In the next ten years, technology is set to unleash a wave of mining innovation, with the sweet spot centred on changing the thinking around orebodies and processing plants rather than much-spoken-about automation. “Our focus has changed from hunting technologies to hunting value,” Anglo American technical director Tony O’Neill told Creamer Media’s Mining Weekly Online in an exclusive interview.
Three-dimensional metal printing, nonexplosive breakage of rock and microwave preconditioning of rock, as well as medical imaging equipment, are finding rapid application in mineral mining and processing.
The word in the industry is that mining companies that embrace the new era will be successful and the ones that do not will ultimately not survive. Anticipated are mines with footprints that can more readily coexist alongside a community in much the same way as farming.
The good news is that pathways are already starting to develop that change the current mining and processing paradigm.
Technologies are being reconfigured to make mining and processing far more precise, which offers massive potential reward.
Currently, much larger volumes of waste are brought to surface, compared with the scenario more than a century ago. This is because, outside of safety improvements, old methods are still being used today. For instance, in 1900, to obtain 40 kg of copper, 2 t of material had to be mined using 3 m3 of water and 10 kWh of energy, compared with currently having to mine 16 times more material, using 16 times more energy and drawing on double the volume of water.
“It’s risen at such a rate that it’s becoming unsustainable,” O’Neill commented to Mining Weekly Online.
While mining was, in the past, content to be a research and development laggard, other industries were not – and they shot ahead on the technological front, proving up technology that is now available off the shelf for mining to implement.
A successful pilot plant is already pointing the way for the more widespread introduction of coarse-particle recovery, which brings considerably larger-sized particles to surface and slashes water use.
Moreover, with the maturing of robotics technology, research is also being conducted into the introduction of swarm robotic mining, involving the use of small robots that will bring ultra-precision to a hugely wasteful industry.
As more precise mining methods gather momentum, those 40 kg of copper used to illustrate mining’s deteriorating position may one day be mined without any waste at all.
Coarse-particle recovery and advanced fragmentation (using smart blasting technologies) are good examples of putting existing technologies into new configurations to deliver value right now.
None of the technologies used is unproven, but what Anglo has managed to do is configure them in a way that adds immense value, with minimal additional capital investment.
While technology will have to be honed specifically for mining at some stage, a surfeit of technologies is ready for instant application.
“It’s more about a mindset change than having to make massive investments,” Anglo American technology development head Donovan Waller added to Mining Weekly Online.
Much of the improvement is being driven by data science and the modern world’s ability to analyse increasing volumes of data to a very high degree.
Virtually all the technologies needed have come of age; one of the biggest being the stabilisation of information technology, in which other industries have tended to advance much faster than the mining industry. These other industries include consumer electronics, manufacturing, automotive engineering and the pharmaceutical sector.
The coarse-particle recovery process captures coarse particles that are not recoverable using conventional flotation.
By needing to grind to only 500 micron instead of 170 micron, capacity is increased. Less energy is required in the crushing and grinding and water is more easily extracted from the larger particles and then recycled, significantly reducing the need for fresh water. The extraction of interstitial water results in a dry product, which can be dry-stacked, ultimately eliminating the need for tailings dams.
In copper, coarse-particle flotation has the potential to change the cost curve of the industry by allowing for 30% to 40% more throughput at a recovery loss of 2% to 3%, a 20% energy saving and 30% to 40% less water.
This is already a significant achievement for Anglo American in copper, and the company is hopeful of migrating it to other commodities, including platinum in South Africa, where testwork is still at an early stage.
If, for example, platinum ore can be pre-sorted in advance and be presented at a grade of 10 g/t instead of 4 g/t, output can be increased by two-and-a-half times from the exact same capital invested.
SWARM ROBOTIC MINING
Swarm robotic mining descales mining to make it much more precise, mimicking the actions of a swarm of locusts devouring a field or an army of ants working independently to execute tasks.
The technology envisages highly selective mining of ore types linked to real-time algorithms across a broad spectrum that includes constraints in energy, prices and associated issues.
As many people as possible are taken out of harm’s way in a remotely controlled environment.
Small operational teams will communicate with each other, without the need for a big-brother view from the surface that controls each of those small operational elements independently in self-learning operations.
Currently, the industry spends a lot of time adding water to its processes and even more time trying to get the water out afterwards.
A pathway has been developed to end up with a waterless mine through the adoption of a closed loop, using only a fixed amount of water that is then recycled time and again. Anglo already recycles or re-uses more than 60% of its water requirements.
Ultimately, the aim is to arrive at potentially chemical means that allow for the liberation of particles without having to add water to them, to arrive at a waterless process.
SUN, WIND, GRAVITY AND SMALL, GREEN NUCLEAR
In terms of energy, the focus is on using renewables for energy self-sufficiency.
The solutions will be a combination of sun and wind. As the sun does not shine at night and the wind does not always blow, other energy forms, including gravity, will take advantage of the mining sector having depth as one of those solutions.
Ultimately, nuclear may be incorporated should it become “greener”, smaller and more modular, as is expected.
Instead of spending billions to build one big plant, small modular plants will be built and scaled up quickly, with the lifespan of the modules being influenced by the next step up in technology.
Mines will move away from using the same technology for long periods of time and outlaying large capital expenditure on plants that last for 50 years and more.
Smaller, modular, cheaper units will allow for technology upgrades every five years, providing scalability as well as the opportunity to ramp up on new technology that has arisen.
Although mining is not an industry that has been used to technological change, there is no reason why it should not, from now on, accelerate advancing technology quickly, as other industries do.
“Our FutureSmart Mining programme is about far more than technologies alone. It is end-to-end innovation, in its broadest sense, addressing all aspects of sustainability for the business – safety, health, the environment, the needs of our communities and host governments, and the reliable delivery of our products to customers. Those that innovate and are agile will thrive in this industry. That is mining’s new future.” O’Neill concluded.