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Innovation in managing excavated materials: an FCC contribution to the circular economy

First phase of CERN’s “Mining the Future” competition successfully completed


Mining the future
(Image: CERN)

A key recommendation of last year’s update to the European Strategy for Particle Physics is that Europe, in collaboration with the worldwide community, should undertake a feasibility study for a next-generation hadron collider. As a result, the Future Circular Collider (FCC) Feasibility Study is committed to investigating the technical and financial viability of such a facility at CERN.

The feasibility study for the FCC provides a unique space to explore ideas that could tackle the colossal challenge of achieving a more sustainable future and to test technologies with applications beyond particle physics.

To that end, CERN and the Montanuniversität Leoben in Austria launched the international competition Mining the Future with the support of the EU-funded Horizon 2020 FCC Innovation Study project. In line with circular economy principles, the challenge set for the participants was to identify credible solutions for the innovative reuse and sustainable management of the large quantities of molasse material that would be excavated during the construction phase of the future FCC tunnel. Such rock deposits are abundant in the Geneva region and all over the Alps.

“The solutions put forward for the construction of new underground tunnels to host future colliders could also apply to 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,” said CERN’s Johannes Gutleber.

Phase 1 of Mining the Future ran from 1 May to 31 October. Applicants from all over Europe stepped up to tackle this challenge, submitting high-quality proposals with huge innovation potential. Young researchers, fresh start-ups, universities and traditional players from the construction industry formed consortia to develop their strategies. Each of the proposals addresses both the technical feasibility – with participants presenting evidence from a controlled laboratory environment – and the socio-economic impact.

Some of the solutions focus on developing fast and efficient sorting processes enabling the reuse of the excavated material for the creation of marketable products. These products can then cover regional needs or feed the European marketplace – participants went as far as providing the tools for connecting supply with demand. Other innovative proposals are dedicated to the elaboration of methods for transforming the excavated molasse into construction materials or alternatively, proposing smart construction techniques based on the immediate reuse of molasse.

By keeping excavated materials in play, circular economy models offer a clear pathway towards achieving our collective climate goals and reducing greenhouse gas emissions linked to the extraction, processing, manufacturing and landfilling of natural resources. “Tunnel excavation material is, too often, still treated as waste. Change needs to come in the form of both new technical solutions and an updated legal framework. Everyone can benefit from a green underground infrastructure,” said Professor Robert Galler, co-organiser of the competition and chair of the jury committee.

Over the coming months, the jury committee will carefully evaluate the applications. This second stage of this contest will offer participants the opportunity to refine their proposals. The final winner will be announced in August 2022, with an award ceremony to take place next October at ZaB-Zentrum am Berg, Austria.

On the long path towards the FCC, the Mining the Future competition is a resolute first step towards the development of new construction models that create economic value, build local resilience and spur innovation across sectors.