May 2009


Making mining innovation happen

By G. Winkel

The Canadian Mining Innovation Council is committed to facilitating the generation and dissemination of knowledge for and about the industry

This year’s Distinguished Lecturer Program proved to be a real opportunity to meet some of the many mining people across our fine country. At every stop, there was always something new and interesting — yet another improvement where people have leveraged a new technology or best practice, or where they have invented that next step for mining effectiveness that becomes a benchmark for the rest of industry to strive for. In other words, innovation is happening all across Canada, and that’s a good thing for mining as a whole.

A question arises as to whether we are living up to our national potential to become a global mining leader. Consider that we attract more global mining exploration spending than any other country in the world, and that we rank in the top five countries globally, in terms of supply, of 14 important metals and minerals. We are well positioned to take a global mining leadership role, with innovation as a key to staying globally competitive. Yet there is a sense that our effectiveness and support for mining research and technology development could be better. That is where a group of mining leaders from industry, academia and government stepped in to find out why.

Under the banner of the Canada Mining Innovation Council, 17 of these mining leaders formed a transition board that went across Canada to enlist the help of some 150 other mining leaders in defining the opportunities for achieving global innovation leadership in mining. In seven workshops across the country, the following issue areas were identified:

  • having highly qualified people
  • realizing a strong culture of collaboration among firms, academia and government
  • a limited ability to network on research and technology work
  • a lack of widely supported targeted focus areas for research
  • low brand recognition for mining as an important industry in the country

With the above opportunity areas identified, five subgroups were formed to focus on each. Good work is proceeding in each subgroup to advance actions that will address these areas, and we shall hear more about this in subsequent articles.

Now, we shift gears and directly examine the brand recognition of mining as an industry player in our country. As part of the Distinguished Lecturer series on innovation, attendees were asked to pretend that they were living in a large population centre in Canada, and that their views on mining would be formed from commonly utilized information sources such as the media and the web/Internet. Participants were then asked to give a pass, fail or neutral response to the following statements:

  • Mining is important to society (important economic contribution and a supplier of resources).
  • Mining responds responsibly to society (environmental performance supported).
  • Mining is a high-technology business (a leader in research and development).
  • Mining is excellent in risk management (achieving safe work).

Participants, acting out their roles, responded at seven different sessions to rate the above four statements with a failing grade, and occasionally a neutral grade at best. This needs to change. Those of us in the mining and mineral processing industry all know the above statements to be true, and the word needs to get out.

Mining is in fact an economic engine for Canada, supplying 4.8 per cent of our GDP, 55 per cent of rail tonnage, 70 per cent of port volumes and 19 per cent of exports. Further, we acknowledge that mining supplies the materials and means for everything from vehicles, computers and electricity to the latest equipment for green technologies like solar cells, hybrid cars and wind farms.

Mining has responsibly integrated new technologies to significantly reduce the release of materials into the environment. From 1993 to 2006, reductions were achieved in materials such as mercury (91 per cent), lead (84 per cent), zinc (76 per cent), hydrogen sulphide (70 per cent), copper (58 per cent) and cadmium (51 per cent). Greenhouse gas intensity index reductions over a 15-year period for the metal smelting and refining sector were an impressive 36 per cent.

On the technology front, we spent $538 million in research and development, employing some 4,600 people. This expenditure is six times that of agriculture, forestry and fishing combined. If you have ever seen first-hand the technologies that go into a 400-ton truck or supporting shovel, deep mining, mine plans or tailings management, it would become clear that mining employs the latest and best technologies available.

Finally, on the safety front, it is instructional to note that many mining firms are achieving extended runs with no lost time injuries and operating at injury frequencies far below the provincial averages that report aggregate industry performance. The CIM J.T. Ryan awards are a testament to this achievement.

The real story of the importance of mining and its related performance achievement needs to be communicated widely. In this regard, the Mining Association of Canada, which compiled many of the statistics quoted herein, has done wonderful work to promote mining in Canada. Now it’s up to us. We need a better scorecard result in the above dimensions of public perception if we are going to attract the support from society and government on a national scale to spur on innovation in mining through well-coordinated targeted research and technology development. Every one of us can be an ambassador for mining in our society by presenting the facts towards providing a more balanced and representative perspective on mining in Canada.

The Canada Mining Innovation Council has set as its vision that “Canada is a Global Leader in the Mining Industry Through Leading Edge Research and Innovation.” It is a picture of the future we can readily subscribe to, and it can be achieved through the unified commitment and support of industry, society and government. It’s a vision that we can all help support to keep innovation happening in mining.

Gord Winkel is chair of the Surface Mining Association for Research and Technology (SMART). He is a strong supporter of workplace safety and the advancement of mining technology as a means to improve both mining industry effectiveness and the quality of life for mining people.

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