FORESIGHT Smart Policy Series: Incentivizing Low Carbon Pathways for Mining
Mining plays a significant role in the Canadian economy. In 2017, the minerals sector directly and indirectly accounted for 634,000 jobs[i]throughout the country in urban, rural and remote regions. Despite changing needs of economies, a majority of products we use in everyday life today require minerals and metals (think smartphones, laptops, batteries, cars). This demand will continue to be significant for Canada’s mining sector for many years to come.
What’s the link between clean technology and mining?
Perception of mining is paradoxical, top of mind when it comes to discussing the gold rush era and environmental degradation from extractive processes but not necessarily connecting such a traditional industry with modern technology. Despite this, there are two pathways for this sector to transform and modernize its practices by embracing cleantech in its operations and continue to responsibly extract minerals to play a role in the next wave of innovation to power green economies.
First, growing awareness of sustainability, particularly in response to environmental and social impact concerns, provides an opportunity for the mining sector to adjust its practices and image. On sites, large amounts of energy and water are used for extraction and processing and a significant amount of waste is produced at the end of the mining life cycle. Cleantech solutions exist to effectively optimize inputs to operationalize a mine as well as products and services that reduce the footprint of energy, water and waste at mining sites and facilities. Mining companies adhering to environmental management and policy, are and should be, large customers for cleantech solutions.
Secondly, governments are mandating a renewable energy generation mix and carbon reduction on a national and global scale to meet UNFCCC climate targets. To achieve this, more technology is required, specifically clean energy generation technology such as solar and wind turbines. As it happens, Canada is home to a number of raw minerals that are used to build[ii]these type of products. For example, in order to build wind turbines and deliver electricity, the raw materials needed are steel, concrete, and metals such as copper and aluminum. For solar PV technologies,seven metals are required; cadmium; gallium; germanium; indium; selenium; silver; and tellurium all of which are by-products of base-metal and gold production. Nickel, cobalt, and graphite can also be used for advanced batteries for electric vehicles. There is opportunity for Canada to position itself as a responsible and ethical supplier of these products to the cleantech sector.
Are regulations and standards promoting good practice?
Yes. According to a Mining Association of Canada’s recent publication[iii], the domestic mining industry is making significant progress in its environmental performance by participating in an array of sustainability programs and initiatives.
A number of these programs influence Canadian mining operations. For instance, finance institutions such as the World Bank and IFC adopted the Equator Principles to help them to determine, assess and manage environmental and social risk in project finance. In future, it will be interesting to see if these institutions will include assessing climate and water risk as part of their process, particularly as these stressors become more pertinent to mining operations.
We found that responsible business practices on carbon, water and transparency are often guided by non-profit and standard body initiatives such as the United Nations Global Compact, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Carbon Disclosure Project, Water Disclosure Project, ISO 14001 certification and other sustainability programs which companies can choose to voluntarily sign up to and demonstrate leadership. Across Canada, we see that companies are engaged in domestic stewardship programs, including The Sustainable Mining Initiative[iv]an industry standard created by the Mining Association of Canada. The Canadian Mining Innovation Council works with mineral exploration, mining companies and service providers and has developed a common vision to transform mining towards a zero-waste industry. By 2027, one of their goals is to enable deployment of technologies that reduce energy use, water use and environmental footprint by 50% through for the industry through an open innovation process.
What clean technology products exist to transform the mining life cycle?
There are different phases of the mining life cycle, all of which present opportunities to introduce cleantech into their processes to minimize environmental impact.
Airborne Geophysics[v]is one of the emerging technologies capable of finding potential mineral deposits under cover and at depth by using electromagnetic applications as well as the use of drones in geophysical surveying. More locally, Geoscience BC[vi], an independent, non-profit organization generates earth science information in collaboration with First Nations, local communities, governments, academia and the resource sector. Their research contributes to better decision-making for the resource sector, including mining. Additionally, the Digital Technology Supercluster[vii],a Federal supported initiative in British Columbia is a new model of innovation to promise to fund and support new technology to benefit the Canadian economy. Building on the legacy of mining in BC and strengthening the innovation ecosystem, one of the flagship projects is called the Earth Data Store, a single source of geographic data for the resource sector. It combines existing data sources including topography, climate, permits, and drilling results with a groundbreaking earth digital twin that will image 85% of the world’s land every day to within half a meter of precision. Overall, the benefits of this using technology to map and survey areas is reduced cost and time of exploration in remote and covered greenfields areas, as well as longer term environmental impact by reducing extractive exploration effort to find deposits.
