This is the last article of a six-part series exploring the trends and key themes that are shaping the future of the mining industry. In this article, we look at the 10 mining challenges that technology could solve.

As we move further into the 21st century, the mining sector is making great gains in automation and digitalization. However, there are still critical challenges facing the mining industry that, for the most part, will be solved by innovative professionals and mining technology.

Here are the 10 mining challenges that technology could solve – 

1. The liquefaction of tailings

Tailings are the waste result of mining processes. They are a mixture of sand and silt with high content of unrecoverable metals, chemical reagents and process water employed during raw materials extraction. Overtopping, static liquefaction and dynamic liquefaction are the most frequent causes of tailings dam failure. Addressing this challenge will involve an as-yet-undiscovered technological solution, with several players already putting their hands up to assist.

2. Communication and Data Visibility issues of ever-deeper mines

Progress in information and communication technology may promote better transparency, visibility and communication across mine operations. The advent of high-speed digital communication networks, the Internet, the Internet of Things and the fifth-generation mobile communication technology is upon us. Communication and mining operation’s data visibility particularly around water usage, haul truck trips, carbon emissions, dust and other health hazard levels, etc remain a challenge for the mining operation’s teams. Technologies such as the GRT’s SMART dosing units offer data visibility and transparency for integration with the remote communications centre of the mine.

Are environmental regulations, health and safety concerns or potential profit loss a concern right now?

3. Extracting minerals from lower grades

A mineral resource is exhausted if further extraction of that resource is no longer profitable due to financial, environmental, energetic, climate change, waste generation, water use, or social impact factors, or a combination of these. Technology will drive such cut-off grades even lower, by lowering exploration and exploitation costs. Increased plant automation and data analytics are already being applied to mineral processing and starting to achieve positive results.

4. Small footprint mining

There are concerns of short-run supply disruption or long-term depletion. Although there are abundant resources that could meet the long-term demand, the environmental footprint of the mineral supplies rather than the availability for it to be mined is critical Technology will continue to automate machinery, which will drive down onsite operational personnel required. The reduction in onsite operational personnel requirement will then reduce the environmental footprint that the mining (not necessarily exploration) industry currently has.

5. The ‘home-away-from-home’ challenge

It is relatively common in Australia for men to commute long distances and work away from home for extended periods of time, often referred to as fly-in-fly-out work. The promotion and protection of good mental health for fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers is beginning to be addressed. One possible future could involve holographic imagery and virtual or augmented reality – imagine being able to sit down to dinner with your loved one to eat the same meal, even though you are thousands of kilometers away!

6. Discovering orebodies undercover 

For mine exploration strategies to be fruitful there will need to be focus on areas buried by post-mineralization cover rocks. This approach is important in the absence of robust predictive models and detailed subsurface data. It is well-known that the Western Mining Corporation took around six years to discover the massive Olympic Dam orebody, which was covered under some 300 meters of barren material. The tools available to geologists will only get better as computers become more powerful and more data is harnessed in exploration.

7. Underground coal mining and coal workers pneumoconiosis

Coal dust and methane explosions still provide real and dangerous risks to underground coal mine workers, especially following the resurfacing of coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP) in Queensland. While the issue is complex and requires input from many professions and experts, the technology that solves these insidious issues will save lives.

8. Water management 

Water management strategies govern the control and movement of water resources to minimize damage to life and property while increasing its beneficial use. Water – both supply and usage – is a big societal issue and it’s one that presents an incredible opportunity for savvy mine operators and innovators. Reducing a site’s overall water usage through various technologies, including recycling and reuse following sequestration, could be one of the major ways a company could gain a significant competitive advantage. GRT SMART dosing units are the most cost-effective & technologically advanced solution for managing dust and tracking water usage. Such technologies and data help save and manage water better. 

9. Finding good people 

Positive work relationships are key to retention. Liaison, career progression and work/site readiness programs favor recruitment. The search for the best professionals remains an ongoing challenge for the mining industry, especially during boom times when skills are in demand. Sophisticated social networking and recruitment tools are likely to assist the mining industry in finding the best people – even if their current role is outside the sector.

10. Social license to operate 

The concept of social license to operate is woven throughout a public relations process that ultimately targets resource acquisition. As resources professionals, we all understand the need for social license to operate. In the future, we are likely to be able to use virtual reality to visually inspect reclaimed lands or roving autonomous drone technology with onboard cameras to do that same activity – thereby making rehabilitation easier and demonstrating to communities our industry’s commitment to successful rehabilitation.

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