The case for (lots of) new sensing technologies in mining plants

May 25th, 2018|

It takes a while to introduce new technologies in mining. Part of the challenge is budgetary; in 2015, EY, reported that the mining and metals sector spends 90% less on technology and innovation than the petroleum sector [1]. However, that stark contrast needs to be put into context. The market for major metals and minerals is something like US$660BN/yr, which is only about 1/3rd of the world wide oil market [2]. Further, the relative CAPEX spend in the two sectors is vastly different. Before the bubble burst, Wood Mackenzie reported that the 2012 capex in mining was around US$130BN [3]. By contrast, when Brent Oil was selling for $120/bbl before the price crash, McKinsey reports the combined spending on greenfield and brownfield projects in the petroleum industry reached US$520BN [4]. Therefore, in context, the 90% differential in innovation spending between these two markets is less “shocking” and more “rather startling”…but it still represents a problem.

Processing costs

The challenges for innovation in mining are not only a function of the overall spend on new technologies. Consider where the money is being spent. The mining of minerals requires as a minimum exploration, extraction, processing, and transport of materials (and the management of their residue, but that is a topic for next time). At the Tier 1 level, greenfield mining projects usually costs several billion dollars US to ramp-up. Large concentrators, like the sulphides unit at Kansanshi, cost around $500MN to put in place [5]. Some smelters have a similar cost. Further, once in operation, processing environments continue to be a significant focus for opex. Given the prominence of processing costs on the balance sheets of mining companies and their trading partners, one might expect to see benefits from the current wave of digital innovation impact both extraction and processing; but momentum on the ground suggest otherwise.

Diggers have all the fun

Mining Magazine has a Future of Mining focus which is dedicated to brilliant new technologies in the sector [6]. FoM brings attention to new systems that offer help to miners who wish to be safer and more sustainable in an economic fashion. The current edition of the site presents a range of interesting solutions to challenges in mining. Looking at the 18 technologies listed since the beginning of 2018, only 3 pertain to processing operations (including some amazing and impressive approaches to tailings). Recent reports (Q1 2018) on innovation by the most well-known management consultants are similar in tone; with lots of mentions concerning autonomous trucks and blockchain, but not much thought to the actual mine-to-mill nitty gritty.

Gritty innovation

Breaking through the current challenges facing the metals industry will require disruptions right through the entire extraction, processing, and supply chain. The number of large copper discoveries is at a local minimum just as the car companies are becoming Cu-Co ‑dependent; this suggests that a supply-side squeeze could impact metals markets, and that there won’t be any quick fixes enabled by new copper finds (“there is no shale oil for copper” [7]). When it comes to unlocking value from existing projects, one problem seems to be that different section withins the processing environment are often viewed and installed “as discrete projects. But they are most effective when seen holistically” [8]. Charles Andress of NALCO also articulated this point recently in Mining Magazine [9], when he observed that “[t]he flotation industry is still somewhat fragmented. Each of the equipment suppliers, customers and reagent suppliers are working on their own development programmes. Increasing partnerships between customer, equipment and chemical suppliers will be needed help solve the mining industries problems.”

Sense-able solutions

In fact, there are many folks out there with great ideas concerning plant efficiencies; though many of the ideas in circulation are in near-conflict with eachother. It is virtually unavoidable that different processing trends will come and go. Some approaches will focus on particle sizes, others will espouse the importance of reagent flow or air usage; but all will rely on *sensing*. Regardless of the outlook, the ability to pursue any processing philosophy comes down to the control team’s ability to measure what is happening in their plant. Silixa’s metering offering plays to that dynamic. By allowing our customers to measure every air, water, slurry, or concentrate flow in their plant non-intrusively using a single optic fibre, we think that fibre can enable debottlenecking by whatever method you choose. Click here to check out our sensing solutions for mining plants.

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