In this last in a series of Q&As, Ellen Thomson, Senior Product Application Specialist at Thermo Fisher Scientific, considers the future of mining operations, and the pivotal role of emerging technologies.
We hear a lot about digitization. How is it progressing in the mining industry?
Mining can be a conservative industry, and for a good reason, as assets run for decades, and scale makes change expensive. That said, digitization is now gathering pace. The challenges associated with achieving net zero are substantial, and there is widespread recognition of the need to adopt new technologies to meet sustainability targets. Paper recording and manual readings are progressively being replaced by modern alternatives, improving information flow. Miners are entering an era where there will be far more data available, in a form that is significantly easier to use. This shift holds considerable promise for optimization and greater sustainability.
Achieving that promise relies on finding an effective way to use the generated information. Advanced process models are one approach, but digital twins are increasingly presented as the more desirable method.
What is a digital twin and how does it deliver value?
A digital twin is a virtual version of an asset. It incorporates a process model, drawing in real-time feedback from process instrumentation. Its scope, however, extends far beyond this. For a mine, a digital twin includes physical information from site scans, making it possible to track distances and routes associated with the movement of ore. It extends below the surface to collect geological data, as well as comprehensively incorporating other inputs too, such as power and water usage.
Developing a digital twin is an ambitious and demanding project, but it’s easy to appreciate that success can deliver substantial rewards. Once you have a reliable, virtual representation version of your asset, it’s far more straightforward to see problems and assess potential solutions.
With a digital twin, for example, you can reliably predict changes over the lifetime of the mine – how ore quality and head grade are going to change – and the associated impact on operations. You can also try out different ore-sorting strategies, and evaluate their effect on every part of the mine, as well as run diagnostics and ‘what if’ scenarios without disrupting daily operations. Furthermore, you can share, present and develop ideas with others far more effectively; all the information is in one place, and the impact of change is readily visualized.
These are major gains, and with the tools needed to build digital twins developing fast, it seems highly likely that they will become increasingly used.
Blockchain is another ‘hot topic’. What is its relevance for the mining industry?
Any discussion of blockchain tends to turn quickly to cryptocurrencies, which is currently the most well-known application of the technology. This will change as our understanding of blockchain improves, and new applications become embedded. An easy way to think of blockchain is as a digitally distributed, shared ledger. Entries are immutable, and access can be controlled as required. An input into the ledger forms the next block in the chain, which is simultaneously updated on all associated systems, across the world.
These features make blockchain a powerful tool for asset management, as it enables the full traceability of goods, money, and confidential information. For miners, blockchain offers opportunities to improve trust and transparency in the management and transfer of mineral and metal supplies. This is especially useful for interactions with developing countries, and politically unstable regions.
Increasingly, the end users of metals are looking for sustainable supplies of known provenance. Blockchain can make it far simpler to demonstrate good practice, while at the same time increasing transactional efficiency. It can make fraud more difficult, and the lack of adherence to international standards readily detectable. In summary, blockchain will make it easier to identify and reward companies working sustainably and ethically – via premium pricing – and make it more difficult to hide bad practices.
How can Thermo Fisher Scientific help the mining industry adopt these new technologies?
Our contribution is to provide accurate and reliable data upon which these ambitious projects rely. Our analytical solutions measure critical parameters, notably the composition and flow of the streams that make up the metallurgical balance. They allow miners to track metal values, from the exit of the mine through to concentrate shipping. Our technologies enable dependable, timely – often real-time – measurement, and incorporate the communication protocols required for seamless integration.
I’m keenly aware of the steps we’re taking internally to improve our own sustainability, but the ability to contribute some of the building blocks that miners need to achieve greater sustainability is really exciting. For society to transition to net zero and a clean energy future, the mining industry will need to step up. We can already see the pace of change accelerating, and it’s great to be able to help.
This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Thermo Fisher Scientific – Solutions for Industrial and Safety Applications.
For more information on this source, please visit Thermo Fisher Scientific – Solutions for Industrial and Safety Applications.
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