Mining’s future: smart and efficient

18 Sep 2013

Author: David Varga



At first glance the relationship between Chilean and Australian mining might seem one naturally founded on direct and open competition. Resources account for more than half of Australia’s merchandise exports and 6 per cent of the economy. Similarly, Chile regards mining as a pillar of its own growing economy, producing more than one third of the world’s copper through massive projects like the iconic mine Escondida, with resource production representing 15.2 per cent of Chilean GDP.
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As the global mining industry experiences transformations due to a suite of emerging pressures however, shared challenges—and future opportunities—have created a common goal of fostering smarter, safer, more sustainable and efficient mining technologies.

Enter the CSIRO Chile Centre of Excellence, a collaboration established under the Chilean Government’s Centre of Excellence program.

Extracting minerals from the earth might seem an old-economy ‘ripping rocks’ game of massive scale and industrial brute force, but the knowledge-based services and technology underpinning modern mining is a state-of-the-art sector in its own right, thriving on innovation, research, and the application of the latest intellectual property.

The key to the project, explains Jonathan Law, Director of CSIRO’s Minerals Down Under Flagship, is a shared history of co-operation, and a unique mix of government, corporate and academic involvement.

“Mining, just like many international industries undergoing shifts as a result of globalisation, is looking to international collaborations to develop best practice,’ Law says.

The centre unites industry partners and stakeholders including global giants Xstrata Copper, Codelco, Antofagasta Minerals, BHP Billiton, and Anglo American, the strength of CSIRO’s Minerals Down Under Flagship, as well as Australian academic research expertise coupled with the local capability of the University of Chile, CICITEM and the University of Antofagasta.

“It’s not just about supporting our domestic industries. With miners all over the world looking to improve efficiency in the face of intensifying competition, diminishing ore quality, rising energy costs, and the need to improve safety and environmental standards, the future mining boom for Australia and Chile may well be in the delivery of knowledge-based equipment and services to players worldwide,” says Law.

While resources exports are a mainstay of Australia’s economy, underpinning post-GFC growth as most OECD economies stagnated, the boom has also provided a parallel platform to foster Australia’s mining equipment, technology and services sector (METS), which has grown rapidly to become a world leader.

“Australian METS capability has developed through decades of innovation by industry, and academic research, as well as government support,” Law says.

“More than half the mines all over the world already use Australian-developed software, with the role of technology a continuing catalyst for change and improvement.

Statistics support a picture of an industry flourishing in the shadows of its headline-grabbing big sister. Whilst Australia’s commodity exports are worth $138 billion, Australia’s METS exports total $27 billion. The METS sector also employs 386,000 people, around double the number of Australian workers engaged in mining directly.    

The future for Australian METS, the evidence also suggests, is firmly international. Fifty-five per cent of all Australian METS companies exported last year with a further 18 per cent planning to develop sales outside Australia in the future.

“The CSIRO Chile Centre of Excellence alliance aims to build on mining strengths Australia shares with Chile, as well as learn from differences, to deliver the next generation of mining technology.

“Innovations developed will allow the centre, stakeholders and Australian companies to develop and commercialise IP, and then deliver new innovations to the global market.

“The partnership is a natural fit, for while Australia and Chile face many of the same challenges, we don’t compete in the same commodity segments in most cases,” Law says.

“Finding solutions to mutual problems such as sourcing water to mine in arid environments, discovering ways to maximise yields from diminishing quality ores, and creating intelligent systems and processes to lift output efficiency, are not only critical to both countries, these are technologies that could change the way mining is done all over the world.   

“Our Chilean partnership also offers the chance to learn about areas such as deep mining, where they have developed renowned expertise, and managing the geotechnical stability of open pit mining—all areas where Australia stands to benefit,” adds Law.

Only a year old, the alliance has hit the ground running with projects trialling ways to extract copper from low-grade ores (normally considered unusable waste), applying ‘dry’ processing technologies and developing salt water extraction techniques in order to reduce fresh water usage, as well as trials of improved processes for ore impurity removal.

The use of smart networks based on cutting-edge sensing innovations, coupled with the rise of mobile and geospatial technology, will also mean that ‘data mining’ will prove as critical to effective mining as ore itself.

“Physics and electronics have progressed so far that sensor technology can deliver information in ways never seen before. Developing sensors is also part of the joint program, to help determine physical properties of the ore, the performance of equipment, and location of workers,” Law says.  

“The model mine of the future,” he explains “will be built around intelligent networks where the performativity of all elements in the network combined, deliver meaningful real-time information to guide decision making.

“It’s all about seamlessly sharing data from different mining operations, then making all of that information interoperable in real-time, which is an enormous leap forwards in mine management.

“These intelligent systems will assist in tackling challenges affecting mining worldwide. For example, as ores degrade more rock will need to be uprooted in mass extraction processes, and quality information flows will inform decision-making, resulting in better efficiencies, lower energy costs and reduced environmental impacts.

CSIRO is also hoping to bring other technologies to Chile. With a range of partners including Geoscience Australia, CSIRO produced a world-first suite of continent-scale hyper spectral maps of Australia, revealing a range of invaluable geological data for mining exploration.

“We are currently in discussions with the Chilean government to create a hyper spectral map of Chile, a project which, while not directly connected to the research undertaken at the centre, is an example of the benefit of the closer ties forming through the relationship.”