Innovation has been the hot topic of the mining industry for several years now – but how much progress have we actually made? CMJ spoke with Douglas Morrison, president and CEO of the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), to find out.
Based in Sudbury, Ont., CEMI works with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that have or are working on technologies that could be applied to problems that the mining industry is facing. In this interview, Morrison discusses where the industry needs to go from here, CEMI’s work on practical solutions, and the “commercialization gap.”
CMJ: In recent years, the mining industry has been consumed with some big challenges – productivity, financial performance and social licence being some of the big ones – and the consensus has been that the industry needs to change and innovate to get to solutions. How much progress would you say has been made to date?
Douglas Morrison: I think that the industry is making some incremental progress – certainly on the productivity issues. They’re looking at the types of projects that will move the industry forward in relatively small steps at a time, so changing from diesel engines to battery driven equipment for example will have an impact, but it won’t be very large.
They’ve already gone through the exercise of cost-cutting and reducing expenditures internally, so that was their first step, and having done that, they’re now beginning to re-examine some of the incremental innovations that they could bring to bear. They have not been very strongly supportive of external innovation agencies like ourselves or others and so they’re beginning to reconsider what they should do there.
The biggest thing they’ve done so far is working with OEMs to make a transition from diesel engines to electric engines driven by batteries. I don’t believe there’s been a lot of progress made by the mining companies in re-examining the platforms that they use for some of these issues. So organizations like ourselves have done more of that work.
CMJ: So what needs to happen now?
DM: The changes that have to take place are becoming more and more urgent, but also more and more significant.
So it’s my view that we’ll not see the scale of change that we need in productivity and cost of production, and return on investment simply by continuing to make incremental improvements.
What it does require is a re-examination of some of the important technological platforms that the industry has relied on for the last 50 years or so. So we’ve relied on economies of scale in underground production, with larger and larger trucks and equipment. That then brings with it an increasing burden on ventilation, so as mines get deeper and hotter, the demands for ventilation increase at the same rate that the equipment is increasing in scale, so you really are not making a significant improvement in your cost of production. So it does require a significant rethink on how we do things.
CMJ: Can you give us another example of a platform that needs to be rethought?
DM: Sub-aqueous deposition is the technology platform that the mining industry has used to manage metal mining tailings for a long time. We think we have to shift to a different platform.
There have been significant failures of tailings dams around the world. It is very unusual for Canadian mines to have these kinds of failures, but it is nevertheless a problem that happens somewhere in the world almost once a year. And what happens is it undermines the credibility of the industry as a whole because people become less confident that any mining company can manage their tailings dam effectively. Our response to that has been to say: is there a different way for us to manage our tailings and waste water so we can provide the public with greater assurance that there will not be a disaster at some point? The risk of failure in a conventional tailings dam is the water.
If there was no water behind the dam, there would be very little environmental impact because when they’re not saturated, the tailings would not flow very far. The water’s there to prevent the oxidation of the acid-generating minerals and to prevent acid drainage into the environment. So we’re trying to come up with a different way to do that.
It will be a form of dry-stacking but it won’t be the kind of dry-stacking that is currently being considered. The conventional approach to dry-stacking is just to stack it without water but then to put a cover on top that will prevent the percolation of water into the tail. We think a better solution would be to remove those acid-generating minerals, so we would be depositing a benign tail that has a very small percentage of contaminants in it so that you could grow plants on top of it. We’re ultimately looking for full and final remediation – where you don’t have to actively manage that site any longer.
Our initial target is to work on some of the legacy sites in Ontario to prove out the technologies we’ve been developing, and then bring those to bear on progressively larger and larger tailings ponds. In doing that, we’ve identified a couple of pieces of technology that we think are critical: one is a technology to continuously monitor dissolved metal in the tailings leachate.
And there are a whole suite of physical techniques to reprocess tails and extract the contaminants and extract any valuable materials from the tailings and then be able to redeposit a benign tail.
CMJ: You mentioned that the problems the industry has to address are getting more urgent. Why isn’t the industry moving faster on solutions?
