Fleur Doidge examines a different take on the mining industry’s commitment to sustainability.
Mining of many minerals essential to manufacturing is answering a pan-industry need for environmental accountability, including on emissions. Raw materials extraction is making great strides towards better, more sustainable production of resources so we can all tread lighter on the earth – as Professor Fidelis Suorineni, Nazarbayev University School of Mining and Geosciences. “The public often wrongly thinks mining is destroying the environment and doesn’t care, although our civilisation depends on mining in so many ways,” Suorineni says.
Mining increasingly works handin-hand with serious attempts at environmental and climate protection. While many crucial efforts – such as nano calcium (NC) soil leaching related projects – might still be in the research stages, others are commercialising and delivering improvements. Like in manufacturing, sustainability initiatives typically benefit from IT trends such as the Internet of Things (IoT) – including remote monitoring and management as well as tracking and tracing materials and equipment with data capture that then feeds analysis, insight and outcomes, or even augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) applications. “Initially VR was in aerospace and military, with oil and gas recognising its value in improving industry outputs,” Suorineni explains. “But in around 2000, at Canada’s Laurentian University, we saw room in mining – and mining companies decided to purchase some of the units we dealt with.”
Canada’s Goldcorp bought one of those units, as did Vale Inco, to help work one of the deepest and riskiest mine locations in the world. An ability to simulate environments helps ground engineers map and understand seismic hazards as well as how future underground development will affect the rock mass. Today, low-grade ores are more often discovered than higher value ores, so it is also becoming more important than ever not to simply dig somewhere and hope for the best, he suggests.
Certain geologies and structures ultimately have different vulnerabilities. Entering known data into a simulated environment or kind of digital twin, can help figure out the unknowns, assisting miners to decide where and how to apply their efforts. “A lot of countries including China and the US were coming to us. For geology of exploration in core new mineral deposits and production monitoring, VR technology has value,” Suorineni says.
“A lot of people look at VR as a tool for gaming, but its power is actually to solve complex problems.” Today’s VR systems can integrate qualitative and quantitative environmental and production data, costs, timings or climate effects, easing visualisation of what’s going on in the earth to make smarter decisions – driving efficiency, sustainability, safety and more – with research continuing in hubs from Japan and Kazakhstan to Germany and Australia.
For Suorineni, such data-based solutions are leading sustainability in mining – perhaps more than the highly-publicised transition to electric vehicles. “In fact, the US Society of Engineers has labelled VR as one of the most required technologies that need to be promoted today for the prospects of humanity,” he says. “It’s not like the olden days when strength or manpower was the tool.” Kirstin Sym-Smith is Director of Mining Business Development, Ericsson North America, which delivers environmental improvements in mining via dedicated network connectivity.
This is essential for remotely managed or autonomous vehicles that can achieve low waste, and efficient extractions in harsh or dangerous locations. Autonomous vehicles can actually extend operation hours, increasing productivity as well as reducing the use of energy hungry and personnel centred equipment. In an IoT network these may increasingly incorporate ‘intelligent’ or ‘smart’ devices that not only store or transmit but process data – as in a ‘smart factory’. “We’re seeing opportunities with sustainability oriented projects in Canada and Europe,” Sym-Smith says.
Customers include the Boliden Aitik openpit copper mine in northern Sweden. Aitik slashed one percent – or net €2.5m (£2.1m) – off annual costs through mobile connectivity enabled drilling and blasting, instead of buying two more drill rigs. Automating additional machinery such as trucks, excavators and ventilation as well as planning and despatch will deliver further savings and sustainability.
Aitik trucks account for about 95% of fuel consumption – automated and remotely controlled trucks operating more smoothly and steadily can cut fuel consumption by about ten percent, reducing Aitik’s annual carbon emissions by an estimated 9,400 metric tonnes. Similar savings have been achieved elsewhere at locations such as Brucutu, Brazil, according to Boliden.
“Top of mind for all major mining operations today is how to reduce environmental impacts and how to keep their workers safe, and then how to improve their production capabilities,” says Sym-Smith. “Ericsson is also part of a three-year industry study, NEXGEN SIMS, on sustainable intelligent mining systems – collaborating with mining companies, manufacturers, tech companies and universities to increase efficiency and sustainability in mining operations.” ‘Mining 4.0’ use cases can often pay for themselves in two to seven years while boosting productivity, cost efficiency, worker safety and sustainability, according to Ericsson.
This isn’t just a drop in the bucket. Deloitte estimates that energy costs represent 30% of operating expenses for mining companies, with the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) revealing that the mining industry alone accounts for 12% of that country’s industrial energy consumption. Stefan Weisenberger, Global VP of SAP’s Mill Products and Mining IBU, confirms the business software specialist is working more with mining companies on various sustainability enhancing technologies and initiatives at multiple layers of engagement. “If you look at the energy transition as a big picture, minerals and metals will play an essential role, with quite a growth trajectory to enable this transformation,” Weisenberger says.
