Faced with myriad challenges, the mining industry needs to leverage new technologies and digital innovation to work smarter. These firms are doing exactly that.
Several months ago, I attended the annual Investing in Africa Mining Indaba in Cape Town and the insights painted a pretty dismal picture. Combine a lack of reliable energy with a dearth of technical skills, massive increases in demand, a dramatic rise in illegal mining and major supply-chain bottlenecks and what you have is an industry that is struggling to stay above water, let alone capitalise on the opportunities as the world looks to a more sustainable future.
We set some very ambitious targets so we knew that we needed to be equally ambitious in terms of how we try to reach these targets. This meant that we really had to do things differently.Fahmida Smith, Anglo American Platinum
As Albert Einstein once said, you can’t solve problems using the same kind of thinking you used when you created them; you have to approach it from a different perspective.
This is exactly what some of the industry’s biggest firms are doing. Lithakazi Nxiweni,an innovation consultant at the Research Institute for Innovation and Sustainability (RIIS), says there are many examples that show how industry is embracing new technologies and innovation to transform the work they do. For example, some of the most significant investments include expanding the mine’s digital infrastructure to enable things like predictive maintenance and smart stock management and deploying real-time information systems so that data can be collected and transferred between underground and surface operations. Mines are also looking at technology to aid their decarbonisation efforts, to streamline processes and identify gaps in mining cycles, as well as improve mining practices and procedures and boost safety and security. According to Nxiweni, cybersecurity has become a major focus in recent years as more mines adopt digital processes and are starting to realise that this wider digital footprint increases the risk of a cyber attack.
In her role as manager for innovation planning and execution at Exxaro Resources, Elaine Hattingh is responsible for ensuring the business gets the maximum benefit from its innovation efforts. Hattingh says Exxaro realised early on just how much value digitisation and digital technologies can add to mining, particularly with efficiencies, productivity and sustainability. It launched the Digital@Exxaro programme in 2016 to leverage digital technologies to streamline its operations. To do so, the company needed clean data, which it pulled from drone footage or from IoT devices, and which can be analysed and used to help the business make smarter decisions. Once it has all this data, Exxaro can apply advanced analytics and visualisations, followed by machine learning, and potentially even AI, to transform this data into insights. One area where she believes Exxaro has done particularly well is with its integrated operating centres (IOCs). “These IOCs provide one version of the truth. This breaks down barriers and allows for more integrated decision-making so that, for example, our geologists aren’t doing anything without our metallurgists being informed.”
Innovation in action
Anglo American Platinum is also making strides in innovation with its zero-emission, hydrogen-powered mine haul truck. Fahmida Smith, principal for market development, says it’s the first of its kind in the world and has been in the making since 2019. It forms part of Anglo’s promise to be carbon-neutral by 2040. “We set some very ambitious targets so we knew that we needed to be equally ambitious in terms of how we try to reach these targets. This meant that we really had to do things differently.”
When strategising on how to achieve these emissions targets, the company realised that it needed to come up with an alternative to its diesel mine haul fleet, she says, which includes about 400 trucks, each of which use around 900 000litres of diesel each year.
Asa starting point, Anglo American went out into the market to see what was available. A pure battery electric system didn't meet its requirements: the continuous operation of vehicles without having large amounts of downtime forcharging, says Smith. And so, it looked to power its fleet of trucks with one of the most abundant natural resources in the world: hydrogen. While the idea to do so was initially met with scepticism by the industry – these massive trucks are some of the largest vehicles on the planet, standing close to three storeys tall and weighing 500 tonnes when fully loaded – the company combined commercially available technologies and partnered with Engie, Ballard, FirstMode and NPROXX to bring its idea to fruition.
While innovation like this is a step in the right direction for mining’s evolution, Nxiweni points out that the adoption of technology varies when you look at the bigger players compared to some of the smaller mining houses. “When you're implementing a new technology, you might need to stop the mining process or slow it down and drastically reduce your efficiency, which costs a lot of money. You also need to remember that innovation is largely a trial-and-error process. There’s no guarantee that you're going to get things to work immediately, which adds additional time constraints. This is especially problematic for smaller firms, which might think it’s easier to just continue with the status quo.”
The objective of innovation can’t be innovation. You need to innovate with clear objectives in mind.Elaine Hattingh, Exxaro Resources
Larger mining houses typically have the resources to adopt new technologies and deploy the latest innovations more quickly and thus they serve as drivers of the sector’s innovation and technological development. Only once these technologies are widely established can the smaller mining companies start adopting the same approaches and leveraging the same principles to improve their operations, she says.
While this might be true, Exxaro’s Hattingh believes there are many different ways for the industry to innovate. Innovation can happen across all aspects of the business – not just within specialised R&D, innovation and tech departments, she says. It can also happen outside of the business. By working with different subject matter experts, research institutes and industry associations, mining businesses can find solutions to specific problems. Exxaro has partnered with tertiary institutions to come up with new ways to solve current and future problems – such as improving climate modelling across their operations and exploring if there is potential for technologies such as extended reality to transform mining operations.
She also cites open innovation as a great tool in any innovation manager’s tool kit. “If you're looking for new and exciting technologies or different types of solutions, open innovation is definitely the way to go.” Hattingh says open innovation exposes miners to emerging technologies being used in parallel industries. “I think I've used this example a million times, but collision avoidance and fatigue monitoring systems that we use today all come from the aviation industry. And to cite a much older example, GPS was first used in the defence industry. So there are a lot of these technologies that can benefit mining, but there's no way of knowing about them if we aren’t open to looking for alternatives in places where we wouldn’t expect to find them.”
Hattingh is adamant that there are times when innovation should be spontaneous and happen on a whim, but there are also times when innovation needs to be ‘managed’. Acknowledging that this might be a controversial opinion, she says we need to be clear about what we are solving so that we have a clear direction and can find viable solutions. “The objective of innovation can’t be innovation. You need to innovate with clear objectives in mind.”
Some facts about the Anglo America hydrogen-powered truck:
- 510 tonnes - Fully laden weight (220ttruck with a load capacity of 290t)
- 1.2 MWh - Size of the battery pack designed, built and tested for the truck
- 140 MW - Energy to be generated by Anglo American’s hydrogen production, storage and refuelling complex at Mogalakwena that incorporates the largest electrolyser in Africa and a solar PV field to support the 24-hour operation of the nuGen™ truck
- 900 000 litres - Amount of diesel consumed by one traditional haul truck each year
- 800 KW - Power generated by the multiple fuel cell modules on the nuGen™ truck. Working with suppliers, Anglo have designed and implemented a software solution to safely manage the power and energy between the fuel cells, batteries and vehicle drivetrain
- 2030 - The year Anglo American plans to have deployed the nuGen™ ZEHS project at seven of its open pit sites, converting all their diesel-powered ultra-class mine haul trucks at these sites to green hydrogen. In addition, they are exploring switching smaller heavy-duty vehicles and light-duty duty vehicles to hydrogen and fuel cell technology too
- 80% – Potential reduction of the mining firm’s on-site diesel emissions through the full implementation of nuGen™
* Article first published on brainstorm.itweb.co.za