Having left TOMRA Mining more than a decade ago only to return to the Germany-based company in November, Kai Bartram’s re-arrival at the sensor-based sorting firm represents a good time to take stock and reflect on how far the mining sector has come with its understanding and acceptance of this type of pre-concentration technology.
Bartram, now Global Sales Director of TOMRA Mining and a member of TOMRA’s Mining Management Team, was happy to answer some of IM’s questions after getting his feet back under the table in the company’s offices in Wedel, Germany.
IM: How has the mining industry’s appreciation of the benefits of sensor-based ore sorting changed since you left TOMRA in 2010? What trends have led to a wider take up of the technology?
KB: In 2010, sensor-based sorting (SBS) was still seen as a niche technology in the mining industry. Some smaller, more innovative mining companies had seen the potential and effectively implemented SBS, but the mining industry, as such, had not accepted the technology. While in the industrial minerals sector several optical sorters – and, in the diamond industry, mainly X-ray luminescence machines – were operating, the rest of the industry was cautious about integrating sorters into their flowsheets.
That changed slowly with the introduction of Dual Energy X-ray technology. The technology is so robust and perfectly suited to the harsh environment of the mining industry that the economic benefits of pre-concentration became obvious. Another point that has strongly supported the adoption of sorting technology is the fact that average ore grades keep decreasing while energy costs keep increasing.
IM: Diamond and industrial mineral operations were typically the first adopters in the mining sector; what commodity sectors do you expect to see dominate demand for sensor-based ore sorting systems into 2030? What changes to the technology or wider industry understanding have led to this belief?
KB: In the beginning, sorters were seen as small machines, which would never meet the capacity requirements of large hard-rock mineral processing circuits. Therefore, only small mines saw the opportunity to implement sorting as a pre-concentration step in their process. Today, we see that our 2.4-m-wide flagship sorter, TOMRA COM XRT 2.0, can process up to 500 t/h, so that large operations can also implement the technology. An example of such a trend is the Ma’aden Phosphate Umm Wu’al processing plant, where 2,000 t/h are processed with TOMRA XRT sorters.
I am sure we will see more of these bigger projects in many different commodities. Of course, the current market trend is towards ores that are required for the electric revolution, like lithium, copper, cobalt and rare earth elements. TOMRA has proven that we have the right solution to upgrade those ores efficiently and can contribute to more economical output. So, I expect to see more installations in the future.
IM: Are there any regions more willing to apply these solutions than others? Why is this the case?
KB: If you look at our global reference list, you can see that the larger installed base resides in Europe, Africa and the Americas. The Asian markets are a little behind, but this is easily explained by history. As a European company, we focused more on the better known and established markets. In general, the mining market is a very global industry with big players active in all continents.
I do not believe there are regions more willing to apply the technology than others. It is just a matter of supporting all regions in the same way. TOMRA is investing heavily to ensure we have a good global support network, to be there for and with our clients.
IM: Do you expect to see more collaboration with OEMs over the next decade when it comes to implementing ore sorting solutions with process flowsheets? How do you see the input of both TOMRA and OEMs benefitting the wider mining industry?
KB: Collaboration is essential in any industry. We need specialists who are experts in their field, and TOMRA is one of the global leaders in sensor-based sorting. In order to achieve the best results in one field, one must focus. Therefore, big projects can only be undertaken by a group of companies or experts who collaboratively work together. We, as a solution provider, are very dependent on well-engineered and integrated plant designs and believe we have to collaborate and have close relationships with plant builders to ensure the best possible solution for our clients.