Mining technology to extract material from the earth keeps growing in capability and magnitude. Today, drill and blast and giant haul trucks make short work of tonnes of earth to deliver the minerals we need.
But in hard-rock mining, the crucial step of discovering whether economic concentrations of the target mineral are within that extracted material has been tediously tethered to grinding, crushing and processing.
While those techniques have advanced, too, it’s immensely inefficient to subject all the mined material to these costly and chemically-, energy- and water-intensive processes, regardless of its grade.
It’s a problem CSIRO Mineral Resources scientists have spent decades trying to solve. Their quest was to develop technology to enable miners to reveal ore concentrations in extracted material at speed and in bulk before any further processing, and reject low-concentration matter with confidence – to be selective in what gets treated.
On December 1, the fruits of that research were recognised at the global Mines and Money conference in London when NextOre, the company formed from that foundational science, was named Mining Technology Company of the Year for Excellence in Innovation.
How MR sensing delivers rock-solid evidence
NextOre’s sensing enables miners to analyse material using magnetic resonance (MR) technology developed by CSIRO.
“Our technology is a cousin of magnetic resonance imaging found in the medical field,” says NextOre CEO Chris Beal. “Rather than measuring bodies, we measure minerals.”
The NextOre MR analyser (MRA) sits over a conveyor belt, assaying the rock passing beneath it at a very high rate using short pulses of radio waves to penetrate it and report grade measurements in real time.
Its advantage over other analysers is that many only ‘read’ surface mineral particles on the material, producing only skin-deep results. Others take minutes to produce a measurement.
“Our technology can determine in seconds exactly what the quality of ore in that material is, and separate it out before it goes on to further processing,” says Mr Beal. “That waste material doesn’t need to be processed, reducing environmental impact and cost.”
Processing is one of the most energy-intensive parts of a hard-rock mining operation. Enormous amounts of electricity are required for grinding and crushing and huge quantities of water for further processing.
Technology that reduces blind processing of low-grade material and waste clearly benefits the environment and the bottom line.
Turning transformational science into a business
“CSIRO’s Mineral Resources group had been working on these measurement technologies for a long time,” says Mr Beal. “There were crucial individuals within the team who not only understood the very deep technical, scientific side of it, they were also able to identify the valuable application of it.”
Mr Beal says Dr Nick Cutmore, a long-time CSIRO research scientist and now a director of NextOre, and Dr David Miljak, Research Director, Sensing and Sorting in the Mineral Resources business unit, were two of those critical players.
“They knew that this process in the mining industry had become indiscriminate in the way that it mines ore, favouring economies of scale over precision,” says Mr Beal. “You’re scooping up all of this material, and there was no technology capable of checking to see if what was being sent for processing was high quality. They saw the potential for their technology being developed to be applied to solve this.”
Knowing they had business-changing technology on their hands, it was time to get it out of the lab.
“They said, ‘We need to go out to companies, prove that it works, and find partners and put a company together that makes this happen’,” says Mr Beal.
“CSIRO put a team of engineers, Nick and me together to make their prototype industrially viable, something that can be manufactured and commercialised,” says Shivika Singh, who has an MBA in strategy and a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering, Back then, she was CSIRO’s Technology Integration Manager; today she is NextOre’s COO.
“CSIRO scientists are brilliant – they make excellent technology” says Ms Singh. “To take that technology to a mine site as a product is a process on its own.”
Three heads are better than one – collaborating for impact
In 2017, engineering giant Worley and global resources advisory firm RFC Ambrian joined with CSIRO to form NextOre, headquartered in the western Sydney suburb of Silverwater.
“NextOre is dedicated to building the magnetic resonance analysers, from the detailed design engineering stage to finding suppliers and contractors to manufacture the system, assemble, test and commission the systems on site,” says Ms Singh.
NextOre is a prime example of how CSIRO’s research can become a high-impact technology company.
“NextOre came into existence as its own fully formed company,” explains Mr Beal. “All three co-founders earned their equity in the new business. In exchange for the equipment and the technology, CSIRO got its portion. In exchange for the work that Worley and RFC did in setting up the business and finding first customers and the commercial side of it, they earned their portions.”
In 2019, NextOre also raised $2.5 million from private investors who understood the potential of the disruptive technology.
The team got to work addressing the challenges. “A lot of knowledge had to be extracted from people’s heads,” says Ms Singh. “It has been a challenging process to get everything documented and to have information and procedures that can be followed by external contractors. The scientific research done by CSIRO that has gone into the development of this technology is extensive and the technology-transfer process is what has been one of our main focuses.”
“For any new research and development projects we’re doing with CSIRO, we make sure documentation is completed as the systems are being developed, NextOre personnel are involved during the different stages of the project and the technology transfer is a continuous and gradual process.” says Ms Singh.
Collaborating on the technology to meet the reality of industry
NextOre has customers whose production lines are able to have the analyser fitted to an existing conveyor belt, adding a diverter for material it classifies as waste.
But the team knew that this would not work for all mines. “To tinker with a mining operation on their main production line can be a problem,” says Mr Beal. “If it goes down for 12 hours, they lose millions of dollars an hour, and companies couldn’t wrap their minds around that.”
