Industrial ecology is far more than a series of individual projects. It has its roots in a theory of material and energy flows established in the 1980s when researchers first pulled together a variety of disciplines, including engineering, economics and sociology, to gain a better understanding of industrial processes and the use of natural resources.
Article from resourceful: Issue 8, November 2015
"The earliest work in industrial ecology was in undertaking mass balances of the flow of material, considering questions such as how much have we dug up, how much is currently in the economy, how much will we lose, and how much do we need to replace", explains Chris Vernon, Research Director of Processing Australian Ores at CSIRO Mineral Resources.
One of the earliest examples of industrial ecology being put into practice was at the Kalundborg Eco-industrial park in Denmark which grew up around a coal-fired power station with an assortment of industries feeding off each other.
Surplus heat from the power plant is used in nearby homes. Sulphur dioxide from the plants scrubbers contain gypsum that is used to make wallboard. Fly ash is used in road building and cement production and surplus steam used in a pharmaceutical plant.
Interesting as industrial ecology ideas are to some in the resources industry they may appear to have more to do with environmentalism than the hard-nosed business of discovery and mine development.
One way for the mining industry to gain a greater understanding of industrial ecology, according to Dr Vernon, is to consider a fundamental question of how much copper there is in the world, where it is, how best to utilise what’s in the ground, and whether what is being used above ground is available for future recycling.
"Copper is an ideal example because we know how much is being mined and we can estimate how much is used in telephone cables and power lines. What we need to know is how much will be lost and how much is available for recycling."
The answer to the copper question could have an effect on the future demand for freshly-mined copper and, theoretically, its future price.
It is a similar question with rare earths - that odd family of elements with unique properties that are indispensable in high strength magnets and other technology applications.
Perhaps the ultimate question for an industrial ecologist is, once the information is gathered, what can you do with it?
When talking with an audience in Germany about their concern for future national supply of rare earths, Dr Vernon suggested they undertake flow studies to track these metals.
"For example, if you're using 10,000 tonnes of a metal then find out where it is going, and how to re-use it."
Electric cars, a novelty today, will almost certainly become the focus of a future industrial ecology program because of their heavy use of rare earths. Each vehicle uses between 10 and 15 kilograms of rare earths in magnets and a large amount of lithium.
"Recovery of that material makes sense but it could be 10 years before an electric car or a wind turbine returns for scrapping or for the recycling of its component parts," Dr Vernon said.
"The point is that we know that a valuable resource is being created in electric cars and wind turbines and planning should start now for the eventual return of that material in a process which will affect how much will need to be mined in the future."