Using mining’s past and present to shape an industry fit for the future – The Intelligent Miner

At the end of August, 2023, I had the pleasure…

At the end of August, 2023, I had the pleasure of delivering a presentation to some of the world’s leading figures in mineral exploration.

The Amira Exploration Manager’s Conference brought together explorers, technology vendors, researchers and non-profits, at London’s Natural History Museum for a frank look at what lies ahead and what’s important today.

“But I’m not an expert in exploration.” I told Hayley McGillivray, the conference producer, upon her invitation. “I’m not even a practicing geologist!”

“That’s fine,” she told me. “We want something different, and you have a unique perspective on the industry.”

The prospect was flattering but a little daunting (there’s a reason I generally write my thoughts rather than speak them out loud). What value could I bring to the attendees? I wondered. What am I good at seeing that others sometimes don’t?

Answer: macro-scale trends.

I’ve spent the past 15 years interviewing the good and great of the mining and metals industry; executives, operators, researchers and consultants… You name them, I’ve probably been tasked with committing their thoughts to paper at some point.

I get to pick these people’s brains on the subjects and issues that matter the most to them. This means that, over the years, I’ve stitched together all these little pockets of knowledge across the value chain and across the resource lifecycle, to create a really rich overview of the challenges and opportunities that the mining industry faces.

And that was when I struck upon the idea of using reflective practices to look at how past projects, events and experiences are influencing the mining industry’s present and future.

Allow me to explain…

Why examine the past?

There are lots of different trains of thought around this, but one of my favourite quotes that captures it perfectly comes from the author Terry Pratchett in his book, I Shall Wear Midnight. It goes like this…

“If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”

– Terry Pratchett, I shall wear midnight

This past, present and future mentality matters now because the mining and metals industry is currently undergoing a period of intense and fundamental transformation which is being driven by lots of different factors, but mainly by external views of what it does and how it does it.

The Energy Transition Commission published a good report in July titled “Material and Resource Requirements for the Energy Transition” which found that between 2022–2050, the energy transition could require the production of 6.5 billion tonnes of end-use materials.

95% of these would be steel, copper and aluminium, with smaller quantities of critical minerals, such as lithium, cobalt, graphite or rare earths.

It’s hard to imagine what 6.5 billion tonnes of material looks like. In a article published in the run up to COP26 in November 2021, the journalist Frik Els gave a great comparison which I like to use for perspective.

He said that the 19 million tonnes of additional copper that need to be delivered for net-zero to be achieved by 2050 implies a new mine the size of Escondida in Chile – the world’s largest copper mine – must be discovered and brought into production every year for the next 20 years.

Now discoveries like Escondida aren’t ten a penny… They are once in a generation finds… In that absence, it’s going to take a raft of smaller scale discoveries and projects, most of which will be relatively low grade, to bring that supply base online.

And without transformation, without new extraction techniques and good environmental and social governance (ESG), the negative impacts that the mining industry could generate to produce those materials could outweigh the benefit of supplying them.

This massive increase in demand for certain metals has meant that more people are taking an interest in mining and the impacts that current processes and systems create.

That’s not a bad thing. I’m a great believer that we are all stakeholders in the mining industry, by virtue of our dependence upon the raw materials it provides, and everyone has a right to expect transparent, responsible practices.

But it’s really important that the industry doesn’t set its trajectory for the next 20,30,50, even 500 years, based purely on external drivers.

The opportunity for change on this scale doesn’t come about very often, and by being proactive, by taking the time to step back, to look at past performance and strategies, both good and bad, there is a chance to rethink the way that we mine and the role that the industry can play in the future of society and of the planet.

BHP Escondida chile
A view of BHP’s Escondida copper mine in Chile. Image: BHP

New ways with old technologies

First up, let’s look at where past technologies have helped to unlock value.

First, because that’s what floats my boat, and second, because the industry is accustomed to revisiting projects or concepts that, for whatever reason, didn’t take off first time around. But there will be similar examples in the social and environmental space if we care to look for them.

Technology and equipment are key to modern mining, they are enablers and, increasingly, a competitive differentiator.

Over the past 30-40 years, many mining companies have shifted their innovation and R&D work away from in-house teams and functions, outsourcing it to a worldwide ecosystem of equipment, technology and service providers.

Now it takes time to develop, test and, crucially, adopt new technologies. The industry’s past is littered with projects that some might call ‘failures’, but many of these weren’t necessarily failures of technology, they were just concepts that weren’t supported by the right market or operational conditions, and therefore didn’t see widespread adoption.

However, things change, and a number of these concepts have been revisited recently with varying results.

In-pit crushing and conveying

Take in-pit crushing and conveying (IPCC), for example.

A typical IPCC system comprises fully-mobile, semi-mobile or fixed crushing stations located in the pit. These are connected to a network of conveyors and spreaders or stackers to transport material out of the pit and on to the processing plant.

These systems were first conceived in the 1970-80s as an alternative to truck haulage, but a number of unsuccessful installations meant that the technology never really took off.

However, truck haulage can be really inefficient in terms of energy and fuel usage. For instance, fully loaded conveyors use more than 80% of the received energy to transport material, while mine trucks use more than 60% of the fuel they burn just to move just themselves, including on empty trips.

Conveyors also support the move towards electrification which is a massive focus for mining companies today as many have net zero targets in place for 2050 or sooner. According to OEM FLSmidth, the use of IPCC can reduce a mine’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

That number is based on a study from Vale Carajas mine in Brazil. In fact, Vale is a big proponent of IPCC technology, having opted to use it at its Minas Rio and S11D operations too.

