This year’s summer exhibit, ‘I Heart Carbon’, was made possible in part through the support of Innovation150. As a part of the Innovation150 program, the exhibit touches on Canadian innovation – in particular, Canadian Innovation with respect to carbon.
But what about mining?
What about it indeed. The exhibit does not explore mining and its relationship with carbon, although there clearly is a close connection. Take coal mining, for example. It is a major industry within our province. Then there are the efforts to reduce environmental impact such as the testing of LNG powered haul trucks by Teck (Behind the Pilot: LNG Truck Conversion at Fording River Operations, June 22, 2016, http://www.teck.com/news/stories/2016/behind-the-pilot--lng-truck-conversion-at-fording-river-operations). Further, the Mining Association of Canada issued the following statement last year:
‘Today, one of Canada’s largest industries is coming out in support of a carbon price, identifying it as the most effective and efficient means of driving emissions reductions and making real progress in the global fight against climate change.’ (Mining industry supports carbon price to address climate change, April 13, 2016, http://mining.ca/news-events/press-releases/mining-industry-supports-carbon-price-address-climate-change )
But while the industry is moving forward in many aspects, I can’t help but think about a presentation I attended which cast the industry in a different light. The thesis of the presentation was that the mining industry is failing to innovate. It is failing to develop or adopt new methodologies. In essence, it still operates, in general, by the same principles it has since mechanization first transformed it over 100 years ago. In particular, this presentation looked at how hard rock mining still employs the same drill-blast-move approach which comes with some significant operational inefficiency (in particular, the downtime between each of these stages of operation).
What about mineral separation though? Surely it has advanced over the past century, or has it? Well, it has, and it has not. Let’s explore this a little.
In the 1960s, Barney Greenlee, who at the time was the General Manager of Britannia, referred to our Mill 3 as ‘metallurgically efficient, but mechanically inefficient’. By that, he meant that it produced a high grade concentrate – its end product – but the process in producing it was not efficient. Now what we have to keep in mind is that at this time (1960s), Mill 3 was already 30 years old. While there had been upgrades to the machines within the Mill several times over that period, the processing was still limited by the physical design of the building – a design intended to use gravity to assist in the movement of ore. The development of more efficient methods of moving rock left our Mill behind. So it could be said from that alone that advancement in mineral separation did occur.
But let’s look a little deeper. Consider the following from ‘Is innovation in mining and oxymoron?’
‘For example, it has been estimated that comminution [breaking ore into smaller pieces] consumes up to 3% of all the electric power generated in the world: enough to power Germany! At minesites, communition consumes about 50% of the energy used; it is unarguably a major cost component. Yet, grinding in conventional ball mills is terribly inefficient, perhaps only 1-5% in fundamental terms. Can you think of many industries that are using a technology that is over 100 years old and at most, 5% efficient?’ (Is Mining an Oxymoron?, Nathan Stubina, Northern Miner, November 11, 2015, http://www.northernminer.com/environment/is-mining-innovation-an-oxymoron/1003720952/ )
Britannia used ball mills, as well as the more efficient rod mills. Today, SAG and AG mills even offer greater efficiency as measured through tonnes of rock processed per hour.
And there is the catch – throughput. The great advancement of the 1900s was throughput. Mines increased how much they could mine and process per hour. Just like with all other industries, this increase brought reduced costs per unit.
But how innovative has the industry been?
The point, going back to that presentation, is that the industry has been slow to adopt new approaches to mining.
But that is changing, and Canadian companies are a part of this shift.
Here are three stories which capture what it means to be innovative within the mining industry:
1. Unearthed Hackathon comes to Canada (Toronto)
This March saw the first Hackathon presented by Unearthed in Canada. These Hackathon series aim to bring disruptive thinking – new ideas – to solve old problems within the mineral resources sector. Canadian Companies such as Barrick Gold participated by providing real data and challenges to participants with the opportunity to win prizes as well as future development opportunities.
2. Integra Gold tells the world where its gold is
‘In 2015 Integra Gold open-sourced the data on its Lamaque project in Val-d’Or, Que.’ (Digital disruption rocks the mining world’, Toronto Star, https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2017/03/07/digital-disruption-rocks-the-mining-world.html ) By opening up their data, they were able to tap into a vast network of people that were able to enhance their deposit projecting capabilities. This is similar to the network computing model which has been used for a variety of computing specific applications within the sciences. The result of this approach was better modeling of their ore deposits.
Goldcorp and Integra gold recently concluded a mining innovation initiative called #disruptmining. Working similar to Dragon’s Den and other pitch shows, this effort allowed five pitches to be presented for consideration. The top prize: investment in the pitch idea as well as contract with a mining company to implement it.
So what were the big ideas? One of them, presented by Cementation Canada presents a way to disrupt that drill-blast-move mainstay mentioned above by replacing well established underground haulage systems with pipes which will carry ore in a slurry to the surface. For more on the ideas presented, take a look at 'Economics, Environment Drive Mining Innovation' (Business in Vancouver, March 14, 2017) and 'From Virtual Reality to Programmable Bacteria:Mining Innovation on Display' (The Canadian Press, March 9, 2017, via Huddle).
These are just three examples of how an industry which is known for not moving quickly is demonstrating a desire and an ability to bring innovative, disruptive thinking and technology to bear on the challenges it faces.
As Canada celebrates its 150th and looks to what the next 150 years may bring, it is good to see that this industry which has played such an important role in our history is continuing to evolve and innovate so that we can meet our mined resource needs well into the future.