The mining industry is often associated with massive pits either excavated into the ground or underneath the surface, writes Andrew Berryman, President – Mining, Minerals and Metals Services, Worley.
Concern about the environmental impact of extracting minerals has existed for some time and shows no sign of abating. Despite big strides in technology, according to the World Bank, over 11% of global energy consumption comes from the mining, minerals and metals value chain. Changing this demands a serious rethink of the way minerals and metals are processed and mined.
But the challenges do not end there. The scrutiny on mining is as broad as it is concentrated, picking apart everything from corporate stewardship to the commodity mix. Shareholders are demanding better returns on less capital with a smaller environmental footprint.
The winds of change have hit mining, but blustery conditions are not always a bad thing.
The energy transition
The temptation is to jump straight to the conclusion that the energy transition is an existential threat to an emissions-intensive industry. After all, meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement depends on retiring carbon-intensive activities, doesn’t it?
It does, however, impact the movement towards low emissions technologies, such as battery storage, electrification, microgrids, wind and solar power, the mining industry is required to provide the materials needed for this shift.
As we head down the electrification and energy storage path, a different mineral mix will be required.
Many minerals will be needed for applications in the energy transition that we cannot even foresee yet.
The minerals of the low emissions future include lithium, cobalt, iron ore, manganese, aluminium, nickel, lead and graphite. But the single most important mineral that will enable electrification and electron mobility is copper. This element is critical in low emission and electric vehicles, energy transmission and storage and renewable energy technologies that harness the sun and the wind.
So, we know which minerals we need. How do we access and process them responsibly?
Understanding that mining underpins the fate of the planet, we need to consider less energy intensive ways of extracting and processing these minerals. We also need to power the process with energy that comes from renewable sources.
Our customers have growing demand for our new energy expertise to establish affordable, reliable power to these mine sites with technology at the forefront of the power sector. Technology is the biggest enabler to make the energy transition a commercially viable pathway. It is also a key ingredient to developing remote regional areas that are adjacent to mining provinces.
Throw in the digital transformation
It is offering opportunities for the progressive thinkers and grey hairs for the hesitant. Like the energy transition, digital transformation will enable some companies to evolve into mining behemoths and others to inadvertently plot their own downfall through inaction.
In spite of positive statements about digital, investment hasn’t always backed up the excitement. It is the adage of: you don’t know what you don’t know. Plus, while it pays off in the long term, innovation is time-consuming and requires change, so quantifying investment cost is hard, and returns are slow.
The industry needs to see technology as the glue that joins all elements of the physical entity, the data, knowledge components and the people who envision, create, build, test and operate the facility. There is no other glue that can stick these things together and being integrated and working together is essential for success.
Technology is already at the stage where we can tap into a virtual world and use digital twinning to build and view an end result. New parts or facilities can be incorporated into the existing world to view, test and optimise the blend of components, as well as the processes and systems used to create and operate the facility. All this can be envisaged before even committing to the development of a project.
This technology can help the industry make better investment and operating decisions and improve process controls prior to Final Investment Decision (FID). This also means the probable outcomes of embracing technology, and predicting a balanced, safe, net-zero future, can be debated as part of the FID.
Once a facility is up and running, technology also enables you to monitor its operation, make informed decisions with real-time data and allow many tasks to be performed directly by the control system, improving its own performance over time with machine learning. The assessment speed and response time helps you to keep on track, adjust performance outputs and avoid failures, all of which can contribute to a safer, cleaner and greener outcome. But it needs to be incorporated in the design phase, requiring substantial collaboration with the end user.
When the two biggest forces collide
Where there is uncertainty, there is opportunity. Then multiply that as many times as you like, because when the energy transition and digital transformation are considered in the same breath, they will turn mining on its head.
The energy transition cannot happen at the speed we need it to unless we embrace better technologies to design and run mines. At the same time, the need to improve overall sustainability and the social licence to operate remains paramount.
These technologies can assist mining companies to assess, track, collate and present the complex mix of elements that contribute to any sort of environmental or energy goal. Knowing what you have achieved is almost as powerful as achieving it. In a world where knowledge is king, a data-centric solution is key to making the right decisions towards achieving a net-zero impact.
If we can use technology to better analyse orebodies with greater accuracy, it is going to minimise the removal, transport or processing of unusable or low-grade ore, which in turn provides consistency of grade for processing. That means we can run fewer diesel trucks and consistently improve the grade of what we are supplying to the market, resulting in energy savings, potential process improvements and the overall reduction of the carbon footprint.
The opportunities for technological advances in a mining setting are endless. We can now use virtual reality for site training, 3D printing for spare parts manufacturing, predictive analytics platforms to manage safety and conduct aerial inspections of mine sites using drones. These are just some examples of digital mining processes enabling us to optimise mine operations.
This equates to increased safety, productivity and less carbon emissions, and assists the sector to do its bit in reaching the targets of the Paris Agreement and decarbonise the mining process.
Technology is the single biggest enabler of any kind of future that embraces the energy transition.
Mining techniques need to go through a revolution very quickly, but it is heartening to see the early stages of that today. We may look back at what we are doing now as baby steps, but right now, they are quantum leaps.