DM: Twenty years ago, I worked for Inco in the Mines Research Department. But research and development, which was something that mining companies used to do internally, that has now been completely outsourced to organizations like CEMI and Mirarco and the university base. For us, the difficulty is not coming up with good ideas, there are many really good ideas in universities and in small companies – the problem is commercialization. People talk a lot about the innovation gap, but the real problem is the commercialization gap – to get a really good, practical solution into a commercially viable outcome.
If mining companies can’t buy or lease a technology, or hire expertise through consultants or through employees, then those mining companies cannot adopt any new technology.
So we have lots of good, practical ideas inside SMEs, but how do we accelerate that level of development through to a commercially viable outcome? That’s where CEMI is focusing all of our attention – on that commercialization process. We think the best way to solve the problems of the mining industry is by working through this larger SME community to provide commercially viable solutions.
One problem that we have is the 1:1 dollar match that’s commonplace for all government funding. It works very well for research because research is typically done on a very small scale.
It doesn’t usually involve building very large pieces of equipment or installations. Those cost multi-million dollars.
In the innovation process there’s three steps – essentially going from a bench scale to pilot scale, to full-scale trials, then operating trials. The cost of doing those three steps is very much larger than laboratory development and invention. So the constraint that we have is the 1:1 match of government funding to private sector funding. While the government has recognized the need for innovation, they’ve so far failed to recognize the difference between research and innovation. Research produces new knowledge, but innovation creates a new business – new economic activity. Innovation is actually a commercial exercise, not a technical exercise. If the government wants to focus on innovation, it has to recognize that the risks and the costs of innovation are much higher than the risks and costs of research.
CMJ: This summer, CEMI and the Canada Mining Innovation Council (CMIC), based in Ottawa, made a joint submission for the federal government to choose mining as a Supercluster industry that would get strategic funding (also based on 1:1 ratio), as part of the government’s Innovation Agenda.
Tell me a little bit about your proposal for a CLEER (Clean, Lowenergy, Effective, Engaged and Remediated) mining Supercluster and what it would mean for Canada’s mining sector if it’s chosen?
DM: One of the objectives of the Supercluster initiative was that the investment would help that particular industry to become a leader in its field. We feel very strongly that the Canadian mining industry because of the number and scale of mines that we have, but more importantly because of the size and scale of our service sector companies, that we have a very significant opportunity to become a global leader in delivering innovative solutions to the global mining industry. We think we have a better chance of achieving that than many of the other sectors which people think of as more important than mining – auto sector or the aerospace sector or pharma – those are significant parts of the Canadian economy but very small players in their global industries.
The primary focus of this submission was on developing clean environmental performance of mining operations.
The idea is identify SMEs that have potential solutions to waste management and other problems in mining, and to help those companies develop those solutions for application to the mining industry and then beyond that, in the broader economy.
By doing that, the government investment in projects improves the performance of the mining industry here at home, feeds more technology into the broader economy, increases the level of economic activity related to mining inside Canada and globally, expanding the number and quality of jobs here in Canada.
The decision for which industries would be invited to make full submissions was scheduled for late August. It’s now late September, but we haven’t heard anything yet.
CMJ: What are some of the other specific problems aside from tailings that CEMI has been looking at?
DM: We’ve been looking at advance rates – The length of time it takes us to get into production has an impact on the investment profile for that new deposit, so if you can access it faster, you can actually increase its net present value.
The industry’s advance rate is now down to less than 4 metres a day – it’s taking more and more time to get to the orebody.
So we have to find a way to shorten the development cycle – mucking out broken rock, installing ground support, drilling the face and charging the face.
We’ve developed a canopy system that allows us to carry out some of those activities concurrently – the canopy protects everybody so we can be drilling the face and loading the explosives into the holes while we’re still doing the ground support behind the jumbo. Now you’re doing simultaneous activities and the critical path gets shorter – about 10.5 hours for a cycle. So instead of doing 4 metres of advance a day you can do 8 metres – that means getting to the next orebody twice as fast.
There are three canopies that are all slightly different and they work together in concert. All three have been built by Nordic Mine Steel in North Bay, who we’ve licenced this technology to. When we finish operational trials at Norcat, then it becomes commercially available. The next step in rapid development is new rock transport equipment and we’re talking to different companies about helping to develop the prototype units.