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21 March 2024 6 min read

Mine control rooms have become a treasure trove of data—and this information could be the key to decarbonising one of Australia’s largest-emitting industrial sectors, with the help of CSIRO research.

Senior experimental scientist and mining engineer Stuart Addinell has spent most of his working life “hanging around mines,” as he puts it; and his latest project involves taking a deep dive into the realm of digital decarbonisation.

"Across Australia, our power grids and networks and supporting infrastructure are all designed for fossil fuels,” Addinell says.

But Australia’s commitment to global emissions targets will mean transforming our energy systems, and how we power our homes, businesses and key infrastructure. Data will be the key to that transformation, he says.

“Using data to build ‘digital twin’ simulations, we can gain a far greater understanding about how we get from the processes we use now, to where we want to be," Addinell says.

“We have a big job ahead of us to transform not just the way we generate our power, but also the way we best resource it and deliver it sustainably.”

Stuart Addinell is looking into a microscope
Stuart Addinell is delving into digital decarbonisation in mining

Addinell says that digitisation of mine operations in recent decades has allowed us to collect more and more data allowing us to gain greater insights into underlying challenges such as mine electrification and decarbonisation.

“This longitudinal data on past operations allows us to build a very accurate digital version of a mine, for example – and then we can try out different scenarios to model their potential impact on efficiency, effectiveness and productivity,” he says.

“This technology will allow us to take a holistic approach to transform the resources industry and drive decarbonisation efforts in mining.”

The push for decarbonisation comes at a challenging time for the mineral sector; the easy pickings have been exploited, and existing mines are being worked more intensively, often for lower-quality resources and lower margins.

But the global transition to renewables will rely heavily on a productive and sustainable mining sector – so solutions to these challenges are becoming more critical.

Sharing the base-load

Addinell applies his background in technology and mining engineering into the extensive scope of work that is electrification and decarbonisation across the entire minerals value chain, approached from an energy ecosystem point of view.

He says the mining sector poses unique challenges in the realm of energy generation, and the solutions vary depending on location, commodity and business processes used.

“Most mines on Australia’s east coast, even quite remote operations, are grid connected; however in the west of Australia, this is not the case. Generators are common, these can be diesel power generators, or gas-fired power stations or combinations of the above, with everything related to energy trucked in and brought on-site, including all of the consumables."

Mining is enormously energy-intensive and can also require massive fluctuations in power demand.

Addinell gives the example of rock crushing equipment (‘jaw crushers’) which can draw significantly more power during peak demand than the average load.

“Currently, mines simply turn equipment on, and the grid absorbs the power spikes. But as grids decentralise and incorporate more renewable energy, they will have less capacity to handle these surges,” he says.

One option, particularly for remote-area mines, is to ditch the diesel and generate their own renewable power, sharing energy with neighbouring mines – and literally sharing the load.

With more distributed, peer-to-peer energy trading, mines will need better forecasting and to co-ordinate their energy needs to smooth out these high-demand loads.

Fourth dimension

CSIRO researchers have already created data platforms that can run ‘digital twin’ simulations and facilitate these arrangements.

CSIRO's VoxelNet platform is a ‘four-dimensional’ analytics system that organises underground geology data into one metre-square data cubes called ‘voxels’ which integrate spatial coordinates along a three-dimensional axis (latitude, longitude and depth), recording time-series data.

“Time is the fourth dimension,” Addinell explains.

These voxels can be used to combine different datasets (such as ore grades, rock characteristics, material composition), and then create near real-time simulations based on data about real world locations.

VoxelNET can created a digital twin of a mine site, tracking materials in real time.

Addinell says these simulations allow mine controllers to undertake detailed energy forecasting: "If you are tracking the progress of your mining operation and you can see that you've got higher gross tonnage coming up in a month, you can predict increased energy use."

This data can help miners coordinate energy-sharing and energy storage arrangements to cope with spikes in power demand, for example.

The key to creating these simulations is extracting and integrating historically siloed data; mining groups must figure out how to use this data to support meaningful decision-making, such as trialling different scenarios on the VoxelNet platform, Addinell says.

"Data feeds into mine control rooms, but often isn't used again," says Addinell.

He says that judicious use of artificial intelligence (AI) will also allow miners to combine diverse data to optimise processes, another way to reduce waste and energy use.

The data can be used to optimise ventilation systems, plan maintenance, and improve overall mine productivity and efficiency.

New ways to generate energy

"Mapping out the path to net-zero emissions will involve canvassing a range of different potential energy sources that can meet mining’s specific needs," says Addinell.

One concept is using wireless power transfer for vehicle-to-grid integration.

Regenerative braking is an energy source already under trial around the world. This technology allows a vehicle to gather energy through deceleration or other gravity assisted kinetic operations, but this energy is usually just used to recharge batteries on the source vehicle, and once those batteries are charged, any excess is lost.

What if mines could harness this energy – which can be substantial in mining operations where, for example, huge haul-trucks with heavy loads brake on a downhill haul road?

Using wireless power transfer, the energy from regenerative braking could feed into on-site microgrids instead, so a haul-truck braking downhill could assist in providing power to a crusher.

CSIRO's heliostat field with Tower 2 operating on-sun in Newcastle, NSW

Innovative approaches could include processes such as concentrated solar thermal energy (CST), in mineral processing workflows, a system under trial by CSIRO in Newcastle.

“This CST system relies on a conveyor belt moving material through an aperture,” he says. “Mines are very familiar with conveyor systems, so that will improve their change readiness and ability to adopt this technology”.

Addinell says that the push to decarbonise is also an opportunity to think strategically about waste heat, which could be transformed into a valuable resource in mining operations.

"Rather than think about heat as a waste product that we have to get rid of through active cooling systems by venting it to atmosphere and try to reduce its impact on the machinery, why do we not consider reusing this thermal energy, reuse the waste product as an input to mineral processing?”

Addinell is currently working on his own project in wireless power transfer for mining vehicles which aims to turn wasted kinetic energy into electrical energy to feed back into the mine’s electrical grid.

Addinell says digital twins are essential to model energy flows and position infrastructure. Live data feeds on vehicle charge levels facilitate coordination.

Towards carbon neutrality

While net zero 2050 is the global target, many mining companies are pulling forward their own goals; Fortescue for example, has announced carbon neutrality across its operations by 2030.

“Mining is an industry that, as a whole is committed to carbon neutrality, and mining is also in a unique position to drive innovation and sustainability in the energy sector,” he says.

“It’s an industry with multiple challenges including remote locations, huge energy demands which spike and drop, and difficult work environments – and as a result it’s also already playing a pivotal role in developing decarbonisation and electrification technologies.”

“In many ways mining is leading the innovation into heavy industry decarbonisation and electrification.

CSIRO's data-driven approach aims to transform mining into a "closed energy ecosystem". This will enable integrated sites that generate their own renewable power, store it locally, share it between processes and feed it back into the grid.

Addinell says that solving these challenges for mining's extreme conditions means the solutions can be rolled out economy-wide.

“Data analytics paves the way for mines of the future to not only achieve net zero, but potentially become net energy exporters. This will be essential as Australia pursues an electricity grid dominated by distributed renewables.”

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