Παρασκευή, 18 Οκτωβρίου 2019

Current challenges and opportunities for the Minerals Industry (II)

What is today’s adjacent possible?

In January 2019, Rio Tinto announced that they would be establishing a think tank to be named the Pioneer Hub in Brisbane and will consider partnering with technology companies like Microsoft and Apple (Gray, 2019). I am sure the Pioneer Hub will be exploring the adjacent possible‘Sometimes, several important micro-innovations combine into what amounts to a single new concept.’

When looking at broader innovations around the world, we have recently learned that:
  • The use of hydrogen as a fuel for mobile equipment is becoming practical.
  • A Birmingham, UK team is part of a consortium of academics and businesses developing quantum gravity sensors or gravimeters that will be twice as sensitive and 10 times as fast as current equipment. According to the team, quantum technology could ‘transform the world in ways we can barely imagine’ (Bowler, 2019).
  • Bill Gates is leading a coalition of billionaires to create a ‘Google Maps for the Earth’s crust’, specifically for mineral exploration (Farchy, 2019).
  • Autonomous drones are raising productivity at mine sites and reducing costs. These unmanned aerial vehicles’ ability to gain access to constricted areas and inspect equipment that cannot be easily reached by human inspectors also eliminates safety risks while enabling more ground to be covered in less time.
  • The military has drones with explosive payloads that can fly for two hours in a swarm, avoiding each other as they overwhelm a target. The low-cost Kalashnikov drone can fly for 30 minutes at a speed of 130 km/h and carries 2.7 kilograms of explosives. It can be guided to explode on a target 65 kilometres away (Sly, 2019).
  • Photon assay technology provides a chemistry-free, non-destructive assay in minutes. It provides accurate and fully automated analysis of mineral grades in ore samples with high throughput rates and has the potential to replace conventional fire-assays.
  • NextOre, a company spun out of CSIRO, applies sophisticated sensing technology for mining. NextOre’s products apply magnetic resonance technology to deliver second-by-second information about material on high-speed conveyors that can be used for real-time decision making, primarily ore sorting.
One thing that is not in the adjacent possible at present is asteroid mining. We will not see asteroid mining in the lifetime of anyone alive today. The two largest companies established to do it, Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources, have both failed since Donald Trump cancelled the Obama asteroid program (Crane, 2019). An economic analysis by French research institute CentraleSupélec shows that mining asteroids for platinum, for example, will almost never be worthwhile as the supply on earth would undercut the price (Hein, Matheson and Fries, 2018).

But imagine drones carrying ore, flying out of a portal high on a mountainside, across some jungle and a wide river, to a plant or railhead! It would look like a European wasp nest. We have drones today that could do that job, and the costs are not outrageous. We would need continuous mining machines producing finely broken ore and loading it into containers for the drones to carry. Is that the adjacent possible?

Objections to innovation. At the Austmine 2019 conference, one of the vendors told me that his product will not sell because it is substantially more expensive than the existing technology. It will save lots of capital and operating expense elsewhere in the mine, but decisions are made on upfront cost. One of the speakers was quite comfortable in telling us that, although he thinks a particular technology is the way of the future, he will not try it until it has been proven at someone else’s mine.

It is easy to dismiss my suggestion about drones because the costs are not defined, and the technology is not yet developed. The easy path is to ignore such fanciful ideas. I attended an excellent presentation by Gavin Yeates for the AusIMM Melbourne Branch earlier in 2019. Gavin pointed out that the only way to overcome inertia is to create a business case for innovation. How do we do that?

In mining we already have a process for making a business case: the feasibility study process. We proceed through a series of stages, from conceptual, to prefeasibility and then feasibility, each becoming more detailed and costing more than the previous stage. In that way, we limit our exposure and can reject the innovation if it is proving to be commercially impractical. However, I have made early-stage proposals for such studies of possible innovative technologies to mining companies and to collaborative research groups without a nibble of interest. Why is that?

Adoption. While the mining innovations I listed earlier seem valuable to us in retrospect, some took many years to be adopted by the mining industry. Safety fuse, an obvious winner, was unpopular for decades because of cost, and people continued to pour gunpowder into goose quills. Autonomous underground trucks are yet to catch on. Some of the reasons given for slow adoption have been:
  • it will be more expensive than the status quo
  • it is difficult to retrofit in an existing mine
  • the workforce will need re-training
  • there is a lack of supporting infrastructure and spares.
Gavin Yeates has previously pointed out that many of our mining processes are the same as they were 50 or 100 years ago. He concluded that we only get one chance per orebody to choose the technology that will be used. It is too difficult to make changes, other than minor changes, once the mine is operating.  ‘The only way to overcome inertia is to create a business case for innovation.’

