February 2011

Stepping up our game

Could the Canadian mining industry be doing more to innovate?

By Eavan Moore

Coordinated research: PhD candidate Rob Bewick (pictured here with CEMI president Peter Kaiser, right) is working with MIRARCO to explore the behaviour of highly stressed rock masses. CEMI is sponsoring the research that Bewick is conducting while on educational leave from Golder Associates Ltd. | Photo courtesy of Shannon Katary/CEMI

The Canadian extractive industry has a curious relationship with innovation. It has served the industry well; the development of steam assisted gravity drainage technology unlocked the door to bitumen that was previously unrecoverable and placed Canada near the top of the world in crude oil reserves. However, since that breakthrough in the 1980s, research and development spending in the oil and gas sector has flagged and many would claim that other players in the extractive sectors have been similarly sparing.

It is not that the industry lacks reasons to develop new technologies and processes: safety and environmental concerns pose enduring challenges, while the future promises both further personnel shortages and ore bodies that will be increasingly difficult to extract. But once a company identifies its future needs, it faces a welter of challenges.

Universities compete for corporate sponsors, equipment manufacturers are reluctant to grant access to proprietary technology they have spent time and money developing, government support has its limits, and academic research facilities can project an “ivory tower” culture, distancing them from the spheres of influences.

What courses of action are mining professionals best advised to take? Better collaboration is essential. Some would also argue that greater vision and leadership willing to take risks are needed. They say that to undertake effective innovation, firms need to act more boldly and openly on a global level — and, perhaps, especially so here in Canada.

Evaluating opportunities

Laura Mottola, mining engineer and head of business improvement at Quadra FNX Mining believes that mining companies do not fully capitalize on innovative technologies to transform operations. She questions why mine operators accept production inefficiencies when they could be alleviated by the appropriate automation of certain key processes and the application of lean principles. “People seem to think that mining automation is still in development,” says Mottola. “It is proven technology. The trick is in implementing technology with equal focus on process redesign and change management.”

John Thompson, vice-president of technology and development at Teck Resources Limited, is more circumspect. Although individual pieces of automation are proven, his company remains cautious. Large-scale mining automation, he says, ”is not proven technology yet in an operational sense.”

However, there are other examples of slow uptake even on established methods. Peter McCarthy, chairman of Australia-based AMC Consultants, observes that the cost-saving benefits of underground ramp access are still missing from feasibility studies. “Many people in Canada will tell you that you can’t operate a decline mine below about 300 metres, and yet there are decline mines operating to 1,500 metres vertically below the surface,” he says.

Like the first decline mines, some operations do take risks that pay off. McCarthy offers the example of Cameco’s McArthur River uranium mine, where they decided to grind ore underground and pump it to surface, minimizing radon daughter products in the atmosphere. An innovative technique, and some would say risky to put into a new mine, it has nonetheless paid off for the company. But McCarthy says that other companies have not followed Cameco’s lead. “I’ve worked on four or five studies where we’ve considered this,” he says. “Each time it looked like it was at least no more expensive than the alternative, but because it was innovative, it was dropped from the study.”

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