCCs), provides a unique space to explore ideas that could tackle the colossal challenge of a more sustainable future and test technologies that can find application beyond particle physics.
To that direction, CERN and the Montanuniversität Leoben in Austria, with the support of the EU-funded H2020 FCCIS project, launched the international competition Mining the Future®. In line with the principles of a circular economy, the challenge was to identify credible solutions for the innovative reuse and sustainable management of the large quantities of molasse material expected during the construction phase of a new research infrastructure. “Solutions presented for the construction of new underground tunnels to host future colliders, could also apply on other future tunnel and underground civil engineering projects. CERN has a long-standing record of pioneering technical solutions that are put to good use in areas lying beyond its core scientific mission” says Johannes Gutleber who devised this competition.
Mining the Future® was launched in May 2021. During the first phase of the competition, twelve solid proposals were submitted by consortia made up of academic and industrial partners asking for ideas for the reuse of this material. Among the proposed solutions, one can find techniques for using multiple excavation methods resulting in an unpolluted excavation material along with a minimal production of residues, an innovative soil engineering concept to reclaim the molasses excavated during the FCC project. Other classes of solutions focus on developing fast and efficient sorting processes enabling the reuse of the excavated material for the creation of marketable projects that can cover regional needs or feed the European marketplace along with the tools for connecting supply with demand. Innovative proposals also concern methods for transforming the excavated molasses into construction materials or going even further to propose smart construction techniques based on the immediate reuse of molasses.
These proposals were reviewed by a panel of internationally renowned experts, taking into account technological readiness, innovative potential and socioeconomic impact. The four shortlisted proposals entered stage two, getting the opportunity to further refine their proposals thus championing circular business models that could gain traction for a new particle physics research infrastructure and beyond.
By keeping excavated materials in play, circular economy models offer a clear pathway toward achieving our collective climate goals, and tackling the greenhouse gas emissions tied to the extraction, processing, manufacturing and landfilling of natural resources. The Mining the Future competition proved that in the long path towards the FCCs, there are plenty of opportunities for developing new construction models that can create economic value, build local resilience and spur innovation across sectors. The proposed solutions for the treatment of excavation material not only minimize the impact of future construction activities in the region but have a wider contribution in transforming Europe into a more competitive and resource-efficient economy.
During a special ceremony held at CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation, the winner of the competition were announced. BG Ingénieurs Conseil and its partners with the proposal “Molasses is the new ore” will receive support for further R&D efforts and business planning to bring their technology to the market. In order to overcome the challenge of the undefined petrographic composition of molasse, the consortium led by BG Ingenieurs proposes to use online flow analysis, already used in cement plants, to immediately identify the excavated materials for further processing. Their proposal is informed by the need for a paradigm shift that would treat excavated material from construction projects not as waste that needs to be managed by increasingly as raw materials; a paradigm shift serving both environmental objectives and efficiency targets.
The other three shortlisted proposals, presented during the event are in alphabetical order:
- “CER3N: Recycle, Reinvent, Revalorize Molassic excavated materials by harnessing digital & sorting tech” submitted by Amberg and its partners;
- “Building the Future with compressed earth bricks” by Briques Concept Technique and Arcadis; and
- "From Waster to Soil Mineral Waste Reclamation to fertile soil materials” lead by EDAPHOS Engineering in partnership with Induni, Microhumus and Mont-Blanc valorisation.