Newspapers are replete with articles denouncing the dearth of innovation in the mining sector. While we may argue about the causes – the sector’s capital intensive nature, the people who work in mining, etc. — most people will agree that the mining industry appears to be innovating at a much slower pace than other industries.
I believe that most of us are clear on why we need to innovate. The mining industry is facing many difficult challenges: lower grade ores, smaller deposits, increasing power costs, tighter margins, faltering capital markets, political risks, increased social demands, higher taxes, etc.
An example of the type of complex challenges we face: Mining executives frequently ask their engineers what the “carbon footprint” of a new process will look like – a question unheard of 30 years ago. Nowadays, questions about water and power requirement don’t start with: ‘how much does it cost?’ In many jurisdictions, there simply isn’t enough water or power to satisfy the needs of both the local population and mining companies. In some areas, we are competing with local farmers for water.
So the reasons we need to innovate are clear, and if you ask senior mining executives, they generally agree that innovation is essential to the survival of their companies. Their actions, however, do not often reflect this imperative. Why not?
Many people use the words “innovation” and “research” interchangeably, but in reality, there is a world of difference between these two concepts. As Will Westgate of 3M has said: “Research is the transformation of money into knowledge, and innovation and imagination are the transformation of knowledge into money.”
Innovation is much more than a breakthrough or the “lightbulb” moment — innovation is a process. It is the entire operation of transforming the initial creative idea into a new product that has commercial value.
It appears that the value of R&D today might be misjudged, seemingly overshadowed by the pursuit of short-term (i.e. quarterly) goals. Anglo American (LSE: AAL) CEO Mark Cutifani has criticized the mining industry for spending only one-tenth of the amount that the oil and gas industry does on innovation.
When I entered the industry a mere 30 years ago, most of the major mining houses had their own internal technology centres. In fact, as early as the 1950s and ‘60s, the Canadian mining industry recognized the importance of investing in effective R&D programs to both grow and bring competitiveness to all of their operations – from mining through to refining. Great institutions and research centres sponsored by Noranda, Alcan, Placer Dome and Falconbridge developed numerous innovative technologies that transformed their respective companies. These efforts were often supported by the CANMET lab of Canada’s Natural Resources Department. Many of these laboratories no longer exist, having been absorbed into other global mining companies or turned into commercial entities.There are also several other key reasons why the mining sector is lagging in innovation, including:
- The “race to be second.” There is a Catch-22 mentality in our industry where new ideas are never tried because no one wants to be first;
- Fear of failure, which no doubt is related to the first point;
- Lack of skills to drive innovation;
- Lack of a corporate champion, with some notable
- exceptions in the industry;
- Lack of supporting systems within companies; and
- The perception that innovation is costly.
If we look at other industries, changes that have occurred in our lifetime have been dramatic. Just compare the rotary telephone to the smart phones that nearly every schoolkid carries around in his or her pocket. In fact, we now expect our phones to be obsolete within two or three years. The same case can be made in the aviation industry: Just compare the design of the planes from the Wright brothers in the early 1900s to a modern Dreamliner 787. On the other hand, if we compare the blueprints for a crusher from a mining circuit from 1935, it will look remarkably similar to a modern-day crusher.
It can be argued that industry, in general terms, has moved through four major eras, starting with the so-called “Manual Era.” In mining terms, this would be akin to moving ore by a team of donkeys or mules. In the “Mechanized Era,” machine energy displaced human energy. Mining trucks were used to move ore and rail cars were used to transport concentrates. Productivity increased and the operating mantra was “bigger is better.” This can be seen in the trend toward bigger mining trucks, flotation cells or ball mills. The next leap was into the “Automation Era.” The philosophy at this stage is separating people from machines, for example, using driverless trucks. We are currently in the “Network Era.” This can be seen all around us in our daily lives, but examples in the mining industry are rare indeed.
It is fascinating how complacent our industry can be, even when faced with serious issues. For example, it has been estimated that comminution consumes up to 3% of all the electric power generated in the world: enough to power Germany! At minesites, communition consumes about 50% of the energy used; it is unarguably a major cost component. Yet, grinding in conventional ball mills is terribly inefficient, perhaps only 1-5% in fundamental terms. Can you think of many industries that are using a technology that is over 100 years old and at most, 5% efficient? Now there has been some innovation over the years, such as the move from single drives to twin drives to gearless units. Ball mills have certainly gotten bigger, from less than 2 metres to over 12 metres, but they are still a fundamentally inefficient piece of equipment. Several industrial consortia, such as the Coalition for Eco-Efficient Comminution (CEEC) and the Canadian Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) are starting to benchmark grinding circuits in terms of energy consumption and trying to identify alternative technologies. One such technology, SelFrag out of Switzerland, uses electric pulse disaggregation (EPD) that allows liberation or weakening along natural grain boundaries. This technique, which has many advantages in terms of cost and metallurgical performance, has been adopted by other industries, but has not really caught on with the mining sector. A 2011 survey of 100 mining executives showed that two-thirds of respondents felt that a 25% reduction in energy usage would be a realistic target over the next 50 years. A further 14% felt that a 50% reduction was possible. Without proper funding and research efforts, these types of targets will be extremely difficult to attain.
