Research Professor Tero Niiranen Focuses on Developing Mineral Systems Modelling – “Research should benefit society”

PhD Tero Niiranen was appointed Research Professor at the Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) in ore geology in November this year. The new research professor believes in the interaction between bedrock geology and ore geology, as well as the cooperation of different research areas. “Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of my work is that we can produce the kind of knowledge and services that society and stakeholders expect of us. I wouldn’t want to do research just for the joy of it – I want the work to benefit others as well.”

Research Professor in ore geology, Tero Niiranen. Photo: Geological Survey of Finland GTK.

How did you become interested in geology?

Tero Niiranen: I actually ended up in geology by accident. I was always interested in science, so I first applied to university to study biology. It was very difficult to get in, and geology was therefore my backup plan. I didn’t get accepted to study biology, which in hindsight was a good thing. I got in to study geology and found my studies interesting.

I wasn’t interested in any specific field back then, but geology as a whole became more and more interesting as I progressed in my studies. Geology is an interesting subject in the university in that it practically gives you a vocational degree.

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Turku and got my master’s degree in 2000. I then started work on my dissertation about iron oxide-copper gold deposits in Finland. I received my doctorate from the University of Helsinki in December 2005.

What were your first duties at GTK, and what kind of projects have you worked on?

I started at GTK as a senior scientist in Mineral Economy in 2008. That means I’ve worked here for 15 years next spring. Before GTK, I worked as a geologist at a junior mineral exploration company for three years. GTK’s Bedrock and ore geology unit had begun using more bedrock 3D modelling, and modelling expertise was in high demand.

I’ve been a sort of jack of all trades at GTK. I have done a lot of 3D modelling in bedrock and ore geology and a lot of mineral potential assesment. In the last few years, I learnt to use prospectivity analysis methods and have been part of several related projects.

What makes finding and using mineral deposits challenging at the moment?

In Finland, the challenge is that we do not have many bedrock outcrops. Only a few percent are outcrops – the rest is covered by soil features. We lack a direct view of most of the bedrock, and we have to use indirect methods to find mineral deposits.

Globally, and this includes Finland, it is apparent that the number of significant discoveries are decreasing all the time. This is simply to do with the fact that the so-called easy deposits have already been discovered. Not necessarily everywhere, and there have been significant discoveries in Finland as well, but they are clearly becoming rarer. These deposits can still be found in Finland, but they are indeed covered by soil features such as peatland, till, or water.

So is it a global phenomenon that easy deposits have begun to dwindle, and new ones are more difficult to utilise, meaning they’re either deeper, or in sensitive areas, or more high-risk?

That’s correct. Production must be financially sound, and the deposit must have enough valuable material that can be mined and beneficiated. There are regions in the world that have been actively explored for ore for 100–150 years. They’re still making discoveries, but in practice, this means you have to go deeper, which is more expensive and the economic risk is higher.

In Finland, we haven`t explored all the mineral potential – not even close. We have very few regions that have been explored on a scale comparable to the some of the geologically similar areas e.g. in Australia and Canada.

How does research contribute to finding larger and deeper mineral deposits?

We gather materials with many different methods, and geophysics plays an important role here. In Finland, we also generally use the methods of till geochemistry which are efficient, as are other geochemical methods.

By combining and interpreting the materials collected with these methods, we can create a picture that tells us what each feature in the materials means in terms of geology and mineral exploration. This of course requires geological knowledge and skills. In practice, the deposit is verified ultimately by drilling because it is unlikely that there are any deposits in Finland that can be verified by observation alone.

Drones have become more prevalent in research. What about in mineral exploration?

Drones are used more often now. Especially in geophysics measurements such as airborne magnetic measurements, drones are increasingly used at GTK as well. It is not useful to map out very large areas with drones, but they are cost-effective, quick and efficient in areas where we don’t want to use aircraft.

Data collected with drones are good enough, but drones cannot replace all the methods of geophysics at the moment. For example, electronic methods and radioactivity measurements are difficult because the weight of the devices and practical arrangements are problematic. But these methods are being developed as we speak. It’s now routine to use drones for magnetic measurements.

The green transition requires base metals as well as so-called Critical Raw Materials (CRM) such as rare earths. There’s a consensus that the need for critical raw materials will increase, but the scale of the demand is unclear.

Turning to the broader picture of mineral raw materials, what is being produced at the moment, what should be produced, and what raw materials do we need in the future?

The money used in global mineral exploration gives us a good insight of the activities. Globally, 60% of the funds go to gold exploration, which may come as a surprise. Then, about 20% of the funds are used for the exploration of base metals such as copper, nickel, zinc, and lead. That is, more than 80% is spent on gold and base metals, and the rest is invested in everything else.

Society still needs large quantities of base metals, for example copper.

The steady and sufficient supply of critical raw materials that are sustainably utilised is highlighted in public discussion. What are your observations from the perspective of ore geology?

The green transition requires base metals as well as so-called Critical Raw Materials (CRM) such as rare earths. There’s a consensus that the need for critical raw materials will increase, but the scale of the demand is unclear.

