Rising energy, infrastructure and environmental costs are now driving a new paradigm of precision mining, writes Professor Paul Lever, CEO of CRCMining.

Intelligent mining and ore management article from resourceful: Issue 6, March 2014

Professor Phil Lever, CEO of CRC Mining

Our industry is at the beginning of a period of transition. The drivers behind the transition are larger than our industry and are reflective of the growing global economy and the increasing needs to bring the burgeoning world’s population to an acceptable standard of living.

During the last 10 years the demand for mineral resources has steepened considerably over historical trends.

In the future, resource companies will have to meet this increasing demand for resources by more effectively mining lower-grade and more difficult deposits. The solution is to raise mining productivity and lower unit production costs.

The pursuit of productivity begins with increasing the efficiency of mining operations, that is, generating more output from every dollar of capital invested. During the last decade of the mining boom we have seen increased capacity from increased investment, accompanied by little increase in efficiency. Some have argued that we have lost focus on productivity, while pursuing volume through investment in larger machinery and mine sites.

The main drivers of productivity vary internationally, in Australia they generally include: labour, mining methods and work processes.

The challenge in increasing productivity in the short term is to drive mining processes (including equipment) towards achieving their theoretical optimal operating mode or even industry best practice.

In the longer term, the challenge is opening new mines that use more productive processes and methods and, where applicable, transitioning older mines to new processes and technologies.

In practice, this may mean adopting new paradigms, some of which feel like a return to the past.

As an example, in the 1800s it was not feasible to mine large quantities of waste to extract small high-value orebodies. The 1900s saw a transition to massive mines where movement of waste became a significantly larger component of the mining process.

Rising energy, infrastructure and environmental costs are now driving a push towards a new paradigm of precision mining. This focuses on minimising the movement and processing of waste material.

Also, unlike the tightly targeted mining of the 1800s, the new mining methods will exploit a wide range of emerging technologies to mine, sort and select ore as close to the working face as possible.

Intelligent equipment and new mining methods will enable work to take place in mining environments both considered unsafe for humans and challenging for current mining methods.

Machines may work on walls too steep for humans to safely tackle. Remotely operated or automated equipment will not demand the same volume of expensive luxuries such as fresh air, workplace amenities and alternative escape routes.

Orebodies will be more accurately mapped and identified before mining. Information-transmitting sensors embedded in the ore will enable it to be tracked, sorted and processed in the most efficient way.

In surface mines at depths below 400 metres and perhaps even shallower, ultra large trucks will be replaced by conveyor or hydraulic transports systems that will reduce the cost of moving materials from up to 80 per cent of the total mining cost down to 10–15 per cent.

We already have much of the technology we need to make the transition – CRCMining has already delivered a number of step-change technologies like the universal dig and dump (UDD) dragline, shovel load and assist program (SLAP), cave tracking technology and Oscillating Disc Cutter (ODC).

These outcomes and many other innovative projects in the pipeline are indications of the exciting times ahead as industry drives towards satisfying global market demand with new levels of productivity.

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