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The future of mining: Four trends for tomorrow's success

14 min read / July 23, 2019 / Staff Writer


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Mining is an ancient and global industry with origins that date back to the foundations of civilization and an impact on many major economies throughout history. Even today mining represents nearly 12 percent of the world GDP, measured by revenues and products sold. The world has always needed mining and still does.

But mining is now faced with many significant challenges, many of which we’ve never seen. Growing global populations and economies mean increasing demand for minerals, and that trend will only continue upward. Yet, mineral extraction and processing are becoming increasingly difficult, and the depletion of the earth’s resources and the impact on fragile environments is a growing social concern.

Like many industries with big challenges to future growth, change is being driven in mining by technology, innovations, better processes, social demands and even new opportunities. As we dust off our crystal ball and examine what the future holds for the mining industry, four paths may hold the key to tomorrow successes.

Digital transformation: the “smart” mine

Those that are skeptical or even resist the notion of digitalization in mining often get it wrong. They assume that digitalization means doing things differently, creating upheaval and disruption. However, true digital transformation, while certainly disruptive, is mainly about doing things better — much better.

Digitalization is the catalyst that helps mining operations become “smarter” by leveraging digital tools and processes that make operations instrumented, interconnected and intelligent. For example, correcting issues with mineral processing has always been more reactive than proactive. With dynamic information early on through interconnected digital systems and software, quick course corrections can be made before problems surface. Advanced digital process and control systems enable continuous monitoring and virtual simulations, among other cutting-edge capabilities.

“Digital transformation can enable a zero entry, fully automated and integrated mine. Mines will be designed differently for automation from inception with methods tailored and scaled to the orebody and variation in execution reduced by automation. Best of all, we will be able to fully harness the flow of information,” says mining futurist and industry consultant Gavin Yeates.

“Digital transformation can help eliminate fatalities and injuries from high energy environments. It can also result in a step change in capital intensity and operating costs, new reserves from orebodies that could not previously be mined, and lower environmental footprint through selective mining and operations scaled to the orebody,” says Yeates.

In the future, the digital mine will leverage many of today’s emerging and evolving digital technologies. Industrial internet of things (IIoT) is a digital technology that can be particularly transformative for mining. Strategically placed sensors connected to the internet can enable mines to collect huge amounts of data in real time. Best of all, the data from IIoT sensors is highly actionable, helping managers to make smart decisions that can improve efficiency, increase safety, cut costs and more.

Using IIoT and data analytics, managers can boost the efficiency of haulage operations, determining optimum load time and frequency that can help maximize fuel consumption, cut down on vehicle maintenance and even haul distance. 

The move to the cloud has already transformed every major industry, and mining is no different. Leveraging the cloud allows for real-time enterprise-level views of operations in a mine using an integrated IT cloud-enabled platform. Workers can be better connected real-time via cloud-enabled devices, allowing for a level of collaboration that can boost safety and productivity in any mining operation. Plus, security and infrastructure services can be moved to the cloud, cutting costs while increasing capabilities.

Blockchain is a digital technology that creates and maintains a continuous list of transactional records, called “blocks,” which are secure and tamper-proof for unparallel visibility. When combined with IIoT sensors that can physically track an ore or metal, blockchain can potentially offer reassurance to regulators and consumers that mining companies are meeting compliance and acting responsibly. More revolutionary uses of blockchain could include identifying and trading ore bodies — even ones that have yet to be mined.

Every mining operation involves numerous vital decisions every day. Artificial intelligence (AI) technology offers decision-making and problem-solving support based on massive amounts of data from numerous mining and work equipment, as well as databases. Best of all, AI leverages superior computer processing power and a level of inter-connectivity with many different mining systems, IIoT sensors, robotics, and data sources for a holistic view of operations in real time. That offers decision-makers the information they need to make well-informed choices for safer and more productive mining operations.

While each of these digital technologies offers mining operations unique capabilities and advantages, it is their interconnectivity that can allow mines to operate at new performance levels. With true digital transformation, IIoT, data analytics, cloud platforms, blockchain, AI and a host of digital innovations all work together to make mining operations smarter than ever. 

Mining technology and tools: Robots, machines and drones

While digital transformation focuses on making mines smarter, new technologies and tools on the hardware, transportation, and equipment side bring unprecedented brains and brawn to all major operations. Best of all, these new technologies can connect seamlessly with digital transformation efforts, integrating data analytics, AI, and machine learning with a smart mine’s unified systems.

Drone technology is already being used throughout the mining industry to help increase safety by going in areas that may be hazardous to humans, along with many other applications. For example, Freeport McMoRan is using drones to help create steeper slope angles to decrease stripping ratios and waste rock before extracting ore. Drone analysis of mine slopes avoids the dangerous prospect of sending a geologist or geotechnical engineer into highly dangerous situations. Other drone uses for mines have included inspecting various areas of the mind unsafe for human inspections, clearing blast areas, leveraging 3D imaging and scanning, and streaming live video and real-time data feeds. 

