What Does the Future of Mining Look Like?

This is What the Future of Mining Looks Like

The resources sector is known as an early adopter of technology. Australian miners are moving ahead at pace on decarbonising their operations, establishing innovative supply partnerships, creating a raft of modern jobs – and much more.

Towards net zero

Towards net zero

The conference that the Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia (MRIWA) held last October revealed that the resources sector is not only on board the decarbonisation train, it’s left the station and is well on the journey. The inaugural Net Zero Emission Mining in WA included sessions on “carbon-neutral metals”, “accelerating the transition to sustainable energy” and “how ESG considerations are transforming investment”.

MRIWA CEO Nicole Roocke says the demographic of the delegates signifies a shift, too. “Around 40 per cent of our attendees were women and the average age was about 40,” she says. “The mining sector wants to attract the best and the brightest – appealing to their ambitions for a better world is important.” Miners – many operating in remote regions where there’s plenty of sun and wind – have been embracing renewable energy for power generation for years.

“The industry’s been very proactive in setting targets around decarbonisation,” says Rob Hough, director of CSIRO Mineral Resources. “Some operations are using renewables for about 70 per cent of their energy, which is a fantastic achievement,” adds Roocke. “The challenge is how they retrofit renewables into mining that’s been designed to operate on a consistent power supply 24/7.”

“The energy source side is part one; part two is consumption,” says Adrian Beer, CEO of METS Ignited, a federal government-funded industry growth centre run by leaders from the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sectors. “How do we increase the energy efficiency of the mining process?” Grinding and crushing “consume a large amount of energy in a short period of time. We need to think about using energy differently,” he says.

Time-shifting energy-intensive processes could help. “Some greenfield sites are considering whether the operation needs to run 24/7,” says Roocke. “Perhaps by putting in place an extra grinding mill they can do more of those processes ,during the daytime, when they have access to renewables. There’s lots of really interesting thinking going on in the industry around how to operate in more of an intermittent-energy world.”

Hough says that changing operations to maximise available renewable energy could have additional benefits. “If energy cost is not necessarily a factor, perhaps you can crush finer,” he says. “It’s interesting to think about what possibilities that unlocks – with different approaches to processing and metal recovery – with that available renewable power.”

The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA), the sector’s leading industry association, launched its net zero by 2050 plan in 2020. Its first Climate Action Plan progress report last June included case studies from miners who are innovating to drive down their emissions.

Hough sees wins for sustainability multiplying. “From an R&D perspective, there’s an opportunity for eco-efficiency, with decarbonisation as a core component, right through the value chain.”

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New partnerships

New partnerships

Hough says value is key to an emerging trend of direct-supply deals. “Value from what you’re mining – and also what you’re gaining in ESG credentials when you can show you’re using best practice – leads to being a supplier of choice.” In November, the MCA released ESG: Change for the Better, a detailed report on how members are working to improve environmental, social and governance performance.

A shining example of an ESG-driven partnership is the nickel supply agreement unveiled last July between BHP and Tesla, the world’s biggest manufacturer of electric vehicles (EVs) and battery storage systems. Nickel is a critical mineral in Tesla’s manufacturing and BHP claims its Nickel West operation in WA is one of the world’s most sustainable and lowest-carbon producers of the metal. “Tesla was attracted to the greener credentials at Nickel West, compared to other more energy-intensive operations globally. We’re seeing the potential of new markets opening up for companies if they can show those green credentials,” says Hough.

“Tesla is aggressively driving opportunity across various commodities and promoting that they want to look at more such activity,” says Roocke, who adds that the green focus is coming equally from investors and consumers. “We are seeing an increase in the expectations of end users, from manufacturers of EVs to electronic products. They want to see certification that commodities are ethically and sustainably sourced.”

According to Beer, “In their basic elemental form there is no difference between a commodity sourced from an economically viable, socially responsible, sustainable method and one that is sourced with no care or regard for those factors. However, we’re seeing a pricing premium for minerals and commodities that are supplied where there is traceability – you can follow the supply chain right back to the source and know that it has been mined with an ESG framework in place.”

While it costs more to do that, he adds, “there is more working capital available for the companies that choose to mine responsibly. Investors will only invest in those commodities that are developed with a social responsibility lens.”

MRIWA is supporting research at the Future Battery Industries Cooperative Research Centre in Perth to enable fingerprinting of lithium ores, linked to a blockchain mechanism to secure the “identity” of the metal along the value chain. “For companies that want to be able to demonstrate that they are purchasing lithium ores from an ethical and sustainable source, we will be able to prove that they’re from WA,” says Roocke.

“Our ambition is that WA is seen as the preferred supplier – it’s not just that we have a lot of minerals in the ground here, we want to be a preferred supplier globally and get that market advantage.” In 2018, Rio Tinto and Alcoa announced a joint venture with the Canadian government and Apple to create “green” aluminium, traditionally an infamously energy-intensive metal to manufacture. Elysis, as the JV is now known, announced in November that it had successfully produced aluminium “without any direct greenhouse emissions” and is on track for its technology to be ready for installation by 2024, including retrofitting legacy aluminium smelters.

“There’s a lot of crossover between mining technology and space,” says= Beer. “You’re deploying complex, highly technical precision equipment into a remote, harsh operating environment. Mining has been doing that for 50 years.”

This is What the Future of Mining Looks Like

There’s no plan, he says, to send big trucks to the moon, “but we have mining technology that can detect what materials are in the regolith [mantle rock], remotely and autonomously. These field robotics devices make decisions on what they’re going to do next based on their situation in the context of their mission, as opposed to a remote operator. The innovations to do the detection work already exist in the Australian resources sector.”

CSIRO’s Space Technology Future Science Platform has numerous research projects devoted to remote operations and resource utilisation in space, including space spiders – multi-limbed microgravity maintenance robots. CSIRO’s Data61 Robotics and Autonomous Systems Group recently took out second place in the threeyear DARPA Subterranean Challenge, aka the “Robot Olympics”, a prestigious global competition funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The Australian group’s range of robots include tracked robots to cover rough terrain, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and legged robots, modelled on insects. All are already being deployed in mining operations, particularly underground to collect data in dangerous and confined spaces, and even with the potential for rescue operations. Many will be fit for space purpose, too.

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