August 2009

Mining above and beyond

Mining and space sectors gather for sixth annual symposium

By M. Paduada

Rovers on demonstration at PTMSS

Professionals and researchers from across the aerospace and mining sectors gathered in Toronto recently for the sixth annual Planetary and Terrestrial Mining Sciences Symposium (PTMSS). The purpose of the conference is to promote closer relationships between space-related and mining-related sectors through networking, knowledge sharing and collaboration. Based on the lineup of presentations and the delegates’ reactions, it seems that the two multi-billion-dollar industries, both behemoth institutions unto themselves, are forging the connections that will propel the future of joint technology developments.

The opening remarks of conference chair Dale Boucher echoed the remarkable similarities between the two sectors, already familiar to many of the returning conference delegates. Both sectors drive immense projects involving large capital costs, with long-term time horizons, requiring integrated interdisciplinary activities. “Those similarities are really the purpose behind this conference,” asserted Boucher, who is the director of innovation at the Sudbury-based Northern Centre for Advanced Technology (NORCAT).

There are yet more similarities in the actual research, activities and objectives when considering space exploration’s push for in situ resource utilization (ISRU). “ISRU involves a complete suite of activities, which are very similar to the mining cycle,” said Boucher. Indeed, as was reiterated in several of the conference sessions, ISRU involves such familiar mining tasks as drilling, exploration, prospecting, excavation, ground control, processing, surface preparation, logistics, materials transport and communication, to name a few.

Chris Twigge-Molecey, CIM president-elect, addressed the symposium about the opportunity for mutually beneficial exchange and the prospect for developing new technologies that can serve both sectors. “If you’re going to mine and process in space, our CIM members bring to the table global leadership in mining, exploration, metallurgical processing and material sciences,” said Twigge-Molecey.

But technology transfer is only one side of the exchange. Frankly, if the mining industry is going to meet its human resource demand in the coming decades, it would greatly benefit from seizing the awe and fascination of bright, young minds in the way space always has. As the chief knowledge officer at Hatch, Chris Twigge-Molecey knows very well the strategic value of making that connection. “This is capturing Canadians’ attention,” he said. “We need public attention to attract young people to our business and our industry. We also need public support to get the necessary R&D. So, the mining and space industries have at least two strong strategic reasons to work together.”

If the broad set of topics covered in the conference presentations is any indication, the technologies that could be developed from collaboration will offer clear benefits to both sectors. Through collaboration, presenters foresee advances in the science and technologies of excavation, mining, intelligent real-time drilling measurement, remote geology, stressed communication and autonomous operation.

Conference presenters and delegates alike came from across the board, including NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, NORCAT, Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, Electric Vehicle Controllers, Ontario Drive and Gear, Honeybee Robotics, Xiphos Technologies, Odyssey Moon, Watts, Griffis & McOuat, TNO Science & Industry, the University of Toronto, Laurentian University, McGill University, Carnegie Mellon University and Case Western Reserve University.

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