What are mining’s standout innovations?

The need for technological innovation continues to be bandied about in mining circles.

There are several mining executives putting their money where their mouth is to achieve this, and the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) industry is helping them do it.

Many of mining’s brightest minds gathered at Austmine 2017: Mining’s Innovation Imperative earlier this year to discuss the latest technological innovations in the industry.

Seven of the conference’s speakers described the most impressive innovations that have been implemented at their company over the past couple of years:

Craig Stegman, Rio Tinto Copper & Diamonds vice-president operational and technical support

Craig Stegman

You can’t help but be impressed with the automation of the Pilbara Iron Ore operations.

But from a copper and diamonds perspective, which is my business area, I am very excited about the work we are doing to support our Mine of the Future program in large-scale underground mining.

We are working with a range of original equipment manufacturers to develop fit-for-purpose mining equipment for deep block caves, ranging from excavation to ground support installation.  There seems to be an almost infinite range of solutions and I am very impressed by the strategic thinking that is taking place to find the right pathway.

Another dimension of our underground program is the development of communications systems that will be the foundation for advanced data analytics; we have all this advanced equipment but we needed a method of getting all the information generated out of the mine.

Trials of different options at Kennecott have now translated into deployment of improved communications systems at Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia where the data analytics needs are even greater.

Michelle Ash, Barrick Gold chief innovation officer

Michelle Ash

Our TCM (total carbonaceous matter) project has been a really fantastic processing innovation. It took a couple of decades of research but now Barrick is using thiosulfate in the processing of carbonaceous gold ore.

Carbonaceous ore isn’t good for processing via roasting, so previously we were using cyanide to extract the gold. Cyanide is highly toxic whereas thiosulphate is relatively non-toxic so it’s a big win for the environment and it also reduces fresh water use as we can recycle the thiosulphate solutions.

Barrick’s new AMBS (air-metabisulphite) treatment has allowed us to extract ore concentrates in our flotation processes by using salty or brackish water instead of using cyanide and lime that are not only poisonous but use lots of fresh water. We mine in some very arid areas so using brackish water means we aren’t taking away from water sources used by local communities.

Finally, our partnership culture is our most interesting innovation and it’s non-technological. The idea is that each person thinks and acts as if the company were his or her own, and that we’re all personally invested in the long-term success of Barrick. Last year every Barrick employee was granted shares in the company—making us all owners—and our most committed and passionate leaders are invited into our partnership program. We believe that being a partnership organisation is distinctive, commercially compelling, and likely to lead to greater success.

Barry Fitzgerald, Roy Hill chief executive officer

Barry Fitzgerald

At Roy Hill, we’ve been using drones extensively for aerial surveys and imaging. We’ve also been trialling an in-pit robotic re-fueller which can significantly reduce the amount of time that needs to be spent going to and from refuelling stations.

Roy Hill is also trialling a rail track maintenance vehicle with an on-board data centre processing information received from a slew of new and innovative integrated sensors. These collect a terabyte of data each trip which helps inform our asset health and maintenance strategy.

Chris Lewicki

Chris Lewicki, Planetary Resources president & chief engineer

We have successfully 3D printed an object using a meteorite as the feedstock and we pioneered a new distributed computing platform which will enable robust autonomous spacecraft operations in the harsh environment of deep space.

Penny Stewart, PETRA Data Science managing director and principal

Penny Stewart

The coolest development we’ve created are our FRAGx algorithms which use a machine learning AI to fully automate ore fragmentation assessments. It uses 3D mapping to assess ore fragmentation in less than a minute. Prior to this, ore fragmentation assessment required over an hour of manual processing by highly qualified geotechnical engineers.

The most interesting (and highest value) development was when we helped develop the algorithm to predict when a SAG mill was likely to overload. This means that preventative steps can be taken an hour in advance. The cost of developing the algorithm was effectively covered by preventing one hour of downtime.

Vanessa Guthrie, Minerals Council Australia chair

Vanessa Guthrie

There are so many, it is hard to think of just one that stands out more than others. However, I do think the advent of Artificial Intelligence – such Cognitive Computing – is truly disruptive.

I find it amazing that the human sense of judgement i.e. cognitive behaviour can be coded into computing science in a way that enables highly complex problems which are rich with ambiguity and uncertainty and in a constant state of flux to be resolved. It is also hard to imagine what the next phase of development of this concept will be.

Lara Bruhns, Newmont Asia Pacific general manager operations services

Lara Bruhns

Five years ago, that was just at the invention stage, it wasn’t quite there. Now, it’s in use by lots of mining companies.

Virtual reality is another very interesting space that has come on in leaps and bounds recently. It allows technical experts engage with people in the investment side of the business by visualising complex geology in 3D at a relatively low cost.

For $8000 or $9000 you can have a system that can quickly and easily put together a 3D model that allows investors to be much better involved in planning new operations.

This article also appears in the July edition of Australian Mining. 

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