The mining industry is facing mounting pressure to reduce carbon emissions from all angles – investors, stakeholders and customers – to meet urgent climate change goals.
But despite the challenges ahead, mining could potentially almost fully decarbonise. Innovation with emerging technologies, IT and data-driven decision making will lead the way in reducing carbon emissions and cementing the mining industry’s important role in working towards a greener world.
The role of emerging technologies
AI and machine learning have the ability to gather enormous amounts of data to inform operational decisions, including those that would affect the environment.
Forecasts gleaned from these data insights are potentially one of mining companies’ most valuable assets for planning realistic pathways to effective and sustainable decarbonisation goals.
They also provide the potential for accurate reporting of emissions and evidence of target achievement for long-term reputational enhancement, and to appease stakeholders and investors for long-term growth against competitors.
As companies like tech giant Apple choose to purchase carbon-free aluminium for their products to appeal to their own customer base, evidential proof that mining companies can hit planned targets to reduce carbon emissions may soon become vital for business longevity.
Not to mention, that data insights can deliver additional benefits like cost-savings by allowing thorough review of carbon reduction strategies before any initial investment or expensive change to operations is implemented.
On the operational side, there is massive potential for new technologies to acquire data and inform companies about the surrounding environment.
This kind of innovation is already emerging in oil and gas, seen in projects such as ExxonMobil’s partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to design AI robots for ocean exploration. The application of these robots would be to monitor, map, and analyse the oceans, but they also have the potential to indicate where best to find energy resources in an eco-friendly manner.
Already, the benefits to carbon reduction when implementing emerging technologies and automation into mining operations and equipment are becoming clear.
For example, Shyft Inc developed AI-enhanced technology to automatically adjust mine ventilation systems. This not only achieves significant energy cost reductions, as ventilation is one of the largest energy costs in underground mines but, in addition, lowers the environmental footprint.
But to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goals will require global cooperation across the mining sector and its supply chains. It will also require cooperation to exist while protecting mining companies’ business interests, anonymised data reporting systems and secure, resilient IT infrastructures will need to be implemented.
How data can help to reduce carbon emissions?
The sticking point in global cooperation is the immense value of a company’s data to its competitors.
Mining companies may understandably be reluctant to share data insights with the industry as a whole, should it enable a competitor to glean insight into its operations. However, this issue has previously been overcome in offshore wind.
Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult developed an anonymised database to increase industry collaboration in off-shore wind to tackle issues with subsea cable failures. The database allows both individual companies and the industry as a whole to learn and benefit through insights into the causes of equipment failures.
Given that tackling the climate change emergency is one of the most pressing issues of our time, initiatives like these could be immensely beneficial to the mining industry as a whole and help to speed up progress in reducing carbon emissions.
A robust and secure IT network is vital
Innovation in information technology (IT) is an often overlooked but integral element to successfully implementing both emerging technologies and data-driven decision making, as part of decarbonisation efforts.
Previously, ISN Solutions has worked with oil and gas and exploration companies to implement a robust network infrastructure that unifies IT and operational technologies (OT) to link the capabilities of machinery and intelligent software and ensure data insights are instantly accessible company-wide.
Combining OT and IT could also enhance mining companies’ ability to more effectively reduce their carbon emissions, as combining insights from both the operational and business side will be needed to action sustainable solutions, and a seamless integrated network is a reliable way to reach all relevant personnel, whether underground, or in another part of the world.
Cyber security concerns have led to past reluctance, certainly in oil and gas, to link OT and IT. However, I have seen effective solutions implemented to nullify security risks during my time at ISN Solutions. As an example, we have implemented secure firewalls to analyse data transferred from both ends of the business and uphold network security.
Linking these two areas is only one part of an ongoing initiative spanning the entire mining sector to create intelligent, connected operations, along with industry-wide goals to improve network infrastructure, connectivity and increase the implementation of digitalisation.
Of course, the challenges in maintaining network uptime for mining operations stem from their remoteness; similar to offshore oil and gas, the issue usually lies in minimal provisions of communications infrastructure.
But, again, this issue has been consistently overcome in offshore oil and gas through strategies to implement robust communications infrastructure using a variety of technologies in combination – satellite and wireless (4G) – for many years.
This is theoretically possible for the mining sector too and, in fact, wireless is emerging as the communications technology of choice to enable mining companies to connect their people, equipment and IT systems, even workers underground.
Although robust network solutions may require initial investment, the impacts are enormous, not only due to the potential to make more use of emerging technologies to control and reduce carbon emissions, but for improvements in workers’ safety and productivity too.
No easy answers
Regardless of the pathways chosen for mining companies to reduce their carbon emissions, achieving reduction goals in line with the Paris Agreement and meeting the expectations of an increasingly environmentally conscious society is paramount to securing the future of mining.
Some decarbonisation strategies, including electrifying equipment (pumps, heaters etc.), use of electric vehicles and using renewable energy to power equipment, are perhaps easier to implement than IT innovation and new technologies.
However, it will be necessary to implement innovation across all areas of mining operations and for the industry to strive towards the same robust and reliable infrastructures achieved in oil and gas if mining is to play a critical role in preserving our planet.