As the cost of mining increases, companies of all sizes must look to technology as a means of securing affordable and productive practices and a sustainable future.
Innovation and economic growth
A key part of the government’s plan to drive economic development in the short to medium term is to prioritise technology and innovation, including transforming the Chilean economy from one based on natural resource exploitation to one based on knowledge. The Programa Nacional de Minería Alta Ley, which was launched in 2015, is one example of how a formalised public-private initiative is being prioritised at the State level.
One of the central components to boosting innovation is mining is to encourage and foster technology transfer, between the world of academia and technology companies on one hand, and the mining companies on the other. It is also important that not only large-scale mining benefits from the transfer of state-of-the art technological applications and know-how, but also the small and medium-scale (SMM) sector.
The SMM sector is growing in significance and now exceeds certain emblematic sectors, such as winemaking, forestry and pulp, in terms of exports. According to Executive Vice-President of COCHILCO, Sergio Hernández, a strong SMM sector, in conjunction with the national mining development agency, ENAMI, has been the foundation of the successful mining development model in Chile, and this must be allowed to continue.
Technology transfer has considerable potential to resolve some of the major challenges facing large and small miners alike, including reducing production costs, increasing productivity, mitigating rising energy costs, addressing the shortage of skilled staff in the mining industry, and boosting overall sustainability.
Small and medium-scale mining: mobilising production
While certain mining companies at the larger end of the medium-sized scale operate their own processing plants, many smaller miners rely on ENAMI for mineral production and, subsequently, commercialisation. The precarious nature of this reality was exemplified in 2009 following the closure of the Santa Margarita processing plant in Antofagasta, operated by the company Cerro Dominador.
Until then, the plant was the closest poder de compra used by SMM companies affiliated to the Mining Association of Calama. Its closure meant these companies had to transport their minerals to Mantos Blancos in Antofagasta, resulting in increased costs. In conjunction with the depreciating value of copper at the time, this had serious consequences on surrounding SMM companies.
In May 2018, a technology-based solution to this problem was announced for SMM companies operating in the Antofagasta area with the launch of a mobile production module in which smaller-scale miners can produce their minerals on-site, thereby significantly reducing transport costs.
The mobile production plant was developed by the import company, Transducto, in conjunction with 12 years of development between the Universidad de Santiago de Chile (USACH) and CORFO. As well as helping local SMM companies to reduce their transport costs, Executive President of Transducto, Dieter Garafulic, explains that the technology utilised by the module, Dom-Tec, will also enable them to produce a ‘green’ cathode; a product that is being pushed by Chile’s State-owned copper company, CODELCO, due to its traceability in terms of its social and environmental impact.
This innovation is important because SMM companies have historically lacked the economic resources and mineral volumes to establish large-scale production plants, such as SX/EW plants. This has historically meant the product sold by companies to ENAMI has had lower purity than larger-scale productions. As a result, smaller companies have been at a disadvantage arising from the minimum mineral grade conditions and associated penalisation for mineral impurities applied by ENAMI.
Therefore, the scalability and mobility of the Dom-Tec technology is enabling SMM companies to process their minerals up to the grade of cathode, thereby overcoming these aforementioned restrictions. Furthermore, the green cathode produced is more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever, and this will enable smaller-scale miners to increase production volumes moving forward.
The Undersecretary of Mining, Pablo Terrazas, has stressed government commitment to strengthening further such innovation and technology transfer in the SMM sector. Accordingly, Terrazas has announced that it will be monitoring the mobile plant technology to see how it its scope can be expanded to other parts of the sector.
Large-scale mining: mining in the mud
In the large-scale sector, CODELCO is leading the way in regard to utilising technology to extend the production lives of its mines, with underground redevelopment projects underway at a number of its national divisions.
At its El Teniente Division, at the world’s largest underground copper mine, CODELCO is undertaking a US$5.4 billion expansion project, called Nuevo Nivel Mina (NNM). Once complete in 2023, all extraction, processing and transport activities in the NNM will be automated and controlled remotely in an effort to extend the production life of the mine by 50 years.
In order to reach the point where full automation becomes possible, a number of hurdles have had to be cleared along the way. One of these is the melting Andes ice that frequently causes mud slides in parts of the mine site, and which can halt extraction in the affected areas for months at a time. To ensure continued productivity while the mine undergoes expansion, it has become increasingly important to be able to mine the ore contained in this mud, which has long been deemed a hazardous reserve, in a safe and efficient manner.
The approach adopted by CODELCO to resolve this problem has been to trust in technology and to hire the technology company, RCT, to design a bespoke solution. In what is a pioneering, world-first undertaking in the global mining industry, it was officially announced in April 2018 that RCT had upgraded its ControlMaster® Teleremote and Guidance Automation systems that had been previously installed on a surface bulldozer, loader and truck at CODELCO’s Andina Division and fitted it to El Teniente’s Sandvik LH517 loaders.
This technology enabled vehicle operators to be relocated to a surface control room, where, following training, they are now able to mine the copper-rich mud with minimum risk via the mine’s existing digital network.
Crucially for CODELCO and its search for not only enhanced safety, but also increased productivity, this guidance automation technology ensures the directional control and speed of the loader to be optimised to deliver consistent cycle times and more buckets per shift, while damage can be prevented by enabling the loader to avoid walls and obstacles, therefore reducing unplanned downtime. According to El Teniente, the technology also reduces the time it takes to complete checklists during shift changes, further increasing productivity.
In terms of production, the technology will enable the mine to recover reserves that were abandoned for long periods of time having been judged to dangerous to access. CODELCO’s goal is to produce 600 tonnes per day over a six-month period, before green-lighting another loader with RCT’s guidance automation technology to reach 2,500 tonnes per day.
El Teniente has said it will look to replicate the technology across other areas of the mine prone to mud and humidity if the technology continues to performs.
Towards a sustainable future
Technology transfer is becoming an increasingly important part of the modus operandi of mining companies, in terms of both hardware applications, such as the mobile processing plant in Antofagasta or the mud mining in El Teniente, as well as software applications regarding digital transformation, the Internet of Things and the move towards Industry 4.0.
Maintaining long-term operations and business models in the mining sector is increasingly reliant on a company’s ability to engage in technology transfer. Moving forward, the creation and longevity of knowledge-based partnerships between the public, private and academic sectors will be crucial in determining the sustainability and success of all parties operating in the national mining industry, whether small, medium or large.