November 2009

Ecology and economics

Emerging technical, environmental and economic challenges confronting the nickel and base metal industries

By A.D. Dalvi

A holistic project view

The demand for nickel and other base metals has fallen significantly and it will take a number of years to recover fully. Meanwhile, the metals industry is facing growing challenges due to diminishing ore grades, inaccessibility and complexity of deposits, mounting capital and operating costs, and external socio­economic and environmental pressures. To cope with them, in what Thomas Friedman1 calls the “Energy-Climate Era,” we will be forced to take a broader view and develop solutions that are not merely technical. In designing solutions, metallurgists, engineers and project managers will require more holistic strategic approaches.

The challenges of the future

In the near future, nickel producers must aim to match demand and reduce costs. Traditionally, project evaluation methodology has been serial, with process definition, infrastructure definition, engineering, environmental impact assessment, economic evaluation, etc. following one after another. The industry needs to follow an integrated and systems approach instead.

This approach is consistent with emerging thought regarding energy and climate change. In his book, “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” Thomas Friedman1 argues that societies will demand that “your company and your country pay the total cost of ownership for whatever you…produce or consume. The total cost of ownership will include the costs that are near term and long term, direct and indirect, seen and hidden, financial, social, geopolitical and environmental….”

Figure 1 contains a schematic representation of a project or an operation from a systems or holistic point of view. Input includes all materials, energy, land and labour, while the output includes all products, emissions, byproducts and external social, ecological and economic impacts. The entire system can be optimized by dividing the various factors into three categories: those affecting eco-efficiency; socio-economic factors; and markets.

The term “eco-efficiency” has emerged to capture the idea that economic and environmental efficiencies can be achieved simultaneously, as confirmed by a number of recent studies. Emphasizing systems analysis, eco-efficiency seeks parallel ecological and economic gains, without sacrificing one for the other. It can be achieved by enhancing material and energy efficiency, reducing environmental and human health-related risks, designing products to fit into ecological cycles, and making products more recyclable or durable.

To optimize any mining system, one needs to know the desired end product and the project location. Without this knowledge, most project impacts cannot be determined. For most greenfield projects, the process plant battery limits represent only about 30 per cent of cost. The remainder is related to auxiliary systems and infrastructure, including social infrastructure. Therefore, these merit particular attention.

The objective of the engineer and project manager should be to design a project that has the smallest possible footprint and the lowest cost, consistent with the social, marketing and production objectives. These objectives need to be defined at the outset. A project thus optimized would yield maximal returns. Porter and van der Linde (2) contend that a firm’s sustainability performance can also be a measure of operational efficiency. They argue that, ultimately, the enhanced resource productivity makes companies more competitive.

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