I once did a study that showed it took, on average, seven years for a new mining technology to be trialled in an Australian mine. It took a further 13 years from the first trials until widespread adoption or, in other words, general acceptance. If it takes 20 years for a new idea to achieve acceptance, then who will support the development of such ideas?

Commercial interests
. With a few exceptions, mining companies are not interested in true research and development, though they like to package some activities under that label if there is a tax advantage to doing so. For reasons of internal approval and finance they need to de-risk the development studies for any new mineral deposit. If forced to innovate to make an operation work they will do so, but all parties involved – the owners, consultants, financiers and technical auditors – want to use proven technology and leave the risks in the areas of geology and product markets.

Equipment manufacturers, traditionally based in Scandinavia and the USA and more recently in China, have no incentive to change current paradigms. They will build faster, bigger machines, improve operating availability and continue to compete in the way that Kodak, Agfa and Fuji competed before the advent of digital photography. There are exceptions: my friends at Gekko Systems in Ballarat are true innovators and have won many awards for their products. They remind me of those 19th and 20th century innovators I mentioned earlier.

Universities and collaborative research organisations, including those that are notionally government owned and funded, are heavily dependent on industry funding. In my experience, the industry has little appetite for long-term innovative research.

Consultants – and here I hold up my hand – have ideas that could lead to innovation, but are too bound up in the daily grind of timesheets and monthly invoices to pursue those ideas. The scope of their activities is dictated by their clients – the financiers and mining companies.

Mining contractors are innovators. They are always looking for the edge over their competitors and are willing to gamble on good ideas. However, they need payback within a year or two, and the history of innovation tells us that a short payback is unlikely.

Feasibility studies for new technologies are expensive, but to be convincing I think they need to be conducted with the same detail and rigour that we apply to established technologies. Performance and cost data must be built up from first principles. Who will fund the work needed to make the business case for the research to be done?

I believe that the change will come from wealthy investors and innovators. In other words, from the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos. In 2016, Musk established the Boring Company, whose website (boringcompany.com/products) says: Estimated project pricing can typically be provided within one week. Stay tuned for the Tunnel Price Calculator coming to this site in 2019, where the user can enter product line, location, geology type, and length, and the calculator will return a project price range maximum and minimum.

Mining innovation needs passionate advocates who can influence investment decisions. That means having experienced mining engineers, geologists and metallurgists in senior management and board positions where these decisions are taken. Even with the best will in the world, a lawyer or banker may struggle to recognise a complicated technological opportunity.

On-the-job training . I mentioned earlier that we have trouble attracting young people to the sector. Technological innovation will create opportunities for young people, but university education usually lags well behind the workplace. For some jobs, a background in computer games may be more valuable. Unfortunately, in my experience many academics in the minerals area have lacked practical experience and struggled to relate to their students. The disparity in salaries with industry draws talented people away from the universities. Staffing and funding levels go up and down and rarely synchronise with the cyclic demand for graduates. The content of courses lags the changes happening in our high-tech industry.

I had the great fortune to be trained in a big underground mine through a cadetship and graduate scheme operated by Conzinc RioTinto of Australia. The scheme ended many years ago, but the people who passed through it went on to lead several of Australia’s largest mining companies. I am sure that I learned more on the job, every day, than I learned at night school in the university college. I had worked on several of the leading technologies of the day before I had graduated. Good geologists and engineers combine practical skills and experience with a solid academic background, but I believe well-structured training is more important.

Industry cadetships can provide an opportunity to develop professionals quickly and soundly. In four years, universities can provide only a basic grounding in general engineering, chemistry, geology, economics, management, the environment and all the new applications in information systems, control systems, robotics and so on. The field has grown beyond a generalised undergraduate syllabus. Employers, be they mining companies, contractors or consultants, should accept the cost of providing undergraduate cadetships and structured graduate training as part of the cost of doing business, to a much greater level than they do at present. This includes better support for professional development programs offered by AusIMM and other societies. The adjacent possible is too close, and is moving too quickly, for traditional career paths to remain viable. ‘Industry cadetships can provide an opportunity to develop professionals quickly and soundly.’

The greatest challenge for our industry is to change the way we operate, so that we meet community expectations. We have opportunities to make changes through technological innovation and through more effective training of our professional people. We need to fund research programs that run for longer than one or two years, and to properly evaluate opportunities using the staged feasibility study process. Future mines will be highly selective, moving smaller tonnages, and increasingly they will be underground. They will apply technologies that exist today and are hovering at the edge of the adjacent possible. Expenditure on innovation around the adjacent possible is like expenditure on exploration. It ensures the business will continue beyond the life of existing activities. That is what true sustainability is all about.

Current challenges and opportunities for the minerals industry (I)


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