Process engineers and service providers from around Australia have converged on Wollongong this week for the 16th Australian Coal Preparation Society (ACPS) conference, to discuss the past and the future of coal processing.
Celebrating its 50th year, the ACPS works to promote the science of coal preparation, and help with educating, training, publishing textbooks, and providing opportunities for people in the coal industry to exchange new ideas about process technology and innovations.
ACPS life member Peter McFadden, who first came onto the organising committee in 1999, said this year's conference saw 370 exhibitors, guests and speakers in attendance.
"The conference is very well attended by people from all sections of the coal mining industry, both throughout Australia and from overseas as well," he said.
"This conference sees the first female chairman to organise the conference, Ngaire Baker, and we're very pleased to have her as part of the society."
ACPS Conference Local Organising Committee chair Ngaire Baker said organising the conference was an "absolute pleasure and honour".
"After 27 years in the mining industry I have found the last nine in coal and particularly coal processing to be extremely rewarding," she said.
"To be a part of the ACPS, particularly in their 50th year, and working with a team of industry experts has been an experience I will relish for many years."
ACPS Technical Committee chairman Andrew Swanson said the conference, held every two years, was a practical way for society members to present academic papers and stay up to date on the latest in the industry.
In terms of the present state of the coal industry, Swanson said the commodity downturn was one of the most significant in decades, which had brought more focussed cost cutting in mines which had a flow on effect to the rest of the service industry.
“The thing that people are looking for is to be able to do more with less. It’s about taking your existing assets and through small, incremental amounts of capital, drive changes and efficiency and reduced costs,” he said.
“The depression of price in the industry has been felt everywhere. If you mine less coal, you have less coal to prepare, but I have to say that by and large the tonnages of coal being exported increase every year, so we’re still washing and producing as much coal, but the problem we’re finding is that all the mining companies [want] low value projects and… to drive the cost out of operations, and they really need an excellent case to spend any money on studies or engineering or upgrades."
Swanson said that while the coal companies had trimmed down the number of staff by five or ten per cent in the past two years, staff numbers in the service organisations had been decimated, which would likely have an adverse effect on the number of coal process engineering experts in the future.
“We’re talking about organisations that have only 30 per cent of the staff they had in early 2012, so we’ve taken out almost a whole generation of people out of these businesses, and when the next boom comes, we’ll be back where we were with not enough people, not enough of the right skills, loss of experience,” he said.
“[There’s a] lack of demand for new processes, there’s a lack of demand for new plant, lack of demand for people and money to engage in studies… the money is just so tight.
“There’s definitely an opportunity [for young engineers], and the organisations have been pretty receptive to having young people listening to their ideas, but the problem is that there would probably be a lot more here four years ago, and a lot of those people, when you downsize your organisation you will lose people, you do need to retain some of the more experienced people, so there’s probably a disproportionate amount of younger people getting culled, and when they leave they won’t come back."
Swanson said that the conference turnout in 2016 was one of the lowest he had seen in decades, something he hoped would rebound with industry recovery.
“The turnout this year is probably our second lowest. Our last lowest turnout was in 2000, for the conference that was held in Port Stephens, which was the last significant downturn,” he said.
“That downturn wasn’t as big as this, this is a one in 30, 35 year downturn we’re feeling now, but I guess people have realised that we’re trying to do something to improve [the industry]. But the response for this time has been quite good.”
This year the Arthur Le Page Lecture, given in honour of one of the founding members and greatly respected contributors to the ACPS, was presented by industry veteran, friend to Arthur Le Page and retired coal process engineer Jim Donnelly.
Donnelly's paper ‘Reflections on 50 years of Australian coal preparation’, charted some of the most significant technological developments in Queensland and NSW coal processing.
Donnelly was followed by Chris Clarkson presenting a paper, co-authored by Carolyn Hillard, on a vision of coal preparation for the next 50 years.
Clarkson said the costs of large scale production away from the mine meant train haulage costs become more significant, and that further cuts could be made to operating expenditure by designing “smaller, cost effective, distributed plants with centralised stockpile and loading”.
He recommended scaling down process plant modules to the minimum possible size, planning for assembly offsite to be constructed in a “cassette” style system where modules are readily removable for maintenance elsewhere.
Clarkson said at present large plants were necessary to allow operators to conduct maintenance safely, however smaller modules could be achieved by removing the space needed for operators to conduct maintenance within the plant.