New Solutions to Improve Sustainability
The mining industry is a widely misunderstood and misperceived industry that has, rather unfortunately, carried a negative reputation for years. This can be attributed to decades-old stereotypes associated with coal mining and the resulting emissions and by-products. Understandably, this reputation causes considerable frustration among key industry players, especially those who have devoted their entire careers to modernizing and propelling the industry forward.
The truth is most people don’t realize – or they take for granted – the role mining plays in our everyday lives. Mining supplies the minerals and metals that power everything from our smart phones and home appliances to our transportation systems, healthcare, and food production. New technology and sensors use an increasing number of periodic table elements, all of which require mining. There’s no substitute for these materials – they are necessary to digital innovation and the betterment of our society.
In Canada, mining is a massive contributor to the economy. The Mining Association of Canada says the industry contributed $97 billion to Canada’s GDP in 2018, accounting for one in every 30 jobs in Canada. Our country is hugely reliant on the mining industry, and this comes with its own challenges. There’s a perception – and not an entirely incorrect one – that the industry is lagging when it comes to adopting innovation. In recent years, as the importance of sustainable mining has come into the spotlight, there’s been a big push to leverage new innovations to make the industry safer and more environmentally responsible. Finally, the industry is starting to respond in earnest. Innovation and sustainability will play a key role in unlocking the mining industry’s survival and potential as we move forward.
We’re endowed with an abundance of natural resources in Canada that, when coupled with our commitment to responsible and sustainable mining practices, has earned us a global reputation as a leader in mining. Our nation is well-positioned to take advantage of the continued momentum and demand for low-carbon energy sources. As we face great uncertainty over the coming months and perhaps even years, Canada will rely on sectors like the mining industry to be the foundation in spurring innovation and driving economic growth.
Decarbonizing at the Source
Industrialization, digitization, and automation are three global megatrends rapidly changing the landscape of the world we live in. As we enter this new decade, our world is more electric, connected, and automated than ever before. And while these trends can certainly have a positive impact – improving connectivity and efficiency – they also pose a significant energy dilemma.
The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2040 global energy consumption will grow by over 25 per cent, putting increased strain on our infrastructure, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, and bolstering climate change. At the same time, we need to drop our carbon-dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 to limit global warming to a 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise. The world’s current climate policies are on track for a catastrophic 4.0 degrees Celsius temperature rise, according to European research group Climate Action Tracker. Clearly, we need greater implementation of technologies and solutions that will help us use energy more efficiently and drastically reduce our GHG emissions.
The paradox is that the technology we need to build our world in a more sustainable way is reliant on the mining industry. Mined metals and minerals are essential to building a low-carbon economy and play a key role in powering renewable energy sources such as fuel cells, wind turbines, electric vehicles, solar panels, and batteries for energy storage. However, the extraction and production of these minerals is an essential yet energy extensive process. Environmentalists have long criticized the mining industry, citing the impact it can have on the environment, from erosion and water contamination to loss of biodiversity and increased carbon emissions.
So, the question now becomes how we can implement sustainability at the source of our green and emissions-reduction technologies?
Mining companies are now realizing the value of investing in clean technology across their operations. The integration of IoT-enabled technology throughout mining operations can drive operational and energy efficiency, improve processes, and enhance production to meet demand, all while reducing mining’s carbon footprint.
Sustainability Across Operations
The stages involved in the production of any natural resource are complex and face their own unique challenges. When implementing sustainability across operations, the mining industry needs to look at the complete picture to identify the right solutions.
Since massive amounts of energy are required to break down large rocks into small particles, it is essential that processing be done only on valuable ore. Processing waste consumes energy, provides no value, and takes capacity away from processing ore. In-pit ore sorting has advanced significantly and has proven to be a significant benefit to several mining companies, including Teck Resources in British Columbia.
Falling ore grades naturally increases the energy required per ton of product, so mining companies have no choice but to optimize their operations. Technologies like integrated, inter-operable IoT architectures and platforms can “talk” with just about any software or connected device and collect data. This provides complete integration and visibility across engineering, operations, and maintenance and can help facilitate communication between different, often siloed, departments of the business. This technology – and the optimization of processes – can reduce energy, water, and chemical consumption, ensure regulatory and safety requirements are met, and increase efficiencies at all levels.
The recent decline in the grade of mined minerals, and as a result, the intensified mineral process, also means more water is required. Mining companies can employ new technologies that monitor water quality and levels, even reaching dispersed or otherwise inaccessible areas. By providing a complete snapshot of water quality, companies can ensure they continue to deliver on, or exceed, their environmental commitments.
Visibility into data means sustainable mining doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Mining companies can reduce their energy and water consumption and improve on sustainability, while also increasing production, ensuring product quality, and generating a profit. As more companies start to implement these solutions, they should consider what platforms seamlessly connect with existing infrastructure, what the most important outputs for the business are, and what data they want collect and analyze.
Now’s the Time to Act
Globally, we’re at a crossroads between wanting to propel our economies forward, but needing to leave the planet in a better, greener state for the next generation. As environmentally-minded Millennials and Generation Z make up the majority of the workforce, the drive towards sustainability will continue to gain momentum. Over the last few years, we’ve seen a shift in the roles new mining professionals are looking to fill – fewer are interested in operating underground, which can be physically and mentally demanding. New technology is reinvigorating the industry by re-locating traditional roles to new positions at remote operation centres.
We must call on mining leaders around the world to prioritize digitization and automation to reduce their carbon footprint. It’s no longer a question of if but rather a question of when. Sustainability is the future of mining – and as the world relies more on mined minerals and metals to power renewable energy sources and clean technology, we have no choice but to improve sustainability at the source. After all, there’s no substitute for the materials that make up our digital, connected, and sustainable future. The extraction and processing of these minerals and metals plays a key role in the transition to a low-carbon economy so we must ensure the mining sector plays a key role in working toward our carbon emission reduction targets.
In Canada, our abundance of natural resources has always been a major contributor to our country’s economic growth, and in turn, our quality of life. If we continue to act responsibly by raising the bar on sustainable practices, our nation will lead the mining industry into the next era.
About the Author
David Willick is the Vice President and Regional Leader of Mining, Metals and Minerals, North America for Schneider Electric. He brings over 30 years of industry experience to his position, actively working with mining, metals and minerals business leaders globally to deliver solutions that combine the intersection of engineering and technology. He has led teams globally and across North America in helping major mining, metals and minerals operations to improve performance, reduce energy consumption and achieve higher sustainability goals.