Improving efficiency of mines with environmental monitoring

Throughout the world, mining companies are coming under increasing pressure to improve the performance and efficiency of their operations.

The challenge stems from fluctuating customer demand and shifting commodity prices. Keeping production costs down is a top priority to ensure profit margin can be maintained.

To achieve this, attention must be given to all facets of the operation. Extraction, processing and transportation all need to be as efficient as possible and work together as a cohesive whole.

The importance of monitoring

Increasingly, mining companies are coming to realise that better monitoring of the environment in which they are operating can have a significant, positive impact on the bottom line. By truly understanding what is happening across a facility, more informed decisions can be made about its operation.

Monitoring becomes even more powerful when external data sources such as weather forecasts are also utilised and related to day-to-day operations. This can help when scheduling works to ensure that the most appropriate activities are carried out at the best possible time.

Effectively monitoring a mine site can be greatly improved by the installation of a network of sensors. Using a sensor network to gather data and feed it in real-time back to a centralised information platform allows a clear whole of facility picture to be understood reducing risk and extending traditional operation monitoring capabilities. Sensors that can be deployed on a mine site include:

  • Mining equipment: Attached to earth moving and extraction equipment, these sensors can monitor the location, level of noise and emissions being produced.
  • Site perimeter: Situated at the edge of the mining facility, these sensors can gather data on the amount of dust being generated or other fugitive emissions associated with mining activity.
  • Weather: Positioned at strategic locations on the site, these sensors can provide real-time data on everything from wind speed and direction to temperature and rainfall intensity.

The power of forecasting

Data gathered from sensor networks can then be stored and analysed by sophisticated simulation tools for weather and air dispersion.  When real time site based data is added, the potential insights that can be gained are significant.

The tools can provide graphical details on what any changes in conditions could mean for operations. Modelling of potential events can clearly show the impact decisions will have both on the mine itself and the surrounding area.

Some of the typical scenarios that could be covered include:

  • Strong winds: There have been strong winds forecast for the area to occur in the next 48 hours. Modelling shows that this will cause significant dust to be generated and impact local air quality. By knowing this preventative dust management actions can be put in place to reduce risk of the event occurring.
  • Heavy rainfall: Forecasting the likelihood of heavy rain allows preparation of stormwater and sedimentation management infrastructure to be actioned ahead of time. Practical operational actions such as preparing road surfaces, reducing sediment pond stored volumes to capture new storm generated run off, or moving equipment out of pit areas subject to runoff inflow or groundwater ingress can be implemented to keep operations running.
  • High temperatures: Forecast high temperature risk – advise onsite staff and refresh heat stroke training. Prepare and check critical equipment cooling systems. Check fire systems and consult with the community on potential fire risk and preparation.

In each of these scenarios, the network of sensors across the mine site will provide a real-time picture of exactly what is happening and combined with forecasting and simulation, the potential impact of upcoming conditions to make appropriate changes to operations and reduce risk.

Real-time sensors are then able to monitor and track the result of operational actions to ensure site conditions are kept within acceptable limits to keep operating. For example, the amount of dust actually being produced can be graphed, as could the volume of water being discharged off the mine site as a result of the rainfall.

Better informed decisions

Armed with accurate and timely data, mine management is in a much better position to take corrective action before problems arise. Rather than relying on gut instinct or assumptions based on previous events, they can work from the perspective of having an accurate picture of current conditions.

Examples of the types of decisions monitoring will aid include:

  • Schedule changes: Blasting at an open-cut facility was scheduled to take place in 24 hours’ time, however modelling shows forecast wind direction and speeds will mean significant amounts of dust will be blown towards a nearby town. A decision is taken to delay the blast by another 24 hours until winds subside. Onsite weather station wind sensors and blast simulations will confirm that conditions have improved at the new blast time.
  • Production shifts: Work was planned to begin in a new area of the mine site close to a nearby creek. Models show that the rain forecast during the next five days could cause significant sediment runoff which would breach operational limitations. Managers opt to instead focus equipment and staff on the existing mine face until the weather improves. Local sensors will constantly report back on the amount of rain that has fallen and runoff levels at critical points around the site.
  • Staff allocation: Forecast modelling shows that production is unlikely to be possible for at least a seven-day period due to an approaching weather system cyclone. A decision can be taken to shift workers to another mine site or stand them down until conditions return to normal.

Improved efficiencies and outcomes

By undertaking such real-time monitoring and analysing the collected data, mining operators are in a much stronger position to make decisions that will have a positive impact on their operations.

For example, if forecast high winds are going to require a cessation of activity for a 24-hour period, equipment can be scheduled for maintenance during that time. This means the equipment is not lying idle during downtime and does not have to be taken out of service at times of peak production.

At the same time staff schedules can be altered ahead of time to avoid a situation where shift workers are onsite but have no mining activity to undertake. Alternatively, they can take part in training or refresher courses so that time (and money) is not wasted during the pause in production.

Real-time monitoring and data analysis can also help to ensure a mine site avoids any potential environmental incidents. By stopping production or shifting it to a different part of the site, harmful outflows of waste water or plumes of dust escaping the site can be avoided.

Depending on the software tools used for the data analysis, mine operators can also potentially receive automated recommendations on actions to take. If the software determines that a certain combination of factors could cause problems, a plan of action could be generated for consideration.

A more profitable operation

By following the approach of real-time monitoring and predictive forecasting, mining companies can be confident they are gaining as much output as possible from their infrastructure investments, regardless of the prevailing conditions.

Rather than constantly being in a reactive mode, operators can make proactive decisions that ensure both equipment and staff can be as productive as possible at all times.

Sensor networks and the data they provide allow the impact of decisions to be monitored at a very granular level. Should conditions change unexpectedly, plans can be altered to ensure the best possible outcome for the facility.

Instead of being an onerous overhead that adds only cost to an operation, environmental monitoring can actually deliver significant and sustained value to every mining operation.

Robin Ormerod is the managing director of EnviroSuite.

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