Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mining in 2020 and 2050 Part 1

The populations of the world are beginning to demand that all businesses operate more sustainably. Everybody, but particularly policy makers, can see that we need to do things differently if we expect to have a long term future on the planet. Here I present two views of the mining in the future, seen in terms of their ability to operate with a minimal carbon footprint.
Why 2020 and 2050? In 2020, many of the current operations will still be going, so the 2020 story is one of how we change the current mines to use less carbon. By 2050, we will have used technology advances to build the carbon neutral operation we dream about today.
The carbon footprint of mines today is the result of the fuels we use, how we operate the business and how we mine and deliver raw products. How we reinvent these components will determine what our mines look like in the future.
Mining in 2020.
Today we will visit an open cut copper mine that has been operating since the late 1990’s. New technology developments mean that this mine still has many years of life left, so there is opportunity to make longer term investments in the operation that leave plenty of runway to recoup the investment.
When it was built, this mine was designed with large vehicle transport as the main basis for the layout. It used traditional building methods, heavily reliant on concrete slabs for buildings and metal and concrete workshops and warehouses. An extensive system of haul roads and access roads serves most of the mine areas. This means that the mine’s operation was heavily dependent on haul trucks, water trucks and light utility vehicles,  as well as all manner of mobile mining and drilling equipment, shovels, graders etc. But times have changed…
As we drive into the mine, we need to stop at the security entrance and log ourselves in.   Before we came we enrolled in the biometric access system, and completed the visitors safety induction on-line.   To one side of the gate there is an oil bunker, full of locally produced biodiesel that is used to power the entire fleet of mobile equipment, and much of the fixed plant as well, specifically the generators; turbines fueled by bio-diesel.
We travel over to the workers’ campus accommodating 250 staff.   Each ‘unit’ has its own composting toilet and solar/electric hot water. Temperatures are controlled by their orientation to the sun, deep eaves, and ‘green’ concrete slabs which incorporate fly ash; providing a heat sink to help warm the unit in the winter. All of the water used by the showers and toilets is recycled (and treated) for use in the mining operation.
Our tour includes a visit to the mine operations room. The operations room has two walls lined with video monitors. These low power monitors look just like paper that can be folded up and moved around. This technology was pioneered in 2004 with the development of the e-Ink ( products. Some are displaying real time videos of key operational areas – one shows the ore conveyor, another shows the shovel loading the haul trucks. Different scenes are cycling through and if any operation begins to operate outside of parameters, an alarm sounds and the operations system immediately allocates some monitor space to viewing that process. One whole wall depicts a similar room in the capital – some 500 kms away where mine planners, maintenance planners, and managers are helping the on-site workers to deal with issues, contribute to planning and provide advice on optimizing the operation. That group is helping a number of different mines at the same time.
Out on the site, haul trucks are moving ore to the crushers and from there it goes to the leach heaps. Like today, sulfuric acid is added to the heaps, but a series of sensors spread throughout the heap controls the flow of acid to maximize the process efficiency.
All of the technologies that power these ideas are available and in use today – some in mining operations, some in other industries. They need to be because if the mining industry wants to implement these innovations by 2020, they need to be investing in the next few years.   Things start to get really interesting when we visit the mine in 2050.

In my next post we'll have a look at how that works.

No comments:

Post a Comment