The NextOre team collaborated with industry to build a mobile bulk sorter. “It marries up the analyser technology with existing conveyors, diverters and motors,” says Mr Beal. “The aim was to build a product that we can send to a mine site and it unfolds into a ready-made solution.”
The mobile bulk ore sorter was key in NextOre winning the Mines and Money innovation award. “We’ve taken this transformational technology from CSIRO and made it easier for companies to adopt it, because that was a big barrier,” says Mr Beal. “Solving it is really significant for us and really significant, I think, for CSIRO, too.”
The bulk ore sorter has been available for companies to hire since mid-2022 and is already attracting a lot of interest.
“It has proved our theory that companies would appreciate having something that can be mobilised easily to the mine site, where it can sit off to the side,” says Mr Beal. “They don’t need to contract engineering and construction companies and make a big deal out of it. Instead, they’re hiring a piece of mobile equipment. Companies are telling us that they were keen on the technology before; now we’ve made it work in terms of fitting in with their business.”
NextOre’s mobile turnkey solution is leased to miners and the company sees it as being ideal for small mines, those looking to monetise historical dumps, or to provide rapid testing close to the site to support a larger sorting plant.
“The mobile bulk ore sorter typically processes 400 tonnes per hour, and is suitable for stockpiles and small plants,” says Ms Singh.
Putting the mobile bulk ore sorter through its paces
A prime example of the potential value of the mobile bulk ore sorter is copper mining. Demand for copper is rising at the same time remaining ore grades are declining.
One company that has been trialling the mobile bulk ore sorter is Aeris Resources, a mid-tier base and precious metals producer. Copper is the dominant mineral in its active operations and exploration projects spanning Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia.
“We trialled NextOre’s mobile bulk ore sorter in our Tritton Copper Operations in central NSW,” says Ian Sheppard, COO of Aeris Resources. “Tritton is moving to a model with a central processing plant. The next mine we’re developing will be up to 65km by road away from the plant, and future mines may be 100km away.”
There are clear economic and environmental benefits if Aeris can assay material at the mine site.
“If you can reject waste close to the mine, you’re not trucking that material and you can dispose of it back into the mine,” says Mr Sheppard. “It cuts down diesel consumption for hauling, it cuts down electrical power consumption at the grinding circuit, it cuts down the cost of rehabilitation at the tails disposal site, it cuts down the amount of water you consume. The list goes on and on – there are multiple benefits.”
Traditionally Aeris will assay the ore from drill holes before mining and make an estimate of the grade, explains Mr Sheppard. “Then we assay again when we’ve produced the copper concentrate product, and try to reconcile between those two endpoints,” he says. “It’s nearly impossible to selectively take out the packages of waste that are mixed in with the ore, and that was the intent of the trial project.”
Learnings from the Tritton Copper Operations trial
The trial took material on the first surface stockpile taken from an underground mine. “We picked it up and put it through a crusher to get it on the conveyor belt, which ran underneath NextOre’s assaying tool,” he says.
“At the end of the conveyor belt we had a diverter gate rejecting low-grade material or accepting it as ore.” Unfortunately the trial didn’t deliver a rejection rate as high as Aeris had hoped. Mr Sheppard explains that the mining system has evolved to homogenise the material removed from the underground stope by mixing it, whereas “the assaying and sorting technology works on a high degree of heterogeneity”.
Innovation is always a long game. “You never give in,” says Mr Sheppard. “Operational technology has a high failure rate in the first instance. If you give up on the first go, you never find the true benefits. It’s persistence hunting – you learn a lot and apply it next time.”
He says Aeris Resources will “absolutely” persist with NextOre.
“We have ore bodies that are currently deemed to be uneconomic, because you wouldn’t truck 100% of the ore for processing,” he says. “Imagine if you could reject 40% of the waste from the ore stream at the mine site, and only send your high grade for processing. Then you’re taking an interesting piece of geology and turning it into an ore body.”
This is where he sees immense potential for NextOre’s technology to have a global impact. “There are lots of ‘interesting pieces of geology’ around the world – mineralised rock only becomes defined as ore when you can prove that it’s economic. If you can reject low-grade material as close to the mine face as possible, you cut down all those downstream costs because you only process the high-grade. Effectively, the technology is creating ore.”
Continuing to climb over barriers
The NextOre team continues to work closely with CSIRO to develop new sensing capabilities and other iterations of the MR assaying technology for a wider range of mine-site applications.
“In 2019, we were awarded a $1.07 million Physical Sciences Fund grant from the NSW government to make the first commercial version of an open-geometry sensor,” says Mr Beal.
Next up, NextOre and CSIRO are collaborating with a major Canadian mining company to build a sensor that will be mobile in a whole new way. It’s set to go into operation early in 2023.
CSIRO will keep delivering the highly scientific R&D work for NextOre. “Once CSIRO gets it to a point where they’ve solved the fundamentals and it is more of an engineering problem, there’s a handover process,” says Mr Beal. “We are always talking about the division of what technology is ready for NextOre to take carriage of, and what’s still in the CSIRO camp.”
NextOre’s successful commercialisation journey continues rolling forward, along with the thousands of tonnes of material it’s analysing to bring greater precision to the mining industry.
Its stands as a shining example for other Australian METS companies of what continuing R&D and product innovation can achieve in growing a business to stake a claim on a global stage.