The development phase in the mining cycle can be short or long and intensive depending on the type of ore that is extracted and the subsequent process to produce an output for the market. Design of the mine will also dictate how large a footprint it will have, and time spent on development. For example, when comparing the difference between open pit design and a complicated underground design, the open pit will be easier and faster to execute but will have a much larger footprint than going underground.
An area where there is active improvement is gold extraction. Companies and researchers are beginning to substitute the use of cyanide in a solution that dissolves gold from ore. To this day, cyanide remains the predominant means to extract gold from ore, however it is a hazardous toxic substance and is harmful to the environment and humans above certain levels. Barrick Gold Corporation is changing the game by using thiosulfate as an alternative process and the first gold bar produced was in late 2014[viii]. AuTech, a R&D facility based in Vancouver, played a major role in developing the thiosulfate process from bench-scale to continuous plant scale to demonstration[ix].
MineSense[x], a company headquartered in Vancouver made the 2018 Global Cleantech 100 for their IoT and sensor solutions. Their technology provides real-time, sensor-based ore data and sorting solutions for large scale mines. The mineral sensing platform creates value by providing precise, accurate, real-time grade control and ore routing decisions at the point of extraction for maximum resource conversion and metal recovery, reducing the CO2 emissions and the consumption of energy, water and reagents during the whole mining process.
Deep mining can present environmental and health challenges[xi], particularly from use of diesel vehicles in caves with little ventilation. This has led to demand for battery operated vehicles to replace diesel models because they use less energy, avoid emissions of diesel particulate matter and lower GHG emissions overall. The Ultra-Deep Mining Network (UDMN), Industrial Fabrication Inc. (IFI) partnered with FVT Research Inc. of Pitt Meadows, B.C. to develop a new battery-powered electric drive system that replaces diesel drives in existing heavy-duty utility vehicles. Mining company, Kirkland Lake Gold, are one of the first early adopters to use battery powered[xii]underground haul trucks at their Macassa mine in Ontario.
Other challenges in extractive process are managing the volumes of waste rock produced, and subsequently tailings. Ore sorting technology is one way to do this. Tomra has an innovation where particles are singularly detected by a sensor technique and then ejected by an amplified mechanical, hydraulic or pneumatic process. The separation is based on features measured with a detection technology that are used to derive a yes/no decision for actuation of usually pneumatic impulses. In a case study from their website, their technology was used in a Tungsten operation, with positive results including a greater concentration of tungsten[xiii], and less material needed to be grounded and floated.
Another company, NextOre,operate analyzer technology that rapidly identifies ore grade so that large volumes of waste rock can be rejected before it enters the plant, significantly reducing the amount of energy and water needed for processing. Blast movement monitoring is another technology that measures 3D blast movement in hard rock mining. This helps mining companies to recover more value from every blast they do and reduce waste rock. In one case study[xiv]with Teck Resources, this innovation reduced waste in the mill and maximized yield of ore increasing their value by $100,000.
Innovation in mechanical cutting is helping to improve productivity and increase energy efficiency in hard rock mining. Today, a combination of mechanical cutting equipment from companies such as Sandvik[xv], Caterpillar, Epiroc[xvi]and Komatsu is available. This is leading to a paradigm shift because mechanical cutting will influence mine design creating a need for many new supporting technologies. Some of these are already in the theoretical stage of development, such as use of lasers or pre-heat technology to make hard rock softer preventing wear of the mechanical cutter technology.
An award winning project called SunMine[xvii], based in Kimberley BC, is paving the way for how to deal with a fully reclaimed mine concentrator site, previously operated by Teck Resources. The municipality of Kimberley worked with a mix of partners to convert the site into a large-scale commercial solar power station called SunMine. The project is the Province’s largest solar field and Canada’s largest solar tracking facility. The energy produced on-site contributes directly to the province’s energy grid.
Overall, in our research, we found there is significant cleantech innovation taking place in the mining lifecycle, varying from technology to reduce a mine’s footprint, to making mining more efficient with support from voluntary and regulated policy initiatives.