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Winner of the “Mining the Future” competition announced

From brick-building to online flow analyses, ideas abound for sustainable reuse of excavated material from a tunnel for a potential future CERN facility thanks to the “Mining the Future” competition held as part of the FCC Innovation Study.

Mining the future ceremony
The “Mining the Future” award ceremony, where four shortlisted proposals for the reuse of excavated material were announced and the winning team was awarded a prize to bring their technology to maturity (Image: CERN)

The Future Circular Collider (FCC) Feasibility Study is committed to investigating the technical and financial viability of a future energy-frontier collider at CERN. In this study, high priority is being given to environmental sustainability. In line with CERN’s long-standing tradition, the Organization intends to rely on fruitful collaboration with academia and industry to design and build tomorrow’s facilities.

The “Mining the Future” competition, co-organised by CERN and the University of Leoben, Austria, set out to find answers to the challenge of what to do with the materials excavated to build a tunnel for a future facility. The competition was run as part of the EU-co-funded FCC Innovation Study. Since June 2021, participants have been developing sustainable ways of reusing the large amounts of excavated material produced, and working out how it could be efficiently used as a resource instead of disposed of as waste. How could it be exploited as part of a circular economy? Could such solutions also be applied to other construction projects in the same type of terrain, namely molasse, a soft sedimentary rock commonly found around the Alps?

These questions were addressed by 12 proposals submitted during the first phase of the competition. An international jury chaired by Professor Robert Galler (University of Leoben), whittled down the 12 high-quality proposals to the 4 shortlisted for the prize, and a winner was selected based on four evaluation criteria: technical feasibility, economic viability, social value and project relevance. The presentations of the four finalists demonstrate the hard work, technical know-how and inspiration shared by the participants in their journey as well as the relevance of the topic for industry:

  • A consortium led by the construction engineering firm Amberg proposed sorting, characterising and redistributing the molasse into fractions of its known composition. This would allow each material to be recycled on a large scale, with benefits for the environment and society through the reduction of NOx and CO2 emissions and significant reduction of other environmental pollutants.
  • A consortium led by BG Ingénieurs Conseils presented a near real-time flow analysis already used in cement plants to separate excavated material for further processing on site. The team laid out both the technical feasibility and the social benefits of the project, such as job creation and circular economy potential.
  • Building materials supplier Briques Technic Concept made a case for producing bricks from the excavated material for the construction of buildings on site and in the neighbourhood. The project demonstrated solid environmental contributions and feasibility as well as clear economic advantages over competing materials.
  • The Edaphos team presented its proposal to process the molasses into topsoil-like material in a process known as soil conditioning. The team illustrated the clear economic benefits of this project – significant cost reduction in the construction of the FCC due to local reuse – as well as benefits for agriculture and woodland.

Following the team’s pitches, the consortium led by BG Ingénieurs Conseils was awarded the first prize, including support worth 40 000 euros to bring the technology to maturity. Although only one winner was chosen, it emerged during the ceremony that an integrated approach of all four scenarios in a single, local and innovative scheme would be a valid scenario for managing significant amounts of molasse materials in an FCC construction project.

The solutions identified in the framework of the competition will play an essential role in giving value to the excavated materials. They mark an important step in determining the feasibility of the proposed FCC. As the FCC Feasibility Study’s Johannes Gutleber (CERN) noted: “The proposals submitted over the course of the contest show that designing a new research facility amplifies innovation that benefits society at large.” Openness should be inherent to the project: Gutleber stressed the importance of an external knowledge base that complements CERN's internal expertise through an open network environment to drive this and future projects.

This new set of innovative ideas upon which the FCC Feasibility Study can draw came about thanks to a competition that, as FCC Feasibility Study leader Michael Benedikt pointed out, “is about strengthening the links between science, research and development, high-tech industry and society in general, and making sustainability and the environment a cornerstone of the FCC Feasibility Study”. The credibility of the proposed technical solutions sets an encouraging example for the next steps of the endeavour to design a post-LHC facility.