By CRCMining CEO Professor Paul Lever

RISING energy, infrastructure and environmental costs are driving a new paradigm of precision mining. Mining is at the beginning of a period of transition for which the drivers are larger than our industry and reflective of the growing global economy and increasing needs to bring the burgeoning population to an acceptable standard of living.

In the last 10 years demand for minerals has steepened considerably over historical trends. In the future, companies will have to meet this increasing demand by more effectively mining lower-grade and more difficult deposits. The solution is to raise productivity and lower production costs.

The pursuit of productivity begins with increasing efficiency of mining operations. During the last decade of the mining boom we have seen increased capacity from increased investment, but little increase in efficiency. Some argue that we have lost focus on productivity, while pursuing volume through investment in larger machinery and mines.

The main productivity drivers vary internationally. In Australia they generally include labour, mining methods and work processes. The challenge in increasing short-term productivity is to drive mining processes, including equipment, towards achieving their theoretical optimal operating mode.

The long-term challenge is opening new mines using more productive processes and methods and, where applicable, transitioning older mines. In practice, this may mean adopting new paradigms, some of which feel like a return to the past. For example, in the 1800s it was not feasible to mine large quantities of waste to extract small high-value ore bodies. The 1900s saw a transition to massive mines where movement of waste became a larger component of the process.

Rising energy, infrastructure and environmental costs are driving a push towards a new paradigm of precision mining focusing on minimizing movement and processing of waste. Also, new mining methods will exploit a range of emerging technologies to mine, sort and select ore as close to the working face as possible.

Intelligent equipment and new methods will enable work to take place in mining environments considered unsafe for humans and challenging for current methods. Machines may work on walls too steep for humans to safely tackle. Remotely operated or automated equipment won't demand the same expensive luxuries such as fresh air, workplace amenities and alternative escape routes.

Ore bodies will be more accurately mapped and identified before mining. Information-transmitting sensors embedded in the ore will enable it to be tracked, sorted and processed in the most efficient way. In surface mines at depths below 400 metres and perhaps shallower, ultra-large trucks will be replaced by conveyor or hydraulic transport systems that will reduce the cost of moving materials from up to 80% of total mining cost down to 10-15%.

We already have much of the technology needed for the transition – CRCMining has delivered a number of step-change technologies like the universal dig and dump dragline, shovel load and assist program, cave tracking technology and Oscillating Disc Cutter. These and other innovative projects in the pipeline are indications of exciting times ahead as industry drives towards satisfying global market demand with new productivity levels.
- From the CSIRO's resourceful magazine