The changing landscape of industrial mining

2021-11-23 04:01:00

From the diamonds in Nunavut to the gold in British Columbia to the iron ores in Labrador, Canada has a multitude of resources spanning from coast to coast to coast. Producing over 30 different minerals and metals, it is no surprise that Canada plays a substantial role in the global mining industry. As priorities shift within the industry to account for environmental and economic changes, Canada has the opportunity to set the bar for the future of mining. One way toward a new mining frontier is to embrace technological innovations that will help the industry continue playing a pivotal role in the country’s economy.

“We can’t stop mining, but if we want to have our current society […]  if we want to keep this planet and some of our last remaining wildernesses, then we have to look at how we mine and do it very responsibly,” Scott Berdahl, the CEO of Snowline Gold Corp, a junior mining company based in the Yukon, said in an interview with The McGill Tribune.

The life cycle of a mine consists of several stages, beginning with the initial discovery of a viable reserve, to planning, then production, and finally to the closure and reclamation of the mine as operations wind down. With each stage being relatively distinct from one another, both large and small mining companies are implementing creative technological solutions to improve each stage of the mining process.

The first stage in establishing a mine is the search for reserves. The scouting is often considered the most swashbuckling of mine operations, where small teams work in vast and often remote locations to find a viable deposit to mine. This is the stage where junior mining companies work alongside major mining companies, often selling their properties to the major players when a quantifiable increase in property value is discovered.

One technology that has proven useful in these remote environments is x-ray fluorescence (XRF). Exposing rock samples to x-rays causes the different elements found inside to enter a higher energy stage. The elements then re-emit light at specific wavelengths, allowing scientists to determine the elemental composition of the rock sample.

Traditionally, samples that were thought to contain sought-after minerals and metals would be sent to the assay lab so that geologists could get a completely accurate composition of the rock. In the context of exploration geology, this could mean shipping samples hundreds of kilometres away to get tested. With portable XRF, it is now possible to get compositional analyses of rock samples without ever having to leave the field. Although lab tests are still an essential part of exploration geology, as XRF technology develops, geologists will be able to get results faster and with higher accuracy.

Another technological innovation that has revolutionized the field of exploration geology is the use of drones for surveillance. Drones have an advantage over other survey methods because they can cover vast swaths of ground while still keeping the scale of the survey specific to the area. This is in contrast to walking, which is restricted to the ground level, and satellites, which lack the necessary resolution to identify areas of interest on the single kilometre scale.

Drones can perform a wide range of measurements using visible and near-infrared light to detect colour variation and any changes in the earth’s magnetic field. In addition to these specialized functions, they can capture high-resolution photography of exposed rock faces. Drones then allow geologists to develop more accurate models of the geology they are working with and to pinpoint specific areas of interest to explore. Due to these advantages, drones are rapidly becoming the swiss-army knife of mining exploration.

Following the discovery of a viable deposit, the planning phase begins. This part of the operation can take years to progress as a multitude of factors must be weighed, including production and environmental costs in comparison to the value derived from the extracted materials. In addition to the extremely high start-up costs, with initial investment often being upwards of billions of dollars, mine operators need to be confident that the mined materials will offset the cost. This can be challenging as profits are tied to the value of the resource which then experiences large fluctuations, whether it be a material like lithium, nickel, and quartz or a precious commodity such as diamonds.

One group working to make this process faster and less risky is COSMO laboratory, led by  Roussos Dimitrakopoulos, a professor in McGill’s Department of Mining Engineering.

“We are looking at industrial mine composites,” Dimitrakopoulos said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “You have tens of millions of variables, and so, how do you follow them?  Suddenly you look at this and say we would like new methods to optimize the whole thing.”

The project aims to optimize models to estimate ore bodies and their economic viability while taking the entire supply chain into account.

“[Our] models perform better because they account for what may or may not be in the ground,” Dimitrakopoulos said. “The conventional way is to take an average of what’s in the ground. This does not fully represent what is there [because] average in does not mean average out.”

Once planning is complete, construction can begin, followed by the start of mine operations. In contrast to the early exploration stage of mine operations, in this phase, the landscape is fairly well understood, and the goal is to begin extracting resources from the ground.

A group of technologies that are predicted to become commonplace by 2025 are autonomous machines. The key word here being autonomous, these machines are able to work with minimal supervision 24/7 on a variety of tasks, including drilling, blasting, loading, and hauling. Load Haul Dump (LHD) vehicles are an example of the types of machines used. These vehicles are primarily designed to cart ore out of the mine to be processed into various materials.

Along with ore that is extracted, economically unviable material called tailings are generated as a by-product. These tailings have the potential to create major environmental damage through leaching salts and heavy metals into nearby water sources and spreading harmful dust particles to surrounding communities. Scientists are currently looking into how to mitigate the environmental risk that tailings pose.

Greg Dipple, a professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia, is leading a research project that aims to combat this source of environmental disturbance. The project looks to repurpose mine tailings from nickel, diamond, platinum mines as carbon traps to offset carbon emissions released throughout the mining process.

After the resource is depleted and primary production grinds to a halt, it’s time for the closure and reclamation process to begin. This involves maintaining the mine to avoid contaminating nearby areas and returning the site back to its original state as much as possible.

New and emerging technologies within the mining sector have exciting implications for the industry. As we begin to reevaluate how resource extraction is done in Canada, it is important to continue to find new methods to make mining more efficient, economically sustainable, and environmentally conscious.

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