Electric and autonomous vehicles and equipment will continue to impact the mining industry. According to a recent industry report, electrification and automation will be a $15 billion market by 2028. Fuels savings, increased efficiencies, and greater productivity continue to drive innovations forward in this area. Already mines are seeing a 30 percent increase in productivity from autonomous haulage systems alone. Electrification can help cut operational expenditure related to ventilation and cooling of machines by as much as 20 to 25 percent, respectively. Mining companies like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are currently using driverless haulers and automated drill extractors to move metals with proven results in efficiency and productivity. 

Mine-wide optimization and safety are elevated with an autonomous haulage system, which utilizes high-precision global navigation satellite positioning systems, advanced sensors and integrated controllers that are remotely controlled from a central control room for unmanned hauling.

Robotics and automation in mining is a particularly exciting proposition since it connects directly to innovation with AI and machine learning technology. In a recent poll conducted by Mining IQ, 77 percent of mining professionals view automation as a top priority. Fully 40 percent say automation is “more important than ever.”

Robotics can be particularly advantageous in replacing traditional shovel and extraction processes used by humans. The concept of a continuous robotic mining system will evolve as technology replaces manual processes and computer-controlled and powerful machines extract the most minerals in the shortest amount of time. “Smart” automated conveyor systems are already being used for speedy material transport.

Like drones, mine robots can also be used to replace humans in performing radiological, inspection, and survey tasks, especially in small areas or an inhospitable environment, such as abandoned mines. In the near future, abandoned mines with previously inaccessible minerals can be reopened with robots successfully doing extraction that just wasn’t possible before.

“Automation at new scales – much smaller than today’s – will allow us to operate swarms of small and low-cost autonomous equipment in mines designed only for machinery, thus allowing new deposits to be mined,” says Yeates. “Hydro-metallurgical techniques and nanotechnology will get us closer to in situ mining, a much smaller environmental footprint, and lower energy, capital and operating costs.”

Sustainability and environmentalism drive future trends

Environment accords, like the Paris Climate Agreement, along with an increasingly global awareness of the value of our natural resources is putting more and more pressure on mining companies to address sustainability. Fortunately, many of the technological innovations we’ve already discussed reduce fuel consumption, emissions, waste, and water use in mining operations. Even the rehabilitation of mining sites through new biological and chemical solutions for environmentally-friendly waste management and acid mine drainage can allow ecosystems to recover.

But “being green” isn’t just a piecemeal effort for the industry or a trendy marketing campaign. Going forward, the onus will be on mining operations to change their entire business model and adhere to the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

“What I’m most excited about for the future is the prospect of mining companies embracing the role of being a responsible steward of the environment,” says Dr. Priscilla P. Nelson, Dept. Head and Professor, Department of Mining Engineering, Colorado School of Mines. “We have to find a way of participating in the circular economy and identifying creative solutions for reducing raw materials in mining operations by reusing resources and recycling water and materials. This could change the public perception of mining and put the whole industry in a more positive light.”

Today’s shift toward CSR sets the stage for concepts like “green mines” or “zero-waste mining” to become increasingly popular. The goal of “greening mining” is to reduce the environmental impact of mineral and metal extraction and processing, with a focus on new technologies, smarter mining operations and processes, and sustainability best practices.

The good news for mining companies is that “going green” can have its financial benefits. The Green Mining Initiative cites one project in Ontario, Canada that resulted in a 40 percent reduction of energy consumption with an annual savings of up to $4 million.

Since Green Forests Work was founded in 2009, the non-profit reforestation organization and its volunteers have planted millions of trees to restore more than 4,000 acres of formerly mined land in Appalachia. Now, through a partnership with Komatsu, GFW is on track to restore an additional 1,000 acres in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest by 2021.

With billions of tons of inorganic waste or by-products generated by mines every year, “zero-waste mining” might seem beyond reach. Yes, it’s a lofty goal, but more mines are taking a hard look at their waste output and embracing new technologies to help reduce it. Extraction technologies, including ways to extract valuable minerals from red mud, or smelting red mud to recover iron, are being tested.

“Tailings are going to be an issue with lower grades of ore,” says Dr. Nelson. “If you go from an ore that has ten percent of the metal mines are looking for to one-tenth of a percent, that means that tailings are going to increase by a factor of ten, which is pretty significant. This will drive mines to use more advanced technology, like spectroscopy, to decide what to take out of a mine and what to leave down there. The retooling of processing to be more flexible with different grade of ore will also be needed.” 

When we look at the mining industry’s potential contribution to renewable energy and a sustainable world, the script flips to some significant ways that the industry can help lead the way toward a green future. According to the International Energy Agency, renewables will be the leading sources of new energy supply through 2040. It’s estimated that renewables will pass coal as the largest source of electrical generation by 2030. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the mining industry is “uniquely positioned to contribute to the transition to a sustainable world.”

