Monday, November 7, 2011

Mining in 2020 and 2050 Part 2

In part 1 I looked at how mines could be operating in 2020, but now lets look at what could be happening in 2050
Mining in 2050
Operating mines in 2050 may not be in their planning stages until 2045, allowing us the benefit of 35 years of technology development. Futurists will tell you that predicting 35 years of technology development is very difficult – but we’ll do it anyway because it is also fun.
A mine in 2050 will look very different to that of 2020. For a start, there will be very few people because almost all of the machinery will be automated. The entire area of the open cut will be highly secure, to prevent people entering areas where large machines are operating at very high speeds. The site will look more like an airport than a mine, with service areas located at the edge of the secure site. The only staff present on site will be those securing the site, and a few maintenance engineers. Without people, the support infrastructure required is also small.
Fleet Automation

Within the mine we see large numbers of small vehicles operating at speed, and without human drivers. Technology originally designed by NASA to guide the Mars Rover, and newer planetary probes on the moons of Jupiter are now being used by these vehicles. The vehicles are multi-purpose and directly access the mine plan (updated daily by planning software and mine engineers working in the capital city) and using collaborative machine to machine protocols to determine the most efficient way to deliver against the day's mining targets.   The vehicles self-configure as micro-haulers, drill and blast vehicles, or road maintenance vehicles in the morning, and can change configuration throughout the day as the mine operating plan changes dynamically in response to the day’s events.
Hydrogen Fuel

All of the vehicles are electric, powered by onboard hydrogen fuel cells. A large part of the mine operation is the generation of hydrogen for fuel cells.  This is achieved using a combination of renewable sources: solar power, wind power and hot rock geothermal power which is  used to produce hydrogen from water. Hydrogen is stockpiled so that it is available for use at all hours of the day and night. The entire mine operates with zero emissions, and all water is recycled. In this mine, ground water is desalinated using waste heat from the hydrogen plant so that water lost to the environment through evaporation and water vapour from the hydrogen cells, is replaced. (A further consequence of this is that groundwater salinity problems of the last century are being clawed back, and the landscape is regenerating).

Finally, this mine uses nanotechnology to extract the copper from the ore. The large chemical leach heaps have been replaced by hybrid bio-mechanical nano-extraction techniques where bacteria sized cyber-organisms are bred in large ponds, migrate into the heaps, directly harvest the copper metal from the ore using  biochemical reactions. They incorporate the copper into their bodies and then move to an extraction pond where they die and decompose, leaving elemental copper that can be easily recovered from the pond.
All of these technologies are being researched or developed now.   If anything, this vision of 2050 could prove to be outrageously conservative. If, for instance, nanotechnology, materials science and renewable energy technologies develop along the same kind of timeline as we are used to seeing now, then it is arguable whether the economy will need mining at all.

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