Mining the Technology of Innovation

Posted on August 02, 2018

David Yokom
Project Manager at Queen's University

Sustainability and mining, hand in hand.

In the last post in this series, I focused on how critical it is to invest in sustainable mining practices now. In the end, it all came down to one concept: building a sustainable mining industry is going to take both innovation and dedication.

In this post, I want to look beyond reducing the impact of harmful mining practices and “dig into” (pardon the pun) the possibility of a new kind of mining industry: one that is both accountable and sustainable, and one that recognizes that innovation isn’t always exclusively about profit.

Innovation should be measured against new metrics relating to environmental, social and human health impacts.

I think future innovation in mining needs to be rooted in the following guiding principles:

  1. Clean: we must acknowledge our history and commit to ever-increasing standards of environmental stewardship until we become carbon neutral and drastically limit our impact to local ecosystems.

  2. Community: we must collaborate with local indigenous populations in all circumstances, and be accountable to those people who have lived and will continue to live on these lands long after a mining site is closed.

  3. Care: we must value human health, and the personal safety and well-being of employees, residents and the global population, above all. We must ensure that those who are impacted by the industry are cared for-- before, during and after mining operations.

We’re at a turning point in the mining industry. The coming influx of new, socially-minded young people into the sector will inevitably redefine old standards of success to include a wider, more complete array of success metrics that look beyond profit and consider socioeconomic and environmental outcomes. And the incorporation of these new, more nuanced success metrics may be the most important innovation of all.

Innovations beyond cost savings.

Before a mining site is opened, preliminary modelling and analysis work is performed, to assess the site’s economic viability and the impact that extraction will have. Recently, the science and tools available for preliminary analysis have taken leaps forward.

[imaging]From the high-frequency seismic imaging tool AcousticZoom, to drone and remote satellite surveying, it’s becoming cheaper and easier to model sites before mining begins, and to make better long-term plans. In fact, a good friend of mine—Nick Veriotes—is working on an incredibly interesting drone and satellite continuous emissions monitoring project that has the potential to develop into a whole new, far more accurate toolkit for industry to use to measure and estimate emissions.

These new technologies not only make exploration more affordable, but potentially open up new opportunities for extraction in previously unexplored areas with a smaller footprint than was imaginable, even a few decades ago. These kinds of technologies also point the way to the ultimate “minimum footprint” extraction opportunity: asteroid mining, which while you might chuckle at the notion, is actually much closer to happening than you might think.

Environmental stewardship and remediation.

At its most basic level, any efforts that are aimed at protection, conservation, remediation and restoration are considered forms of environmental stewardship. In the mining industry, this has long meant improving efficiency and minimizing environmental impact. But when we expand beyond the traditional views of what is possible, new mining opportunities come to light that satisfy our ever increasing need for new deposits into new frontiers.

Asteroid mining is one of the most promising forms of low-impact mining, assuming the technological obstacles can be overcome. It is estimated that there are 16,000 Near-Earth asteroids, ready to be mined. Some, like C-type asteroids, are rich in clean water, while S-types contain significant levels of iron, nickel and cobalt along with traces of other rare elements. The rarest and most significant are M-type asteroids, which contain about ten times the minerals that similarly sized S-types contain.

[16,000 Near-Earth asteroids rich in resources]

The two largest barriers preventing asteroid mining are our relative lack of knowledge in mapping and analysis, as well as knowledge of how to build and launch rockets capable of carrying the tools and technologies required for operations. But even these are not as impossible as they seem. The New Zealand startup Rocket Lab aims to launch a new rocket every week for the relatively low-cost of US4.9 M/ea., and companies like SpaceX continue to make improvements in rocket technology at a rapid pace.

Community investment and engagement.

While asteroid mining is the future, we need to continue to address environmental and social concerns on earth in the here and now. At the heart of every terrestrial mine is a community. As such, it’s crucial for us to invest and engage these communities in the development of sound mining practices.

The Socio-Economic Monitoring Program and Framework (SEMP) at the Minto Mine is an example of new social and environmental metrics put into action. Located in Pelly Crossing, Yukon, Minto Mine is an open pit and underground copper mine situated on traditional Selkirk First Nation land. The parties involved in this venture have devoted time and resources to the protection and promotion of economic, social and cultural well-being in a truly revolutionary way: by measuring factors that specifically tie to community quality of life.

[group photo at mine site]

In 2010, when an expansion was planned, the Socio-Economic Monitoring Program and Framework (SEMP) was put into place to:

  • Identify common and overlapping interests of the parties

  • Enhance positive benefits, and

  • Avoid or minimize adverse effects of the mine on the community.

From their annual report:

"The purpose of the program is to monitor the socio-economic effects of the Minto Mine’s construction, operations and closure. To meet this primary purpose the program requires two things: a socioeconomic baseline and ongoing measurements against that baseline... Changes in those conditions can be compared and measured against the benchmark. This information helps to determine the direction (positive or negative) and degree of changes (i.e., significance of change) in conditions."

Through qualitative and quantitative data, community surveys, integrated data sets, independent analysis, community roundtables, multi-party analysis, annual reporting and adaptive management,the new framework is focused on trust-building and shared decision-making. [Read the publication (PDF)]

What I’m getting at is, I think it’s important to expand our conception of “technology” to include frameworks and practices like SEMP. It’s an innovation in and of itself, in that it provides a new model and approach and establishes new, previously ignored success metrics.

In a shameless plug for our Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology program, Dr. Anne Johnson goes into great detail in her Mining and Society course discussing these very issues.

Human health, personal welfare, and safety.

[optimization tool]

Beyond engaging the community as a whole, the importance of individual human health and safety cannot be understated. Automation and safer underground excavators improve the safety of staff and local populations. With automated trucks and haulage systems from Cat, Komatsu and Hitachi, mining jobs are increasingly becoming machine maintenance jobs, leaving the more dangerous conditions to machines while humans operate the technology remotely, at a safe distance.

When it comes to underground mining, excavators are a key component of staff safety. In partnership with Parteq Innovation’s and Epiroc’s, Queen’s own Dr. Joshua Marshall developed the technology for a new line of Underground Mobile Miners, which were designed specifically for hard rock mines. These Mobile Miners replace some conventional drill and blast methods, and can reduce the need for evacuations.

[mobile miners]

The newest innovation in technology is waiting for you.

While innovations relating to sustainability and community are occurring more regularly than in the past, the majority of mining research money still goes to projects promising increases in efficiency, productivity and cost-savings. Call me an optimist, but as the mining industry changes and welcomes in new minds, active engagement with populations directly affected by mining, as well as safety and remediation efforts, I think that this will change.

The convergence of green technology and mining is an essential partnership in the 21st century, and it is only through R&D that these new practices and frameworks can be explored and integrated into the industry more broadly. A wide body of research, case studies, and collaborative pursuits are the only way forward, paired with government support and analysis.