The mining industry recently underwent the most turbulent period in recent history. Geopolitical risks, market volatility, and plummeting commodity prices have created an urgency for innovation to achieve cost-effectiveness, to ensure operators’ survival.
Exacerbating this is the fact that the average cost of producing copper over the last 15 years has risen by more than 300%, while the grade quality has dropped by 30%.
And it’s not just financial and political troubles – industry-specific issues related to regulation, natural resource use, use of legacy machining systems, and public scrutiny have created additional challenges.
In light of these setbacks, it’s obvious that the mining sector must make its way towards a new sustainable and economic era. This will be an era where leveraging automation and increasing operational efficiency will be critical for sustainability.
Before jumping to solutions, let’s look at the major concerns plaguing the industry to better understand the problem:
Top Challenges Faced by the Mining Industry
- Outdated Machining Systems
Legacy systems, or outdated machines, run a significant risk for mining companies in terms of equipment breakdown or production stoppages. Those seeing how far they can push their luck with outdated mining tools risk equipment malfunction and failure. In fact, these systems incur heavy OpEx even during normal functioning.
Besides, legacy machines have a limited scope for leveraging data to optimize performance.
- Over-Consumption of Natural Energy Resources
One of the drawbacks of the mining industry is the heavy, unabated use of fossil fuels for operations such as feedstock, along with the fuel used in transport vehicles. This has led to a rapid depletion of fossil fuels and increased carbon output.
- Environmental Impact
As mining is an inherently invasive process, it causes a lot of damage to the surrounding landscape and affects an area much larger than the site itself. Consequently, the mining process can contaminate nearby water bodies, erode the soil, and cause the death of surrounding flora and fauna.
In addition to this, mining operations demand excessive water use, which leads to a depletion of water sources in the nearby regions.
- Low Operational Efficiency
Along with outdated systems, many mining fields experience unsafe and inefficient work practices, making the entire mining operation highly unproductive. This further cuts profitability by increasing OpEx.
- Supply Chain Issues
From mineral tracking to provenance, there are many transparencies and compliance issues in the entire supply chain, creating disputes and conflicts along the way. Adding to this is the fact that many manufacturing companies, for example, Apple, are increasingly concerned about the source of minerals and proactively seek to avoid procurement of minerals from conflict zones or from mining firms notorious for bad working conditions and environmental non-compliance.
The Way Forward: Towards Economically and Ecologically Sustainable Mining
The status quo is indeed no longer an option. Mining must undergo a transformation to ensure continued survival.
The mining industry will undoubtedly play a critical role in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG); in fact, many of the newly established 17 SDGs directly or indirectly involve mining activities. There are various goals to which mining activities can contribute significantly, such as:
- Goal 5: Clean water and sanitation
- Goal 7: Affordable and clean energy
- Goal 9: Industry, innovation, and infrastructure
- Goal 11: Sustainable cities and communities
- Goal 13: Climate action
It’s evident that the mining industry bears a heavy responsibility and needs to adopt the best technologies and practices to bring a sustainable transformation.
Let’s look at the various technologies the mining industry can harness to go about its sustainable transformation.
Using Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI has great potential to transform mining productivity and efficiency. From helping in future discoveries to enabling better planning, the scope of AI is (virtually) limitless.
- Implementing Predictive Maintenance
Predictive maintenance is largely driven by time-based data. The data generated tells us what might happen but not what to do about it.
As predictive maintenance uses data from sources like historical records, sensors, and weather data, the use of AI and a robust software program can effectively translate this raw data into meaningful and actionable insights.
- Making Mining Operations Error-Free
AI changes the entire dynamics of mining operations – from a people-oriented operation to a process-oriented one. This ensures suitable health and safety conditions for the mineworkers, higher accuracy, error reduction, and faster decision-making.
- Improving Resource Discovery and Planning
Mining is expensive. However, AI can minimize non-productive investments by predicting suitable terrains for mining. Companies can use it to identify new and potentially valuable areas to mine or drill, eliminating unnecessary drills that burn money. Better predictions lead to better planning and better ROIs.
Creating Smart Mines With IoT and Data Science
IoT and data science are said to bring about a major transformation in the way mining is done. IoT is the future as it leverages advanced sensor technologies, a variety of connectivity networks, data analytics, and interactive visualization.
One of the biggest areas of use lies in transforming expensive and inefficient mechanical processes into digital ones. The data collected can then be acted upon and used to improve efficiency on the site to ensure worker safety and monitor the operational status of machinery.
Another example is transportation. Sensors can be used to collect data on how long trucks are kept waiting at several points within the site, such as the loading or offloading area. Using IoT and data analytics, managers can:
- Boost the efficiency of haulage operations
- Determine optimum load time and frequency to lower fuel consumption
- Cut down on vehicle maintenance and even transport distance
Creating a Transparent and Viable Supply Chain With Blockchain
Blockchain’s unique decentralized system and digital ledger allow secure storing and sharing of valuable data. It provides security and transparency in transactions, changes made to contracts, documents, and other business agreements.
Here are some areas in mining where Blockchain can be used:
- Compliance and Lease Management: Blockchain would easily improve traceability of reserve estimations, traceability of inventory, and reserves. It would also enable smart contracts that extend to external entities (e.g., stock exchanges for the release of reserve estimates).
- Supply Chain: Blockchain can help mining companies track minerals in the supply chain from the blocks to the concentrate and metal. It can also provide transparency to investors, venture partners, and other stakeholders.
- Mineral Provenance: A plethora of leading OEMs are concerned about the source of minerals used in their components. With Blockchain, it becomes easier to track the source of origin for every mineral sourced, either from a mining company or vendor.
Mining Practices to Adopt for a Truly Sustainable World
Apart from technology, mining companies can also deploy some best practices to build a sustainable future:
- Using Less Invasive Mining Methods
Activities like open pit and underground mining pose some severe environmental risks. However, with alternative low-impact mining techniques, like in-situ leaching, mining companies can reduce their environmental impact.
Such techniques can significantly reduce surface disturbance at mining sites, lower soil erosion, and move less material that would need backfilling.
- Using Electric or Hybrid Vehicles for Transport
As a major part of mining operations, conventional vehicles burn a lot of fuel in the haulage operations, creating a major carbon problem. Using hybrid or full-electric vehicles would significantly reduce the carbon footprint and overall consumption of fossil fuels.
- Rehabilitating the Sites After Work Done
Stripping off the topsoil layer, water acidity, and turning the soil inhospitable to new vegetation are some of the environmental impacts of mining.
However, this damage isn’t destined to be permanent! Companies can make use of land rehabilitation techniques to make the mined land productive again or put it on a path to natural recovery.
For example, biosolids can replenish depleted topsoil. Soil enriched with biosolids, if seeded and watered regularly, can yield vegetation capable of preventing further erosion.
As businesses, industries, and governments around the world look for ways to make mining more sustainable for the coming future, it’s clear that harnessing innovative and intelligent technology is the sure way ahead.
To this end, technology has a lot to offer – from getting the best out of machining processes to reducing production wastage. As is evident, the mining industry stands to benefit significantly from the adaption of AI into their processes, to improve asset reliability, reduce OpEx, and make operations more environmentally sustainable without compromising on profitability.
Eugenie is an AI-driven operational intelligence platform that makes AI viable for building a better world with sustainable systems and processes. Learn more about our AI-backed decision engine that enables businesses to spot, explore, and exploit anomalies from data at scale.
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