The good news is that many organizations are working on innovative solutions to the industry’s problems. At McEwen Mining, we organize Innovation Lunch & Learn sessions every second month, inviting guest speakers to present on topics that will drive our industry forward. We invite about 35 people from industry and academia and record sessions to post on the CIM website. Feedback has been extremely positive, indicating that there is a voracious appetite for these types of forums. Some of the ideas that have been presented to the group have the potential to dramatically change our industry. For example, Adrok, whose motto is “Deeper, Faster, Greener and Cheaper,” has a technology that could fundamentally change the way we approach drilling and explore for minerals. The technique uses a scanner that transmits, and then receives back, narrow pulsed beams of micro and radio waves. When these waves cross a boundary, an echo is reflected back to the scanner. The scanner can penetrate kilometres below the surface of the earth. Another company, DGI
Geoscience, and its new sister company Kore Geosystems, have advanced techniques that can revolutionize the way we collect data, process it, and more importantly, interpret the results. The objective of these types of companies is to speed up, and improve our chances of finding new deposits at lower operating costs.
There have also been many recent advances in existing technologies. Mohamad Sabsabi and his group at the National Research Council of Canada are working on a LIBS (Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy) analyzer that is portable and cost effective. LIBS technology has been known for decades, but the size and cost of these instruments has decreased considerably, making them more practical for mining applications. Imagine if your exploration or mine geologist could take an instrument with them into the field and analyze a rock sample for a dozen elements in a matter of seconds.
Manual ore sorting has also been around for decades and automatic ore sorting machines for around 20 years. The idea is to remove waste before you spend money transporting and processing it upstream. Low-grade ores are typically uneconomic, but perhaps they can become profitable with the addition of pre-concentration techniques. Ore sorting is typically conducted on a “rock by rock” basis on moving belts. Recent advances have made it possible to sort based on numerous parameters, including colour, metal content and physical properties. MineSense of Vancouver has developed ShovelSense, a real-time mineral telemetry system that can be installed in the dipper of surface shovels or into the scoop of underground vehicles. The material can be classified as ore or waste immediately. Tremendous strides have also been made in the area of Condition Based Maintenance (CBM). For example, Scanimetrics of Edmonton has an array of remote wireless equipment monitoring systems that can automatically acquire real-time strain, vibration, shock and temperature data from plant and mobile mining equipment. This reduces the cost of manual inspections and can prolong the life of capital intensive equipment. Using the Internet, the data can be collected at remote sites and analyzed anywhere in the world.
Building on Rob McEwen’s original Goldcorp Challenge at Goldcorp (TSX: G; NYSE: GG) and Barrick Gold’s (TSX: ABX; NYSE: ABX) Unlock the Value Competition, Integra Gold (TSXV: ICV) recently launched its Gold Rush Challenge. It has released more than 6 terabytes of digital mining and exploration data spanning more than 75 years for its Lamaque gold project in Val d’Or, Que., asking the public to help find its next big gold discovery. These types of initiatives have evolved with the advent of cloud computing, which allows users to process an incredible amount of data.
The Internet of Things, Big Data and analytics are all around us and are being embraced by other industries. It is past time for the mining industry to do so. Companies such as IBM (NYSE: IBM) and GE Mining (NYSE: GE) have developed analytic tools that we can use to monitor our plants, find trends, and generally improve our bottom lines. Innovative companies are looking for partners within the mining community to showcase their technologies.
Going even further, an interdisciplinary approach is being used to apply genomics — a science that aims to decipher and understand the entire genetic information of an organism — to the mining sector. Mines are essentially bioreactors, and with genomics, we can bring in experts from other scientific fields and ask them to solve many of our pressing problems, including acid rock/mine drainage, remediation, corrosion and metal extraction.
While newspapers continue to call out Canadian companies for lagging their global counterparts in innovation, we should take solace in the fact that all is not lost. In the past, when the industry was faced with dire circumstances, we embraced new technologies that propelled us forward, such as SX-EW for copper oxide ores and autoclaves for refractory gold ore processing. The case for innovation in our industry has never been more compelling, and I have no doubt that we will once again rise to the occasion.
As Niels Bohr famously said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” I will, however, go out on a limb and predict that incubation times for innovation in the mining industry will shorten considerably. If not, these technologies will not attract the investment capital that is required. I can envisage a future that involves microbial in situ mining, low energy grinding machines, and metals that are recovered from unconventional sources. Can you?
— Nathan M. Stubina is McEwen Mining’s Managing Director and a professional engineer. He holds a Ph.D. in Metallurgy and Materials from the University of Toronto and a B. Eng. in Mining and Metallurgical Engineering from McGill University. He is the current Vice President International of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, and a Past President of MetSoc (Metallurgy and Materials Society).
— This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Mining Trends & Developments.