February 2010

Come together

Industry and academia team up to push research agenda

By H. Ednie

Foundry crew members working in the experimental casting facility at CANMET’s Materials Technology Laboratory, tap and pour a 200-kg batch of grey iron.

Minerals research and innovation in Canada are increasing in importance, as mining companies look to new technologies and processes to give them a competitive edge. The way it is undertaken has changed significantly, as mining companies are electing to do less research at their own labs, opting to fund university-based projects instead. Additionally, keeping these projects practical, relevant and financially viable poses a tremendous challenge. The one thing that does seem clear is that the guiding principle of the next decade must be collaboration.

We’re in this together

Many of the big players — the federal and provincial governments, research institutions and companies — are working together under the auspices of the recently formed Canada Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) to nail down the basic research needs and opportunities for this collaborative future (see the Innovation column for more on these efforts).

“CMIC is a story of interplay and collaboration,” says Stephen Lucas, Assistant Deputy Minister, Minerals and Metals Sector, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). “We’re bringing users and researchers together with funders, policy-makers and the institutions that develop the highly qualified people we so need. Collaboration is the golden key to effective mining research and innovation for our industry.”

“We want to show some results this year,” says Engin Özberk, chair of CMIC and vice-president of innovation and technology development at Cameco Corporation, “to ensure our entity is sustainable and help companies justify the merit of making future investments in research — a common challenge for companies, academics and government alike.”

Özberk says he can’t stress enough that a strong R&D industry in Canada needs more collaboration. “People don’t realize the energy required to prepare acceptable selling points — research is about convincing people to spend money on something without really knowing what it’s going to be, and without a guarantee of success,” he says. “The challenge is to define what needs to be done, with enough technical merit to gain support.”

One example of a successful collaboration is Cameco’s and Areva’s work with the University of Saskatchewan. Together, the companies fund a number of research initiatives, focused primarily in areas such as tailings management and toxicology. “Cameco and Areva jointly operate some of the mines, so we have a common interest to build towards success,” explains Özberk. “Likewise, the projects at the university are of common interest to both companies.”

Cameco has had strong ties with the University of Saskatchewan for over 15 years. The partnership has produced more than 70 peer-reviewed scientific papers and overseen the training of more than 50 graduate and undergraduate students, post doctoral fellows, research associates, assistants and engineers.

In 1993, Cameco donated $1.5 million to endow a Chair at the university to investigate environmental liabilities associated with waste products from the company’s mining operations, specifically tailings materials and waste rock piles. Hydrogeochemist Dr. James Hendry was appointed to the position. In September 1995, Hendry was awarded the prestigious Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair in Aqueous and Environmental Geochemistry. He is now nearing the end of a third five-year funding term.

Meet the matchmakers

Some companies and institutions need a little convincing to come together; others require a little more facilitation. Two organizations serving as research “matchmakers” are the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), based in Ontario, and COREM, headquartered in Quebec.

CEMI works with large mining companies, suppliers, governments, universities and consultants on research projects focused on underground hard rock mines, mainly geared towards Northern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.

“Industry has downgraded research facilities in recent years, creating a greater need for CEMI to be in place to carry on the research and do it on the mining companies’ behalf,” says Al Akerman, CEMI R&D program developer, operations. CEMI establishes collaborative networks focused on common problems in the mining industry. “Basic research is executed in the university environment, with more of an applied research in the operations,” explains Akerman. “The biggest challenges are finding the right people and putting together a proposal that has merit going forward.” To address this manpower issue, CEMI helps train the highly qualified people (HQP) the mining industry requires. “Our intention is to ensure that the students get exposed to the mining operations and build contacts,” explains Akerman.

CEMI’s third focus is on helping to fund research projects, leveraging dollars from industry and government, and ensuring investors get a healthy return on their investment. Currently, CEMI’s major funders include the Ontario government ($10 million), Xstrata Nickel ($5 million), Vale Inco ($5 million) and the federal government ($4.25 million). “The intent is that a dollar invested in CEMI will actually turn out to be $1.50 in research,” says Akerman.

One of the major challenges for mining research in Canada is the persistent gap between academia and industry. CEMI’s president, Peter Kaiser, says his organization sends out what he refers to as “solution teams” to help close this gap. “They identify a problem, scope out the project, identify researchers, partners and technology providers and put the team together,” says Kaiser. “It’s active collaboration.”

According to Kaiser, one problem ripe for the solution team approach is deep mining, where aspects related to geophysics, risk, safety and energy requirements will drive that area of research. “There is a real need for R&D to make deep mines in Canada more economical and eliminate risk,” attests Kaiser. “It’s an area that may be under-represented right now.”

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