SAP mining customer areas of focus include ‘classical’ emissions reporting and data capture including from plant systems, trucks, fuel and consumption. Then IoT and OT data is aggregated, communicated into a corporate record and analysed, used in reporting and in product development. Customers include RHI Magnesita, a global supplier of refractory products, systems and solutions for the hightemperature production processes around steel, cement, non-ferrous metals and glass. “They’re a cool company, focusing on minerals from Africa and Europe and so they are in mining as well,” Weisenberger says. “They want to see and understand emissions; they’re in the EU emissions trading scheme (ETS).”
Emissions management software helps Magnesita ‘connect the dots’ between what is actually consumed and burned in terms of carbon equivalents, superseding an Excel-based system to increase reporting and auditability of their operations – an essential link in the chain towards full transparency of supply. “For more than one and a half years, they have implemented it, they’re running it, they’re having it live. They’re doing their trading with it, but they’re still stabilising it,”
Weisenberger explains. He cautions that how much is achievable currently depends on the specific portfolio – whether it’s a company like BHP selling off petroleum and coal, largely and totally refurbishing or reshuffling in favour of iron, copper and nickel, or a firm focused specifically on, for example, coal. SAP also works with Russia-based Eurocement, whose OT-level machine learning-enabled operator dashboard helps capture all the data from its system.
Cement and concrete production – comprising eight percent of total global carbon emissions, with 30 billion tonnes of concrete used annually – entails mining, then crushing and burning, to achieve the required chemical reaction. At the same time, concrete is seen as critical for building climate-resilient infrastructure, so optimising use, emissions and product quality has to be mainly about developing data-driven insights through technology. IoT will increasingly assist with standardisation of equipment lock-out and permissions methods in environments which are otherwise unsafe working locations.
“Sustainability is also about delivering zero harm – an important challenge not only for safety but productivity,” adds SAP Global Metals and Mining Lead, Vimal Gaba, pointing to remote monitoring and management’s role in safety and efficiency as well as for reducing waste, emissions and pollution. “A nice example is top-five gold producer Polyus Gold, which implemented a full suite of [digital IT] solutions covering all core processes around environment, health and safety. It’s really about bringing all operations, incidents, observations, violations and so on together.” Gaba points out that one way of increasing efficiency is to source better materials, to optimise yield, or to make it really difficult to make a mistake.
“We also work with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development Pathfinder project, and with multiple stakeholders in companies across the value chain to ensure the information is flowing,” he says. “And there is the Global Battery Alliance. There are very proactive collaborative engagements with supply chain partners including on risk,” Gaba notes. Small scale, artisanal mining is often assumed to be riddled with unsustainable practice. Companies like mining software specialist Minexx are changing the facts on that. In February 2021, Minexx announced traceable, transparent minerals exports from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) via $250,000 in digital, blockchain based payments. In December, Minexx’s software platform enabled the export from Burkina Faso of its first kilo of blockchain tracked gold.
As Marcus Scaramanga, CEO and Co-founder of Minexx, says: “People don’t want the same minerals, they want better minerals – where you can track the carbon that comes from known sources. “This incredibly complex task requires knowing how much electricity, diesel, machinery, etc, was used in the mining or trucking, along with the minerals in the next seven stages of processing before you even get to the manufacturer.” Meanwhile, expanding demand for clean tech and so on is heavily stressing global supply chains and vastly increasing the minerals volumes required – with global and national laws and regulations that will ultimately cover all manufactured products adding extra weight to the shift from a world when people typically don’t know how much carbon, for example, is in a given battery.
Scaramanga says 30% of minerals come from artisanal small scale mining sites – making it probably the largest yet most disenfranchised $100bn industry in the world, providing income to some 250 million people globally but dealing with immense challenges, from risk to sustainability to the geographies themselves. Burkina Faso produces 34 tonnes of artisanal gold per year – but only 300kg was formally exported in 2019, for instance, due partly to poor traceability. “It’s very difficult if you’re a small scale mine site to access capital to professionalise operations and engage with the correct type of federal buyers, and to find how to regulate this type of support,” Scaramanga explains.
Minexx’s software platform uses blockchain digital distributed ledger, payments, biometric and IoT technologies to create much-needed trust and transparency around quality and methods of production. This helps clients manage aspects of know your customer (KYC) and anti-money laundering regulations as well, giving them and the artisanal miners access to markets and better prices. “Once data is on the blockchain, you can’t change it. Then essentially you give the manufacturer the key,” Scaramanga says.
“They can be sure data from the supply sites has not been interfered with and can be trusted. They can really go all the way back and see where it’s coming from.” Whether you’re using the platform to assess poverty or carbon, it simply means adding in the data. For carbon, that can be data on how the land is treated, or what fuels are used, enabling assessments of actual carbon use per kilo of extraction, perhaps calculating total embodied carbon to map and communicate across supply chains.
Previously, by the time buyers could look at the data from the trader, they had almost no idea of material origins or data integrity, Scaramanga says. “We can be working with a supplier all the way through to semi-mechanised production, with local and international banks, with refiners, post processers and downstream buyers as well,” Scaramanga explains. “We are part of a new wave of companies operating in the commodity space, and we think it can really transform the industry.”
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