August 28, 2008

Mining Seeks New Terrain and New Technology

By Pav Jordan

Global mining innovation, which has been treading water for about half a century, could be about to break out as it looks to robots and other new technology for inspiration, according to mining experts.

Miners will have to start spending more on innovation as they tackle tougher terrain to reach riches, said Sverker Hartwig, an inventor and the head of technology at Atlas Copco, a global mine machinery maker.

"Here is the problem," Hartwig said in an interview in Chile, a copper mining powerhouse. "Surface mines are going deeper and deeper and ore grades on a global scale are getting lower and lower."

Just as metals are experiencing one of the longest price "up" cycles in recent history, mines that have fed demand for decades are aging, and miners are scrambling to find new ways to retrieve dwindling resources.

Whether it is drilling into ocean beds or digging farther into the earth's surface in remote jungles, miners are going to have to find new ways to extract minerals faster to take advantage of booming commodities prices.

For Hartwig, the last major innovation in the industry was in 1958, with the Rubber Wheel Articulated Loader, a mechanical shovel that replaced most rail-bound mining by the 1970s.

"Many of the new underground mines which are planned are very deep, very large and in some cases with very bad rock, and the investments they need to do in money and time are completely unbelievable," he said.

It can cost between $50 million and $100 million to find a decent minable resource. It costs a further $1 billion to build a traditional "block-caving" mine, popular for low-grade, underground deposits.

The cost and time scales are intimidating to company boards reluctant to bet on mines that will not provide cash flow for at least another decade.

"If they could cut that time by 30 percent, they would be making so much more money it would be incredible," said Greg Baiden, who holds the Canadian Research Chair in Robotics and Automation at Laurentian University in Ontario.

"Mostly, everybody is just dipping their toe in the water these days in terms of innovation," said Baiden, who is working on ways to make mines completely automated.

Miners and industry inventors agree that innovation would result in cost savings, as well as more efficient use of water, energy resources and automation.

Codelco, a Chilean company, is working with institutes to develop new geophysical and geochemical technologies, and is now using unmanned monster trucks to haul minerals at its Gaby copper mine in northern Chile.

Originally published by Reuters.

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