The trend towards renewables means the mining industry will look to extract more and more copper for fueling solar power, wind power, and electric cars. Platinum and palladium are valuable minerals in the production of fuel cells. Tin is also needed for electric cars. Other minerals that are needed for renewable energy include aluminum, lithium, cobalt, and rare earth metals like neodymium and lanthanum.

New frontiers: deep sea, space and rediscovery

As the industry looks further into the future for tomorrow’s opportunities, several key areas emerge as the front runners.

In “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” Jules Verne predicted the future when he described mining operation on the ocean floor. Now that vision is starting to come true. Deep sea mining is a relatively new concept in mining, and undersea technologies are just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible.

The prospect for significant extraction opportunities lies right on sea floors, especially considering that we’ve only explored five percent of the deep ocean. The deep sea has created formation with highly valued metals that can be mined. Polymetallic modules — softball-sized formations that litter the sea bed — are rich sources of nickel, cobalt, copper and magnesium. Polymetallic sulfides form when hot water from the earth’s crust meets cold water, resulting in smokestack formations rich in iron, silver and gold. Underwater crust formations and mountains (mostly in the Pacific) are rich in rare earth metals, like cobalt, vanadium, molybdenum, platinum and tellurium. 

All of these deep-sea formations present massive future opportunities and equally impressive challenges. Enormous capital investments in equipment specifically designed for harsh, deep waters are needed. While some deep-sea mining companies are at the forefront of this new frontier, the technology is yet to be proven on a large scale. Also, the issue of what countries and entities have the right to mine parts of the ocean is sure to be a controversial topic. Finally, many environmentalists are rightly concerned about the impact of mining on a fragile ocean ecosystem.

Providing these issues can be effectively addressed and the challenges overcome, the mining industry can look forward to navigating this new deep-sea frontier that may herald in a new era of productivity.

Space mining might seem like something out of “Star Trek” or “Star Wars,” but it’s a future frontier that may not be too far off. Some experts contend that asteroid mining may be a reality by 2025. Why asteroids and not Mars first? Beside containing valuable minerals like platinum and palladium, reaching an asteroid that’s near to earth requires far less energy than reaching a far-away planet like Mars.

NASA and advocates of space mining have noodled on the many ways that asteroids could be mined, with most ideas focused on launching an interconnected army of robotic devices and crewless mining spaceships to extract minerals and send them back to earth. Some say that human could soon follow, but the low surface gravity of asteroids offers some serious obstacles.

Even though Mars is a much further destination, the red planet is estimated to be rich in ore and other valuable minerals. Also, if colonization is the end goal, mining activities on a planet like Mars may allow colonies to be self-sustainable. NASA continues to tap into fresh minds in academia in brainstorming new mining robotics designed for celestial surfaces like Mars.

MSOE team at NASA Annual Robotic Mining Competition

NASA’s Annual Robotic Mining Competition was established for college students to build an autonomous robot designed to extract soil samples on Mars. If the student team’s design is successful and wins, it could end up actually going to Mars.

The moon is another celestial body much closer to us that offers mining potential as well. The European Space Agency is planning to start mining there by 2025 for resources that can help sustain more extended lunar stays and research. The moon’s surface is rich in iron oxide, and scientists say that it may be possible to extract deep pockets of oxygen from lunar soil. 

Sure, spacing mining might sound like a fantasy from the latest sci-fi movie, space agencies, the academic community, and scientist dreamers are quickly laying the foundation for “the final frontier” in mining.

Back down to earth, robotics may help the industry to rediscover opportunities to reopen abandoned mines. As mentioned earlier, automated technologies, as well as underwater gear, offer opportunities to reopen old mines for new excavations projects, even when they’ve been flooded. The Viable Alternative Mine Operating System (VAMOS) is new tech developed by a consortium of 16 European organization and research entities. Their underwater system isn’t for the ocean floor but is being tested at the closed and flooded Silvermines, Ireland site to mine for baryte, the principal ore of barium.

Robotic systems have already been developed to enter areas that are off-limits to human, helping to map abandoned mines for potential reopening or to search for valuable minerals. With the thousands of shuttered or flooded sites throughout the world, high-tech robots and machines could help create significant new sources of mining revenues from old mines.

The future of mining looks bright

There’s no doubt the mining industry faces some significant challenges. The increasing demand for minerals and metals coupled with the pressure to increase output cost-effectively puts many mining operations in a tough spot.

Fortunately, digital transformation and new technologies offer mining companies golden opportunities to become more efficient, boost production, and cut costs while making the work environment safer. And, although the push for sustainability and environmentalism may have headwinds, mining operations are becoming increasingly “green” and also benefiting from the push for materials to build electric cars and renewable fuel sources of energy. Finally, future opportunities for mining in the deep sea, space, and abandoned mines mean the industry has more frontiers to conquer.