Canadian Mining Journal

Feature

How digital twins can help safeguard tailings facilities



Open pit mine with tailings dam. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/JOHN CARNEMOLLA

Environmental, socioeconomic and political risks along with a need to digitally transform the mining industry, has put tailings storage facilities (TSFs) in the spotlight. Better stewardship has become the crucial operational objective. This article explores the potential of a digital twin to help better manage performance, enhance sustainability, and improve safety.

My career has spanned 35 years, and, in this time, I have experienced a compelling evolution of the industry. Intelligent mining is the new strategic imperative – a departure from siloed legacies towards an agile, value-driven business model. The drive to a digitally enabled, productive, safe operation is now key and the potential to create a dynamic digital twin is a game changer in the industry.

The value of Seequent’s visualization technology lies in providing a constant, clear picture and a better understanding of the physical system throughout all phases of the project lifecycle. In doing so, geoscientists and engineers can make informed and timely decisions.

What is a digital twin?

Simply put, a digital twin is specifically designed to bridge the physical and digital worlds. It provides a virtual representation of an object or system across its lifecycle, using real-time data that can be examined, altered and tested but without real-world interaction or disturbance.

In mining, a continuously or dynamically updated digital twin can incorporate changing sub-surface and geotechnical data to consistently evaluate all spatial, numeric and intellectual information of a facility in a powerfully visual 3-D context.

TSFs are constantly evolving structures and potentially high risk. Ultimately, a digital twin can enable collaborative learning and reasoning to support improved decision making and identify problems early to help avoid negative consequences such as environmental damage or failure.

What is driving the change?

As the mining industry becomes increasingly exposed to environmental, social and governance (ESG) compliance, there is a shift in the way the industry manages risk and adheres to responsible mining practices.

Investors want to ensure that their money is used in a sustainable and responsible fashion. Responsible investment demands greater transparency in tailings management disclosure across industry, community, regulatory and financial stakeholders.

To truly learn from a failure event and fulfil the ultimate goal of the global standard, complete transparency regarding a chain of events is essential.

We can easily imagine how a dynamically updated digital twin – with version control, multiple realizations of the geology, and a single source of truth – can give geoscientists and engineers options to explore different physical phenomena as a facility evolves, and to help prevent a potential disaster.

Vast and complex challenges

Tailings facilities are some of the largest built structures on earth, making understanding all data, analyses and decision-making processes, inherently challenging.

As a TSF evolves with time, the change in the factor of safety and scenario testing to help predict potential failure is a huge concern. In our experience, technical teams believe the issue is not only the data/file incompatibility but the lack of multi-disciplinary interaction and comprehension that causes miscommunication.

Our conversations with senior management find a common thread where, reporting on storage facilities at varying ages, conditions and locations, with little standardization in how the structure is monitored, is a major issue.

There is agreement that teams waste time struggling to get data into a useful and consistent format. Managers are not fully confident that they are delivering a comprehensive picture of all the assets and that problems are not being missed.

Seequent’s software solutions offer dynamic modelling and rapid easy updating designed to keep the technical understanding and risk analysis of a facilities digital twin consistently up to date.

Empowering teams to do better

The key to any solution is that it provides the means to work effectively as a team and ensure data transparency. These are the underlying principles that allow for a robust review and decision-making process. But how is this accomplished?

Firstly, all stakeholders in the project, whether modellers from different geoscientific groups, project managers, Engineers of Record or third parties (such as consultants and joint venture partners) need to have access to the latest data in as near real-time as possible. Secondly, everyone needs to work collaboratively from a single source of truth to create up-to-date models that facilitate the development of a digital twin.

dynamically updated digital twin enables an adaptable design that allows material changes to be identified “in the moment.” Informed field decisions can be made to either alter the design or accept the current construction trajectory that meets the factors of safety.

transparent flow of information

Seequent’s TSF solutions include Oasis montaj, Leapfrog Geo, Leapfrog Edge and GeoStudio. These products bridge the gap between typically disconnected monitoring and technical analysis workflows to solve the data management and multi-stakeholder conundrum and centre activities on as-built performance and failure prevention.

We understand that it’s not about one source of data or a single technology, but how you bring it all together that counts. Core to the solution is Seequent Central –
a cloud-hosted model and data management system with web-based visualization that facilitates collaboration.

We truly believe we can assist in the paradigm shift required to push tailings governance from a dominantly reactive, long-term modelling approach to a more strongly agile, even predictive short-term modelling method. 

Pieter Neethling is one of five Segment Directors at Seequent who focus on delivering solutions to complex earth challenges across the mining operations, mining exploration, environmental, civil and energy industries. He can be reached at pieter.neethling@seequent.com.


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