Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

What’s Ahead for the Minerals Industry?

By Denise Goldsworthy

Significant innovation is a must to satisfy mining regulators and communities.

Australian miners are known for digging things up and shipping them overseas. We do it at scale, and in many cases at lower cost than our international competitors.

However, mining in Australia is becoming increasingly difficult. The large, low-cost, Tier 1 deposits are in some cases nearing depletion, and the limited discoveries of replacement resources are bringing challenges of deeper, wetter and lower-grade ore.

Financial margins will always be low which, with the increasing requirements of regulators and communities, means significant innovation is necessary.

The industry has impressive examples of innovation, but many opportunities are handicapped by the on-again/off-again investment strategies of the industry, its investors and financial backers due to the swings in commodities prices. There is also a big difference between the ability of the major and small to mid-tier miners to access the latest innovations. This is currently preventing the mass use of technology, inhibiting adaptations from other industries and preventing the removal of significant entry barriers for new technology suppliers.

Australia is up to this challenge, with some of the best minds working in Australian research organisations, mining and the supporting mining equipment technology and services (METS) sector to make this happen. The shared vision for mining should be one of an industry that is physically invisible to the community, but at the front of minds for the contribution it makes to the economic and sustainable supply of raw materials necessary for a modern economy.

Delivering on this vision will require major change in four areas.

  1. Mining will be integral to the community, with shared accountabilities that cross lease boundaries. This integration will be at a deeper level than just the infrastructure. Mining will become truly integrated with its neighbours to ensure efficient management of resources (including air, water and energy), minimisation of waste and sustainable ecosystem management.
  2. Mining will be optimised as a result of collaboration across the Australian value chains. This will come about from deeper connections with more of Australian industry – building on the relationships with the innovative METS sector and establishing new connections with the advanced manufacturing developments so that the smart technology products manufactured in the future Australia are matched with resources mined in Australia.
  3. Sensor arrays on machines and in the ground, automation, unmanned aerial vehicles, virtual and augmented reality, robotics and big data analytics, often adapted from other industries, will all be widespread. These changes will be linked to the other dimensions, reflecting the move to more selective recovery of the most valuable ore, and fundamentally reducing the scale of many operations.

    These tools will eliminate human involvement in dangerous tasks, and guarantee more environmentally responsible and cost-effective performance by removing the variability inherent in people. Issues of interoperability and shared infrastructure, especially communications and data, will be overcome, with many tools developed using open-access software.

  4. We will mine differently. New metallurgical and mineral-processing technologies that support fundamentally different flow sheets will be developed to respond to our unique geological and mineralogical differences as well as the need for new products and lower water- and energy-consuming methods that will leave a smaller global footprint.

These will be complemented with entirely new methods for in situ chemical or biological recovery of specific elements that eliminate the need to mine large volumes of waste to access the valuable reserves.

All the foundation pieces are there for Australia to achieve this vision for mining.

The biggest barrier to achieving the vision is not the technical or innovative capability of our people – it is the lack of the belief that such a vision is both possible and desirable.

Making the mind-set change starts with our ability to convince the younger generations at school that mining is a high-tech, challenging opportunity for them to contribute to.

Engaging with young minds while they still think “how”, not “why not”, will help us make the collective paradigm shift.

Denise Goldsworthy FTSE is a non-executive director and advisor on research, technology and innovation. A former senior mining executive, she was the 2010 Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year and chairs ATSE’s Minerals forum.