Currently, we don’t even have enough critical raw materials to recycle. Everything has to be mined first so we can create products and eventually recycle them. Recycling is great and should be encouraged, but we can currently replace practically no mineral raw materials entirely with recycling or even meet demand in a way that would eradicate the need for primary production.

What makes recycling mineral raw materials so difficult?

It doesn’t actually have to be difficult. Some metals are already recycled very efficiently. For example, the figure is about 90% with lead. The figure is high for copper as well. But if you think about the life cycle of a product or an item such as railway rails, the life cycle of the product may be up to 100 years. When the product is ready to be reused, that iron would have been in demand elsewhere several times over. With smart devices the cycle can be very short. I believe the average replacement rate of smart phones in Finland is two years.

Some critical raw materials and devices present a real challenge for successful recycling. Of course, recycling also requires a lot of energy, which is another problem. On the other hand, primary production takes up a lot of energy as well, so it is a balancing act between different requirements.

What is mineral systems modelling, and how does it make finding and using mineral resources more efficient?

The mineral systems concept was initially presented in the 1990s. It is a holistic approach to the formation of ore deposits which is a dynamic geological process. Mineral systems modelling aims to recognise all the critical elements involved in the ore formation process. Depending on the type of the deposit, the ore formation process may take thousands or even tens of thousands of years, and this leaves certain traces in the bedrock. Mineral systems modelling recognizes and outlines critical units, structures and associated rock types related to the ore formation process. We can thus outline the most prospective areas where we should find deposits.

When we combine enough of these features, we can outline the most prospective areas more efficiently, which also feeds into cost-effectiveness. This means we can avoid mineral exploration in regions that do not show enough potential, which is also better for the environment.

Mineral systems modelling does not require 3D modelling, but it’s a good tool. Modelling software has made giant leaps in this respect. In my own experience, 3D thinking is a must if one wants to understand the geological features of the bedrock properly.

The EU is preparing the Critical Raw Materials Act in exceptional geopolitical circumstances. How do you see the future of the EU’s mineral raw materials in terms of availability?

I think the Act is an important message to society about the criticality of mineral raw materials. Europe is finally facing facts. Currently, there is no absolute shortage of anything, but Europe is a big net importer of almost every mineral raw material. The production of critical raw materials is a global business. There is cause for worry if, for example, China starts to limit their exports. Western countries have definitely noticed this.

To return to the global mineral exploration budget, Canada has the most investments, amounting to 20%. Australia comes in second, with about the same amount. The United States has 10%, and Latin America as a whole 20%. Western Europe has a 3% share. Europe is a small player, but we use a lot of mineral raw materials. This is one of the reasons why the Critical Raw Materials Act aims to increase activities in Europe. To its credit, the Act also considers secondary raw materials and circular economies, not only primary production.

Finland and the entire Fennoscandian Shield (Finland, Sweden, and Norway) are an exceptional region because we have high ore potential and opportunities for mineral exploration and mining. In Central Europe, it would be very difficult, because there is not enough space or social licence to operate. For example, it’s very difficult to start a new mining operation in Germany. The same applies to France. On the other hand, both countries have a lot of important industry, like car industries, that use large quantities of mineral raw materials. There’s obviously a moral contradiction here.

Where do the EU’s mineral raw materials come from? China?

Not necessarily China – not even most of them. It depends on what mineral raw material is in question. If we think of copper, the global focus in production is probably somewhere around Chile and Peru. Australia also produces a lot of metals, as does Canada. The global production of minerals is decentralised. China is a large exporter of many raw materials, but also a large importer – e.g. Australia exports a lot of iron ore to China. The global picture is not simple.

What about Africa and its mining sector? And how does the situation in Ukraine affect the availability of chemical elements?

Africa’s share of the global budget has been a steady 8%. It’s small considering Africa is a large continent with enormous natural resources. There is production e.g. in South Africa and Congo, but the problems with Congo’s cobalt industry are widely recognised. Africa is a difficult region to operate in for international companies because the country risks are often high. China has recently made big investments in Africa, and we can assume that there is an interest in raw materials behind this.

Russia is also rich in mineral raw materials. They have traditionally exported a lot of chrome and especially nickel, and platinum metals in general. The sanctions imposed on Russia have no doubt affected exports and increased production demands elsewhere.

How will GTK develop research into mineral potential, bedrock geology and mineral resources in the future?

GTK has changed a lot in the last 10 to 15 years. We’ve moved from reporting new individual prospects to the ministry to the so-called thematic mapping of interesting regions. We have been moving to broader scale mineral potential mapping and outlining the most prospective zones from traditional prospecting and targeting work.

Our work is in between what universities do and what exploration and mining companies do. In terms of development, we’re heading towards larger scale thematic work, outlining the critical mineral systems elements and using them to map the most prospective areas in a belt scale. This requires close cooperation between bedrock geology, geophysics, and ore geology. We’ve progressed towards more co-operative work between different disciplines in geosciences and towards big-picture thinking. I think that’s a natural and reasonable way to benefit society and our stakeholders.