Mining has seldom been slow to embrace the potential benefits that technological advances can offer, but throughout the years little has changed in the way of their desired end result. The rising technologies for 2008 are principally being affected by precisely the same concerns which have come to dominate political and economic agendas across the globe during the early years of the 21st century – safety, resource security and the environment.

For vendors and contractors alike across industry segments and geographic spheres of influence, the inescapable forces of commodity markets will continue to exert their own pull. However, it remains inevitable that the technology opportunities of 2008 will be largely centred on these issues. A series of developments over recent years – and most notably throughout 2007 – have positioned a series of technologies to sit on the brink of achieving significantly enhanced levels of importance within the industry as a whole.

Safety in real-time

While the question of mine safety is, clearly, of global relevance, against the backdrop of the Crandall Canyon disaster in August 2007 – and the Sago mine disaster which preceded it in January 2006 – the eyes of the world were chiefly focused on the US. Over the next few years, the requirements of the 2006 Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act will see technology to help avert, or at least mitigate, future tragedies.

With a legal duty to provide communication and tracking systems to log individual miners’ locations at all times, America’s mine companies will be looking to a range of suppliers, including Active Control, AeroScout, Ekahau, MineCom, Mine Radio, Mine Site, Varis and Venture Design, to meet their needs.

“The global value of real-time location systems (RTLS) is tipped for massive expansion, expected to be worth more than $1.6bn by 2010.”

While there are obvious questions over the efficacy and reliability of any system to be deployed in such challenging conditions, they also form a clear driver on the ongoing development of the technology, in a sector which is already fast evolving. Worldwide, the global value of real-time location systems (RTLS) is tipped for massive expansion, expected to be worth more than $1.6bn by 2010. Although the current impetus is coming from America, technology owners have been quick to see the potential of other markets. This is most notable in China, where Honeywell recently demonstrated its KJ297 ‘Miner Management and Locating System’.

The rising Chinese presence on the world mining stage would seem to predict a clear opportunity for similar firms to follow this lead, especially after January’s statement by Peng Yujing of the State Administration of Work Safety’s intention to ‘actively promote’ the technology. Given China’s appalling safety record, the move is a timely one and six domestic Chinese companies have already won the relevant ministry approvals for their products.

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In addition, there must be considerable scope for the further development of web-based and satellite-enabled distributed network systems, such as the Mine-1-1 system demonstrated by iPackets in the summer of 2007, to meet remote-working applications around the world.

Safety is also set to act as a driver on the growing roll-out of increased automation technologies throughout the year. The momentum began in 2007 when Atlas Copco awarded the contract to provide navigational systems for their LHD vehicles to MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. It then gained pace from the announcement in January 2008 of Rio Tinto‘s plans for its operations at Pilbara.

“A 2005 study revealed that around 1.5 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions are produced annually from metal production alone.”

Working with Komatsu, Rio’s aim is to produce a world-leading system to automate the Pilbara iron ore mine – controlling work from a new centre in Perth, some 1,300km away. The scheme will use a fleet of driverless ‘intelligent’ trucks guided by proprietary autonomous navigation systems, driverless trains and remotely controlled drills.

With Rio Tinto aiming to realise its dream of the ‘mine of the future’ by the end of 2008, and set to replicate it at new and existing Rio Tinto Iron Ore operations by 2010, many observers believe the trend will be more widely adopted. If so, both the implications and opportunities for technology vendors are clear.

Environment and emissions

By the end of 2007, the issues of climate change, global warming and the wider environmental impacts of mining had attained new significance for the sector. As governments have become increasingly interventionist and the long-awaited shift to the new ‘carbon economy’ gradually begins to gain ground, a number of mining companies have moved to address wider public concern.

In the words of Richard Sharman from the KPMG Carbon Advisory Group, “climate change is forcing companies of all sizes to rethink the way they do business”. The mining industry is no exception in looking for ways to guarantee sustainable growth for the future. A 2005 study by the World Resources Institute revealed that around 1.5 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions – about 5% of the world’s total – are produced annually from metal production alone. Among those committed to making reductions are BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American.

Achieving the necessary carbon cuts will inevitably initially prioritise improving the efficiency of existing processes, though subsequently the field is likely to be opened up to a number of promising upcoming technologies. As a result, the likes of direct bath smelting, coke replacement with biomass-derived charcoal, the use of drained cathode cells during the conventional Hall–Héroult process, waste heat recovery and the dry granulation of slag seem poised to enjoy unprecedented interest.

“Metallurgical processes in particular are set to see dramatic changes that could revolutionise the whole supply chain.”

Looking to the longer term, however, the technology opportunities offered by the industry’s rising tide of environmental awareness are unlikely to end here. Though many are currently in a distinctly fledgling stage, there is a raft of developing alternative, less energy-hungry technologies waiting in the wings. Metallurgical processes in particular are set to see dramatic changes that could revolutionise the whole supply chain, with novel approaches ranging from ionic liquid low-temperature aluminium production to the use of microbial biotechnology in mineral extraction.

Resource security

Ensuring security of resources and guaranteeing the ongoing integrity of national interest has risen every bit as swiftly in political priorities as it has in commercial strategic thinking. From the over-arching concerns of national energy interest to the ongoing world tyre-shortage, resource management and the continuity of supply has assumed a central role in the industry.

While a number of mine operators have opted for a direct role in funding and developing facilities for retreading, the issue of energy security has seen more complex manoeuvring. In many respects it represents the ultimate synthesis of mining’s three current technology drivers.

As energy demands rise, there is a growing global need for coal. However, the whole coal-for-power industry faces mounting and simultaneous pressures on both the carbon front and to ensure worker safety. The increasing moves towards wider use of coal mine gas very effectively represents the convergence of these two particular lines of thinking, while technologies to recover methane for heat and power generation also espouse a ‘green’ element.

“The whole coal-for-power industry faces mounting and simultaneous pressures on both the carbon front and to ensure worker safety.”

Since methane is around 30 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than CO2, any utilisation of coal mine derived gas stands as a positive contribution to emission reduction. Between this approach and the potential of underground coal gasification – an area of particular interest to the Chinese – the co-generation/methane recovery route offers the chance of a long-term bonanza for technology vendors and contractors operating in this field.

Leaving fossil-fuels aside, 2007 also saw uranium begin to return to favour after long years of unpopularity, as the whole concept of nuclear power regained a measure of respectability in the world’s energy thinking.

This has particular resonance and significance for Australia, where, although resources are ubiquitous, the dilution factor – average concentrations lying between 0.1 and 0.25% – complicate extraction.

Unsurprisingly, this had led to technological developments, such as in-situ leaching, which marry the demands of safety, energy security and environmental protection. The technology landscape surrounding uranium mining and exploration is ever-evolving and the levels of investment and growing interest in the energy-source seems likely to ear-mark it for continued innovation and expansion over the coming years.

“The technology landscape surrounding uranium mining and exploration is ever-evolving.”

While there was a time when the know-how for uranium mining largely came from broadly analogous operations for gold; today, the technology and expertise has become immeasurably more specialist.

Likewise, the opportunities within the field have become more clearly defined.

While the great boom may be beginning to show signs of slowing, as a whole the mining industry remains remarkably buoyant and healthy, with expansion and growth widespread across geographic regions and among all major players.

Although some sectors – notably aluminium, nickel and zinc – have taken a downturn, most industry observers view the outlook as strong and the technology opportunities equally robust, particularly within those areas currently afforded high priority. It seems that where safety, security and the environment are concerned, the prospects for technology are looking very good.