The coming high demand for mining products is only deliverable if the modernisation of the mining industry takes place. It will reduce wastefulness on a big scale to provide material for the great energy transition.
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When the leaders of nations declared at COP26 carbon-neutral emissions by 2050, most of us applauded. And the mining industry raised their eyebrows.
World-wide mining is nowadays confronted by environmental issues, depleting depots, deeper and more challenging exploration and growing costs. The COP26 announcement will catalyse the energy transformation and create immense demand for metal and non-metal resources. Can the mining industry keep pace and deliver to save 2050? The real test of the COP26 rhetoric will come from the industry's ability to innovate.
Modernisation is an absolute priority
One of the challenges to increasing production at a high rate are the needed resources. Over the past century of grand-scale mining, the amounts of energy and water required to work the same quantities of rock have risen more than tenfold as the ores within have become more and more elusive. Mines are facing stark costs if they do not improve the efficiency of their mining. For example, companies experiment with processes that tolerate larger particles and therefore allow drier separation. Because crushing to a larger size, less energy is needed and more throughput is generated. This decreases operating costs significantly. Additionally, operators are recycling "left-overs" and extracting precious materials even more effectively than from the original site. Muda (wastefulness) in the past offers now great potential for improvement.
Older mines, sometimes abandoned, become interesting under such circumstances. Better technology enables to explore deeper and with more precision, which in response leads to more efficient drilling and production. The life of ageing mines can be prolonged and the operational impact on the environment minimized. As a result, investments include modern technology for more precise and safer minework, training workers and a strategic shift towards sustainable mining.
Sensors, analytical models, digital twins are a few examples of innovative ideas in mining to improve efficiency and the decision-making process. Innovation is necessary to unlock also previously inaccessible resources, for instance under the ocean bed. Automation will help but is not here to replace human work. Instead, it will take over where work is dangerous or the human workforce unavailable.