Accelerated mining at the green energy transition frontier

By Marc Poualion, Industry Marketing Lead, Metals and Mining, Aspen Technology 

The International Monetary Fund has predicted that more than three billion tonnes of minerals and metals will be required to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, which places the mining industry right at the frontier of the green energy transition. With an increasing global population – and a significant portion without access to electricity – there is quite a journey towards this sustainability goal. The world needs metals in far greater magnitude than what is produced today. 

the International Energy Agency has estimated that to achieve net zero by 2050, renewable energy generation must increase eightfold. This requires significant increases in mining capacities to meet those targets. The materials for solar panels, wind-turbine generators and hydro-electric dams all need to come from the mining industry.

Vehicle electrification also places a significant demand on many different metals, such as battery metals like lithium, manganese, nickel and cobalt – many of which are already in extremely high demand, to the degree where the exploration sector has boomed as a result of the projected demand into the future. Defence also presents the need to create and maintain an ongoing, secure supply of rare earth metals to ensure the security of the world in an increasingly volatile and unpredictable geopolitical environment.

Mining operations are going global, and the industry is at the cusp of a boom due to the demand generated by these green initiatives.

Digitalisation journey for mines

An efficient way of managing data is critical to the digitalisation and data-driven planning, control, and decision-making that will create intelligent mines. Difficult decisions are made every day by various departments, and the tendency for each to consider its own priorities in isolation is high. With transparency around the impact of each challenge, mine management needs to adapt and change course to deliver minimal disruption, and maximise productivity, profitability, and predictability.

Mining companies are on unique digitalisation journeys – each at different stages of maturity. Information generated by plants, equipment and devices is colossal in scale, and progress is restrained by the ability to create timely, actionable, data-driven decision points from varied and often siloed sources that provide data of different types, in different formats, and delivered by different technical protocols.

Mining technology leaders need to design and deliver the digital mines of the future by leveraging best-of-breed technology from any solution provider, and implemented with the plant, machinery, sensors and Internet of Things devices that mining operations have in place today.

Australia

Australia has the enviable position of playing host to many world-class resources, as well as generally being on the forefront of the mining industry’s digital transformation. In addition to producing more than 900 million tonnes of iron ore, 110 million tonnes of bauxite, and 320 tonnes of gold annually, Australia also plays host to the largest-known reserves of uranium, the second-largest reserves of lithium, and extensive mineralisation precincts that undoubtedly host undiscovered deposits of other minerals and metals.

Being a wealthy First World country with one of the highest education indexes in the world makes Australia exactly the kind of environment where mining is not only encouraged and supported, but also where the understanding of the value of technology is strong enough to pursue digitalisation of these operations on much more aggressive time frames than in other parts of the world. This will lead Australia and Australian mining companies to become even more competitive on the world stage than they already are today, and will set the pace for technological development, adoption, and implementation for the entire industry.

Industry outlook

Like many sectors, the mining industry must meet growing demand for its products, while also addressing sustainability goals. Now, the focus on sustainability is intense – especially when populations are growing, and a new level of uncertainty around global trade and politics has affected most transnational business. The sheer volume of operational issues that mining companies face includes rising energy costs, social and geopolitical risks, and infrastructure and skills shortages. Collectively, these issues can impact profitability. Marginal differences can have great impact, given the size of many mining operators and their wider ecosystems.

Technology will be central to addressing these dual challenges; however, the mining industry has a lot of catching up to do. The Boston Consulting Group’s Digital Acceleration Index rates the metals and mining industry as about 30–40 per cent less digitally mature than comparable industries, such as the automotive and chemical industries.

As the mining industry seeks to embrace digital technology, solution providers have responded, addressing the mining sector’s dual requirement to deliver improved business efficiency and enhanced sustainability. This is an exciting time for the industry, as the future looks set to present fully digitalised mines. These mines will be where dangerous processes are automated to ensure the maximum level of safety for mine workers; where solutions from different technology and equipment vendors fully integrate; and where mining operations are extracting the most mineral resources possible, using the least energy and water, and also generating the lowest amount of emissions possible. 

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