Digital Mining: Efficiency and Sustainability Through Innovation
- Mining industry leaders are changing: they are more eager to activate innovations driving efficiency and sustainability within their operations, all the while understanding that there are no quick wins.
- Governments need to get creative and flexible with the eligibility criteria of funding programs for companies producing innovative mining tech that are ready to scale.
- Digital technologies, such as real-time sensors, AI and others, promote efficiency at-scale in mining operations. New datasets enable leaders to make more targeted decisions that yield higher productivity and reduce a mine’s environmental footprint.
Mining industry leaders must expand their horizons and network with industries that are advanced in AI, mobility and more. There are many knowledgeable industries whose innovations could be applied to mining operations. Pay attention and engage; the answers might already be there.
What has changed in terms of how the Canadian mining industry approaches innovation and sustainability today?
There has been a shift in approach. Anyone who has worked in or with the mining industry is probably familiar with the saying: “everybody in mining is in a race to be second.” A decade ago, the mining industry was infamous for being very conservative, and with reason; mining works on much larger scales than a manufacturing plant and there are more unknowns, including safety considerations.
“Today, mining companies are more willing to put resources aside to support new product testing. I have experienced this shift in approach first hand.”
Today, mining companies are more willing to put resources aside to support new product testing. I have experienced this shift in approach first hand.At the beginning of our product development when our technology was unproven, some of our own customers said: “there is a low probability that you will succeed right away, but we understand that we need to stay patient because if you do succeed, it will bring our operations great value.” There are no fast answers in mining, so it’s important to have leaders that focus on big wins while managing uncertainty.
What do our governments need to do to support and speed up the commercialization of our world-class mining tech?
The Canadian business environment is very focused on the early stages. If you want to get grants for fundamental research, the level of support is very strong — probably stronger than in the United States. When MineSense was an early stage company, we received tremendous support from funding programs offered by Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) and Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP).
But when it comes to support for scaling up young Canadian companies — to make them true, world-class, revenue-producing and profit-making organizations — that is where there is a funding gap. This seems to be a common theme amongst my colleagues who are also scaling up their companies.
“The government is shifting gears and getting more creative with the types of funding tools that can be made available to companies that produce innovative technologies that don’t fit into the typical mature company mold.”
Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and Export Development Canada (EDC) are working very hard to change this and we are in discussions with both of them. It is great to see that they are working to close this funding gap and thatthe government is shifting gears and getting more creative with the types of funding tools that can be made available to companies that produce innovative technologies that don’t fit into the typical mature company mold.Venture debt — a type of debt financing obtained by early-stage companies that have grown out of early-stage funding programs — is one example of finance instruments that can be put to use in this stage. The funding is there; we just need the right eligibility criteria to unlock it.
How will digital technologies, such as data capture and analytics, improve the productivity and sustainability of our future mining industry?
Digital technologies such as real-time sensors can provide mining companies thousands of data points that they never had before, enabling them to understand more and measure orebodies on a regular basis, without disrupting the production and the environment more than they have to.
Given that the true objective of any mine is to obtain the most accurate, meaningful and useful data, real-time sensors have the potential to rewrite many traditional processes altogether.Specifically, they can disrupt the antiquated process of sampling orebodies, providing much more robust and accurate information.
Because of the lack of precision of the traditional sampling process, mine plans are measured in thousands of tonnes rather than tonnes, The process also misses key elements of the ore bodies’ natural heterogeneity and therefore is more costly and leaves a larger environmental footprint.These increases in efficiency that technology can bring go hand in hand with sustainability.
“Given that the true objective of any mine is to obtain the most accurate, meaningful and useful data, real-time sensors have the potential to rewrite many traditional processes altogether.”
Real-time sensors help mining companies measure their orebody samples in much smaller and selective mining units.This can be done with products like ShovelSense, which fits into existing shovels and buckets, and evaluates ore using X-ray fluorescence technology. For example, if a mining company’s decision-making is typically based at a 5,000 tonnes of orebody level, real-time sensors can increase that precision to have visibility at a 90 tonne level;, representing a 98% decrease.
As part of this, real-time sensors identify and eliminate waste as early as possible. This often exists in the blocks designated as valuable ore, so that waste is unnecessarily processed. Conversely, good ore exists in the blocks designated as waste so those valuable metals are thrown into the waste dump. .
Real-time sensors can provide operators accurate information on what is actually in the rock, and that allows them to take waste out of the process very early and ensure more good ore is recovered. This reduces the amount of water and power needed for the energy-intensive crushing and grinding processes per metal units produced.
How can we improve collaboration between the mining industry and other Canadian technology industries?
Mining is an important industry in Canada, so there should be the advantage of critical mass in terms of Canadians driving innovation. There is a tremendous opportunity to seize advancements in AI from other Canadian industries and apply some of those fundamentals to mining.If a company can improve something that is already in existence and that has critical mass, by definition the improvements it creates are going to be very large and most likely benefit multiple industries.
I have always been a big fan of what I call translation — where the fundamentals of innovative use cases are applied to other sectors. For example, if there are companies developing AI applications for other industry sectors, it would make sense for mining industry leaders to pay attention to their work and engage with them. There might be a clear and immediate translation leading to “ah-ha” moments.
“Mining industry leaders should connect with companies who think very differently from them.”
Mining industry leaders should connect with companies who think very differently from them. One way to break down silos is to start including mining into the discussion through online forums, AI and tech conferences, related industry workshops, and so on. Leaders need to get mining on the forefront of these various sectors’ minds and focus on identifying innovations that can be applied to mining.
What will Canada’s mining industry look like in 20 to 30 years from now?
In 20 or 30 years, we will have figured out ways to increase the production of mining, while decreasing the environmental impact because we will be much more efficient in how we extract resources. Methods that are often considered uneconomical today will become future solutions.
I would also see that the whole information ecosystem is much more coordinated within all the different parts of a working mine. There is so much complexity in these legacy industries and industrial processes, which means there is a lot of information available. Put together in a better and more intelligent way, that information can have tremendous value for the future of mining. Lastly, I would see a mining industry that is less dependent on commodity swings that it cannot control, and has more of its profitability in its own hands.
Part of the Future of Mining Series presented by: