Digging with sustainability

Digging with sustainability

7:36 AM, 6th October 2018
Dr Javier Ruiz del Solar, Executive Director, Advanced Mining Technology Center
Dr Javier Ruiz del Solar, Executive Director, AMTC.

In an interview, Dr Javier Ruiz del Solar, Executive Director, Advanced Mining Technology Center (AMTC) with Chemical Today magazine talks at length about the opportunities in the mining industry and ways in which research and automation technology can help the sector overcome the challenges.

By Shivani Mody

Global trends in mining industry.

The Advanced Mining Technology Center is focusing on “Mining 4.0”, in which we can identify five main trends: use of drones (for example, to monitor leaching piles remotely using special cameras to detect anomalies), autonomous equipment (for unmanned navigation of underground mining vehicles), remote operations (of underground mining machinery or of open-pit vehicles under low visibility conditions), optimized planning (using mainly software to design mines and to plan operations in detail in the medium and long term) and predictive analysis (software able to, for example, model efficiently and accurately model underground mineral deposits and sensors technology able to do underground exploration without drilling). Also, optimized planning and predictive analysis together allow doing predictive maintenance of mining equipment. Further, we must not forget the increasing use of smart mining, meaning the use of efficient information technologies in order to boost productivity and lower operational costs.

Most sought after metal mining processes.

If we focus on downstream processes, the most sought after are crushing, grinding, flotation and sedimentation in the area of mineral processing. In the more specific field of copper mining, we can mention pyro-metallurgic processes, such as fusion, conversion, fire refining and electro refining, and hydrometallurgical processes, which include leaching, extraction by solvents and electro-obtaining.

Specific demands from mining and exploration companies.

Current demands from the mining industry span a wide array of areas, but the main ones focus on tailings management, efficiency in processes, environmental responsibility and work safety. Specific examples are: improve management of water resources (including optimizing recirculation of water, minimization of evaporation and give preference to “dry” processes), development of new technology to monitor tailing dams (in terms of physical and chemical stability), increase the use of robots and automation to remove workers from hazardous environments, development of techniques to retrieve valuable minerals from tailings, to increase efficiency in smelting processes in order to save energy and minimize the loss of minerals, and improvement of mining equipment selection, in order to maximize operations and saving future costs. Those are some of the subjects we are researching at the AMTC.

Insight into chemical leaching of minerals.

The use of chemicals is relevant in leaching processes to dissolve metals. Conventional reagents used in leaching processes are sulphuric acid (copper, uranium leaching) and sodium cyanide (gold, silver leaching). However, there are alternative reagents such as calcium chloride and hydrochloric acid (copper), ammonium tiosulphate (gold) and new development to treat complex minerals such as glycine.

Incorporating automation in mining process research.

Automation, robotics, and sensor technologies can positively impact in safety, productivity and cost along the entire value chain of mining. These new technologies will help to improve safety in mining, by relocating the operators to safer working spaces. Also they can make the operators more aware of their surroundings and its dangers, and they will even be able to take control and perform emergency actions in case of operators’ safety risks.On the other hand, productivity can be improved with the application of these new emerging automation, robotics, and sensor technologies, as they can help decrease the variability of the processes, making them more predictable and controllable. Together with this, these more predictable and controllable processes are more suitable to be globally optimized, considering all the mining process.

Furthermore, there is some research in technologies that could be a breakthrough in mining like in situ leaching. Finally, all these productivity improvements, along with process optimization, can lead to a cost reduction of the overall minerals processing.

Development in mining and mining chemicals industry.

There are impurities in minerals that increase the consumption of conventional reagents. This fact has forced to develop new processes to recover reagents or new reagents to replace the conventional reagents used. A typical example is the increase of cyanide consumption in gold cyanidation due to the high content of copper in the ores. In these cases, the reduction of cyanide consumption is achieved by using cyanide recovery processes, which use different reagents in their unit operations. Also, there is new development of gold dissolution using glycine to replace cyanide.

Scope of lithium mining in the future.

Lithium demand has increased due to the growth of electronic industry (electrical cars, smartphones), since it’s a key element for energy storage (batteries) required in these technological devices. Along with this, Roskill has recently announced that lithium demand will boost to 1 million tons globally, while the Bank of Montreal estimates that supply will be as much as 91,500 tons by 2025. This figure includes the market’s leaders (SQM, Tianqi Lithium, Albemarle and FMC) estimates and future demands as well. This enormous gap between demand and supply is what is making the lithium business so profitable and pivotal to some economies, such as Chile.

Preserving the water ecosystems in mining process.

The reagents are relevant in the mining effluents treatments. There are several methods to treat effluents based on precipitation processes, such as neutralization using lime, barium chloride or aluminum hydroxide. There are processes that include metal recovery using sodium hydrosulfide or hydrogen sulfide. Moreover, there are developments of adsorption and membrane separation processes which are based on new materials (polymers, resins). However, the effluent characterization is highly variable, therefore there is a systematic research developing new processes and/or materials based on chemical methodologies.

Challenges faced in the mining industry.

The global mining industry is facing several challenges. One of them is to maintain operational costs and profitability in the face of new ore deposits that are harder to reach and a decrease in the quality (low) of extracted minerals, meaning that a greater quantity of rocks and minerals must be extracted and processed every time in order to obtain the same levels of refined metal. This is especially true in the case of Chilean copper, which is why the AMTC is focusing on more efficient and cost-effective processing methods. A second challenge, addressed in a previous question, is to increase safety in mining sites via automation. There are many tasks that nowadays are fully or partially automated (remotely operated), but the goal is to achieve a 100 percent automated mining operation. Unfortunately, we estimate that a fully automated mine will not be possible before 20 years of research and development in robotics.

Other challenges are related to environmental and social responsibility: the mining industry is more aware today of the often-negative impact it causes on the environment, so there is a constant search for sustainable and non-polluting methods and work strategies, which must also be cost-effective. And it is harder now for companies to set up a new mining facility, since the voice of nearby communities, who often have to endure the negative consequences of living near a mining site, must be heard.

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