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Mining technologies for tomorrow

Carly Leonida and Joe Carr talk about overcoming the technology adoption challenge in mining, and examine some technologies that could change the course of the industry

Following on from my recent discussions with Clareo’s Satish Rao, in which we explored the potential convergence of the mining and energy sectors in critical minerals, and NORCAT’s Don Duval covering product development, I wanted to examine some of the technologies and techniques that could potentially reshape mining as we know it.

Joe Carr, mining engineer and former Mining Innovation Director at Axora and also at Inmarsat, is no stranger to this blog, and he was a natural choice for the final interview in my mining innovation and collaboration odyssey.

But, first, I asked Carr to set the scene for us.

Joe Carr is director of mining innovation at Axora
Mining engineer and innovation expert, Joe Carr

“If we look at the overarching trends, and the processes and technologies that miners are talking about today, there are a lot of buzzwords,” he explained. “Things like drones, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and automation… There are discussions around mining vehicles of the future and how they’re going to be powered – will they be battery-electric, or hydrogen driven? Rio Tinto recently trialled renewable diesel at its Borax mine in the US…

“The mining industry is very good at talking about innovation, but it’s relatively slow at actioning it. Progress tends to be confined to the major OEMs and tier one miners, because they have the budgets and the scale needed to overcome the adoption challenges associated with new technologies today.”

Getting over the adoption issue

It’s true. The mining industry places a huge focus on creating new solutions, but it’s their deployment into usable, functional areas within mines that’s proving trickier.

AI is a good example. It holds massive potential in improving functions, such as mine maintenance, and everyone’s talking about it. But only a handful of mines are using it in that context today.

“There’s a strange dichotomy in mining whereby companies are afraid to take risks once it comes to production. However, it all begins with exploration essentially a bunch of juniors drilling holes in the side of a mountain and making inferences based on the results; it doesn’t get much riskier than that,” said Carr with a hint of irony.

“The exploration side of the market is very progressive in that sense, but the fail fast mentality generally disappears by the operations stage. There’s a strong hesitancy to uptake new technology, despite initial interest.”

A particular bug bear of Carr’s is the mining industry’s mentality that ‘the technology won’t work because we didn’t build it ourselves’.

“A lot of innovation projects get canned because mining companies decide, after testing, that they’d rather build the technology themselves and keep the intellectual property,” he explained. “Mining companies are full of smart people who build great tools, but they’re not great at supporting and maintaining them over time.

“I’ve been to many mining operations where mine planning, for example, relies on a huge spreadsheet with 50 tabs and a load of macros. Nobody knows how it works, because it was written by someone 15 years ago and that person left the company. The team only uses three tabs and are too scared to touch the other 47 in case it breaks.

“When miners build technologies, they tend to build them as a project and when the project’s finished, everyone moves on to the next one. There’s very little thought given to how that technology will be maintained for the life-of-mine.

“We need to get past this trend to speed up the adoption of new technologies and ensure they’re usage is sustainable.”

Competitors to collaborators

Internally, the past 2-3 years have seen greater collaboration between mining companies on key sustainability challenges, as well as a number of open innovation challenges and hackathons.

In May 2023, competitors BHP and Codelco signed a five-year agreement on open collaboration around sustainable mining starting with water, which makes sense given that many of their key operations are in water stressed regions and, together, these companies account for the majority of global copper production.

Cooperations like these tend to only happen around shared pain points for miners, and usually only amongst the majors and the mid-tier producers. Very few juniors are yet to form these types of alliances. Yet it’s at the smaller end of the production scale that some of the greatest opportunities for step changes lie.

Establishing transparent and responsible supply chains for certain critical minerals will be easier than for others depending upon their country of origin and downstream manufacturing. Image: Unsplash

“I do wonder how widely open innovation challenges are publicised,” I said. “Is the mining industry essentially talking to itself or are companies reaching out to their peers in say, the water or oil and gas sectors, and asking for fresh ideas?”

“It’s hard to tell,” said Carr. “Most innovation challenges just pop up on mining company websites and, unless vendors are signed up to receive alerts, they might not hear about them. There’s probably a certain amount of the industry talking to itself…

“Or, if it’s talking publicly, it’s talking very quietly. I don’t see many miners standing up at water industry conferences and saying: ‘hey, we want to talk to you’. Most mining companies expect people to come to them.”

He added that miners also love to do trials which usually last at least six months. Then the startup that’s providing the technology has to wait, maybe another 90 days for supply chain to pay them. By which point, they might have run out of funding.