Codelco recently engaged Metso to design and install a semi-mobile primary crushing plant for its Radomiro Tomic copper operation in Chile, and there are lots of other examples.

The concept has seen something of a revival, and while it’s not going to be suitable for every mine, it’s widely acknowledged that the mining industry will need a range of solutions to decarbonise and IPCC could play an important part in that.

Combined with things like in-pit bulk sorting, IPCC could help to drive down waste, as well as energy and water usage in subsequent processing steps, making mining operations more sustainable, environmentally, socially and from a cost perspective.

A trolley-assist system in operation at Boliden’s Aitik mine. Image: Boliden

Trolley assist

Trolley assist systems for haul trucks are another technology that’s growing in popularity as the mining industry moves towards a greener future. Trolley assist technology was first deployed in South African mines during the 1980s but, again, it fell out of fashion due to its limited applicability given the prevailing conditions.

Boliden’s Aitik mine in Sweden became the poster child for its reintroduction in 2018 when it began testing the technology on a 700m uphill section of its haul route out of the main pit. The project was so successful that 3km of trolley lines have now been installed at Aitik, and these are expected to reduce the mine’s GHG emissions by 15% over its lifetime.

The Kevitsa mine in Finland now also has a 1.8-kilometre-long trolley line. This will reduce the operation’s GHG emissions by 9% over the life of mine and, together, these are expected to reduce Boliden’s diesel consumption by 5,500 cubic metres per year.

A modern underground version of a trolley system is even being developed by the BluVein consortium which allows the dynamic charging of electric vehicles during haulage.

What else?

Dry stacking of tailings is another concept that’s being revisited and rethought with a view to creating alternative options for mine waste management – Anglo American recently completed initial testing for its Hydraulic Dewatered Stacking concept at its El Soldado mine in Chile.

If companies like this can make dewatered tailings storage a reality at scale, there are huge potential benefits from an ESG perspective, but also in circular economy when it comes to things like water reuse and recycling.

Hard rock cutting made a come back a few years ago with respect to speeding development for underground mining operations. OEMs like Komatsu, Caterpillar and Epiroc (which was Atlas Copco at the time) came up with a number of prototype machines.

Not all of these projects were successful but, I think that, with the right partners and opportunities, hard rock cutting, as a concept, still has legs.

The point being, once we start to look for these examples, they’re everywhere. And there will be examples in adjacent industries too, like oil and gas, manufacturing and agriculture.

Data – mining the past for new discoveries

Which leads me nicely to data.

We’re all familiar with the phrase “data is the new oil” which, should give some indication as to how much value there can be in it.

Every time mining companies, juniors and explorers run a campaign, they collect huge volumes of data. Some of that data’s related to drilling and the geology in question, but these days there’s also information gathered on the local environment and ecology, intersections with community interests and different land uses. And not all that data gets used in some shape or form.

Some of these datasets, which can span decades, reside in filing cabinets, warehouses and repositories across the globe just gathering dust. And that’s before we even start to consider publicly available sources of data from the past 100 years or more – for instance, records held by different geological surveys – right up to satellite data which, today, can be incredibly accurate and accessed (in some cases) by anyone.

Komatsu MC51 1536x949 2
Komatsu’s MC51 uses hard-rock cutting technology to advance mine development. Image: Komatsu

In light of this, not only are many of the majors starting to scour this data for useful information that might have been missed, but there’s a whole host of start-ups too that are using algorithms and trends or patterns in data to identify deposits that may not have been economically or technically viable upon discovery, but which could be today given the processes and business models that are available to us.

KoBold Metals has received a lot of attention in the media recently for this. The company has around 60 projects spread across three continents, and it’s using a combination of geoscience, data aggregation and AI to home in on potential discoveries of lithium, cobalt, copper and nickel.

It has the financial backing of organisations like T. Rowe Price and Breakthrough Energy Ventures, as well as traditional miners and metals providers, like BHP and Mitsubishi, and it recently hit that magical $1 billion valuation which gives companies unicorn status.

Other start-ups working in a similar vein, include Boston-based VerAI Discoveries which describes itself as an “AI based mineral asset generator”. The company claims that it’s methodology increases the probability of success in discovering economic deposits by two orders of magnitude, shortening the targeting time from years to months and reducing the targeting costs by over 90%.

The success of these companies efforts and those of larger players will obviously depend upon the type and quantity of data that’s available to them, as well as its quality.

It’s also going to depend upon the platforms and systems available to sort through their data, and the training of algorithms to achieve the requisite accuracy is going to take time, but I think we can all agree that there’s huge potential here.

What can we learn from these examples?

That there’s significant value in re-examining the past right across the board. It not only influences where companies, where the industry is at today, but it could also provide new opportunities to meet future production, safety, environmental and social goals.

And by evaluating these opportunities early on in projects, we have the best possible chance of capitalising on them and in managing potential risks in the right way.

And why does any of this matter to mineral exploration?

Because exploration sits right at the start of linear value chains and, as the world moves towards a circular economy, it will play a key role in keeping value circulating. In other words, what we do in mineral exploration, sets the standard for everything that follows. Get that right and every subsequent step is set up for success.

Also, it just makes good business sense to use the tools and lessons that we have available right now to do what we do better. And let’s be frank, exploration geologists are really good at examining the past and finding value in it. So let’s use those skills and widen the lens a little bit.

Ultimately, the deposits we discover today, greenfield or brownfield, and the way in which they are developed set the tone for the next 50 years or more of mineral production. They will quite literally enable the energy transition.

The question is: how would you like that future to look?

This article summarises a presentation that was written for and delivered at the Amira Exploration Manager’s Conference in August 2023

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