What role will technology and innovation play in the next generation of mining?

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The mining industry is changing rapidly. Mining is getting more advanced, leveraging automation, AI and other advanced technologies to optimize everything from manufacturing processes to products. As the role of technology in this sector increases, interesting questions arise.  Does innovation give impetus to new technologies or vice versa? How is Australia doing in terms of innovation in this sector given that it is a mining country?
To answer questions like these, John Wagenas recently joined three other industry leaders at the 2021 AusIMM Thought Leadership conference: Adrian Beer, CEO of METS Ignited, Mark Davies, Group Chief Executive, Security, Technology & Projects, Rio Tinto, and Dr. Sharma Glover, Director of Imvelo Pty Ltd.

Below is a summary of John’s responses to questions raised during the panel discussion.

Q: We have a lot of great ideas. But they stall if the “dinosaurs” trample on the ideas or processes that allow those ideas to break through. How do we deal with “dinosaurs”?

Answer: You just touched one of my most sensitive strings. You’re right – there are already so many great technologies out there, most of which have been proven to work even in our industry. But there is a major problem with the adoption of the technology, especially in the Australian mining sector.

While at the global level there has been a rapid understanding thanks to the commitment of the leadership and people who support progress, in Australia there is inaction in many cases.  This is because most innovations are revolutionary in nature. If you implement technology, other departments in the organization may get in the way and try to stifle the process.

Q: Why do we need innovation? And how can innovation give Australia a competitive edge?

Answer: Mining is more than just mining. Everything that society uses today is either in the depths or has grown on the ground. In mining, the first step is to find and identify minerals, and then to extract them. But that’s not all – further purification processes are required along the way so that these materials can be used in production.

From my point of view, Australia is practically degrading, turning into a big quarry. But we have much more to offer. We have incredible human capital and amazing minerals. We are able to achieve more, especially in terms of further processing and production. Mining starts this process, and we must continue it.

Answer: We have a unique opportunity to really achieve sovereign production in Australia. I read somewhere that we export $100 million worth of lithium, and somewhere else they make batteries worth $70 billion from it. We have the capacity and resources. The only thing stopping us is cheap and affordable energy. While it’s important to understand clean energy, you need to be realistic and have realistic plans in place to ensure it’s carbon neutral.

Question: If there were no limits, in your opinion, what radical innovative business model would be used to transform the industry in its current form?

A: Quite aside from radical decisions, I believe that our industry in the current situation needs to take a lot of action, even in the area of ​​performance reporting.  After that, much will become more accessible to you, and you will be able to improve the quality of processes and results.

I don’t think that radical methods are needed – we just need to adopt a technology that has already proven itself around the world and start applying it. Until we do this, we will not be able to provide OSOC or green production, and we will never be able to produce enough nickel to make batteries carbon neutral by 2050.

Q: In addition to what is currently being offered by manufacturing, what technology or innovation could ensure that Australia benefits from minerals in the long run?

Answer: Just think. If you have extracted magnesium ore, then it costs $60 per ton. If you processed it into pure magnesium using energy, then the cost became $300 per ton. If you made “hard-burned” magnesite out of it, then the cost became $600 per ton for the same batch. If you manage to refine it enough to be suitable for the cosmetic industry, then the cost will be $6,000 per ton.

As this example shows, in order to get the most out of our non-renewable resources, we must turn them into a commodity of the highest value, which we can then use in some other way instead of sending it abroad at a low cost. We will benefit greatly if we process minerals ourselves.

Answer: There is no clear idea in society about where something comes from.. They make knives with which they cut. All components of electrical circuits used in everyday life are produced there. Even now, when everyone is demanding to move away from coal energy, in New South Wales all our energy is coal. If we close coal-fired power plants, it will be a real disaster. So we have to ask ourselves how to get away from this in a sensible and structured way.