“For small companies, sales cycles of 18 months are untenable,” said Carr. “I know some big miners have commitments which ensure small, local suppliers have 30-day payment terms, but what we need is an industry-wide strategy for that and a rubber stamp that says: ‘this technology has been proven at site X to this standard, so it’s verified for use at similar sites’. Almost like an ISO standard, so that vendors don’t have to keep verifying their technology.

“For instance, if BHP pilots a technology at a copper mine in, say, Chile, there’s really no need for Codelco to do another pilot at a copper mine in the same region; the technology has already been verified, and the recent agreement between those two companies acknowledges that approach.

“We need more models like that.”

“Do you think we’ll see more collaborative innovation in value chains going forward, particularly around key challenges like decarbonisation and waste management?” I asked.

“I do,” replied Carr. “Especially where it’s driven by external factors or non-competitive requirements. The poster child for value chain transparency is the Kimberley Process which ensures diamond traceability.

“The question is: can we do something similar for critical metals, like cobalt? These initiatives are largely driven by consumer companies, and there’s got to be a market requirement. Ultimately, somebody’s got to pay for it, and miners are, understandably, loath to take on extra cost, if there’s no additional benefit.

“With critical minerals, it’s a lot easier to trace supply chains that originate in countries, like Australia, as opposed to, say, the DRC, and we see that reflected in legislation like the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

“I think we’ll see transparency in some supply chains a lot faster than in others. And, of course, that applies to manufacturing centres for items like batteries too.”

Harnessing transferrable technologies

“Are there any transferrable technologies or synergies from oil and gas that could be deployed relatively quickly and with low risk in mining?” I asked Carr.

“There are. I recently gave a presentation on deep sea mining which has a lot of parallels with the oil and gas sector, specifically shale gas,” he replied.

“I think we’ll see something similar in the lithium brine world, where companies like Cornish Lithium are exploring the potential for direct lithium extraction (DLE) to be used on geothermal waters. Again, the technology has been around a while, but it’s new to the mining sector and it has incredible potential to transform the lithium extraction market.

3D printing holds huge potential for transforming spare parts business models in mining. Image: Unsplash

“With that, I think we’ll see a big play from oil and gas majors and their suppliers coming into mining. Lithium is a multi-billion-dollar market and the predicted growth in electric vehicles over the next 30-40 years is huge. If the mining market isn’t careful, it could get caught looking the wrong way.”

“An interesting one to watch over the next five years,” I offered.

“Potentially faster than five years,” said Carr. “The extent and distribution of lithium-rich brines is currently unknown. When we start looking in earnest, we might find they’re really common. In which case, it will be interesting to see which country becomes the ‘Saudi Arabia of lithium brines’.

“Also, what’s their chemical composition like? Is it easier to extract lithium from different types of brine? How easy is it to extract other elements too? We just don’t know at the moment.”

Untapped potential

“Final question: which technologies could change the trajectory of mining over the next decade, or longer?” I asked.

“There’s a couple,” said Carr. “3D metal printing is a really interesting technology that’s not being used to its full potential yet in mining. OEMs could potentially pivot their parts and services businesses and license mines to print their own parts for, say, truck engines.

“Again, there’s hesitancy when it comes to using this technology to print critical parts, and there could be issues around warranties and validation, but there’s also huge potential to cut down on inventories, shipping costs and lead times, as well as the carbon footprint of equipment.

“Automation and remote operations have been talked about to death, but they are important, especially in creating zero-entry underground mines for difficult deposits. AI holds huge potential for mineral discovery, and the expansion of brownfield sites – there may be significant sources of value that we’ve missed.

“Likewise, many mining companies have huge repositories of data that could be ‘mined’ for potential discoveries using AI. There may be deposits out there that weren’t economically viable 150 years ago due to metal prices or available technologies, but they might be today.”

He added that modular, small-scale processing plants could be useful in exploiting deposits that can’t be mined economically with current processes. Again, these concepts and/or technologies already exist but are yet to be widely adopted. For example, Gekko Systems has been selling its Python mobile processing plant for years.

Novamera is developing a surgical mining technique that could be combined with a mobile processing plant to create low-footprint operations for narrow vein mining. And then Inspire Resources worked with OZ Minerals (now part of BHP) on its Scalable & Adaptable Mining challenge.

The key, as with most innovations, will be creating business models and companies to leverage them, and take these kinds of concepts mainstream.

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