May 17, 2020 • 6 min read
The future of mining: opportunities in the energy transition and digital
Have one last look at the mining of old. An entire industry is digging toward an unrecognizable future.
The mining industry is often associated with massive pits either excavated into the ground or underneath the surface.
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, over11 percent 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 don’t end there.
The scrutiny on mining companies 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 aren’t always a bad thing.
Let’s start with 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.
The movement towards low emissions technologies, such as battery storage, electrification, microgrids, wind and solar power, depends on the mining industry to provide the materials needed for this shift.
Simon Yacoub, Vice President, Resources for the Americas at Worley, explains why.
“As we head down the electrification and energy storage path, we will require a different mineral mix. We’re witnessing considerable shifts in demand for new energy materials and these will be used for applications in the energy transition that we can’t even foresee yet.
“The minerals of the low emissions future include lithium, iron ore, manganese, aluminium, nickel, lead and graphite. But the single most important mineral that will enable electrification and electron mobility is copper.
“Copper is critical in low emission and electric vehicles, energy transmission and storage, and renewable energy technologies that harness the sun and the wind.
“Essentially, our sustainable development scenario cannot be achieved without these minerals. The mining industry is unique in that great responsibility rests on us to supply them responsibly, and this is shaping our direction going forward.”
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. This is where expectations around social license come into play. These are very powerful levers that are vitally important to our customers and hence, to us.
“Our customers have a 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's also a key ingredient in developing remote regional areas that are adjacent to mining provinces.
“It's exciting to shape a future where decentralized energy supply enables the growth of new economic regions.”
Throw in the digital transformation
It’s offering opportunities for the progressive thinkers and grey hairs for the hesitant.
The goal posts are always shifting in digital, but like the energy transition, digital transformation will enable some companies to evolve into mining majors and others to inadvertently plot their own downfall through inaction.
Evan Boyle, Senior Director Technology Solutions for Mining, Minerals & Metals at Worley, details the current state of the digital transformation in mining.
“In spite of positive statements about digital, investment hasn’t always backed up the excitement. It’s 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.
“That has created some hesitation to make big decisions in case the wrong path or tool is selected. This encourages delays and endless testing of the market, which limits collaboration or investment in digital and data-centric approaches as miners wait for a magic pill or silver bullet.”
However, there is little choice but to go for it. Boyle offers a glimpse of where the opportunities lie.
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 optimize 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 make better investment and operating decisions and improve process controls prior to final investment decision (FID). But we must be accustomed to investing in the technology upfront.
"This 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.
“These technologies also offer rational, algorithmic responses, based on many data points. This means responses are better informed, faster and ultimately safer than traditional human or manual intervention.”
When the two biggest forces collide
Where there is uncertainty, there is opportunity. Then multiply that by 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 can’t 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 license to operate remains paramount.
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’ve 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.
Technologies that aid productivity can have a similarly large impact on the energy transition. One example is the successful implementation of digital tools such as NextOre mineral sensing technology that helps pinpoint the highest-grade material from a conveyor belt or truck and provide real time grade readings in seconds.
Using technology to better analyze ore bodies will minimize the removal, transport or processing of unusable or low-grade ore, which in turn provides consistency of grade for processing. That means our customers can run fewer diesel trucks and consistently improve the ore grade, resulting in energy savings, potential process improvements and the overall reduction of their 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 which are enabling us to optimize mine operations.
This equates to increased safety, productivity and less carbon emissions, and assists the sector to do its bit to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement and decarbonize the mining process.
Simon Yacoub considered the link between the two.
“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’s heartening to see the early stages of that today.
“I’m sure we’ll look back at what we’re doing now as baby steps, but right now, they are quantum leaps.”