Trends in gold production and processing have remained largely unchanged; however, the varying nature of future gold reserves will force change and, as such, the industry needs to be prepared to invest in and employ disruptive technology, says independent process industry consultant Santosh Gunpath.
Gunpath states that the number of undeveloped deposits globally outstrips that of current producing mines by almost 2:1. This means that, “there are still twice the number of yet to be developed deposits than are currently operational”, but these undeveloped deposits have about 25% lower grades.
He states that the lower grades, together with the expected lower throughput, can only be overcome with ingenuity and disruptive technology.L
ower grades and throughput represent a threat and an opportunity for the gold industry. Gunpath advises that, instead of addressing a lower revenue stream by implementing cost-cutting measures – which has become increasingly common – the way be paved for researching and implementing alternative technologies, “which may have been overlooked in the past as being too risky, untested or exotic”.
Gunpath suggests that companies focus on increasing revenue by processing less waste and more gold-bearing ore as a means of coping with a lower-return environment. “This can be accomplished at the stockpile . . . by using dry sorting techniques that reject ore below a predetermined grade. Alternatively, if the processing plant is optimised for oxidised ore and the mine delivers sulphidic ore, the latter can be stockpiled separately for processing later, again by employing sorting technology.”
Further, he notes that automation and remote control can also lead to lower labour costs, although they need to be implemented using a balanced approach of corporate and social responsibility. “Also, automation is not suitable for all operations and this is borne out in those that have very low profit margins.”
He vehemently believes that the South African gold industry has to adopt technology to survive. “To maintain its relevance to the global gold industry, South Africa has no option but to position itself as a gold technology sector, especially in deep-level mining, where South Africa is regarded as a leader.”
Gunpath cites current estimates which indicate that South Africa has less than 40 years of gold production left. This forecast, coupled with the ever-decreasing contribution of gold to local gross domestic product (GDP), suggests “clear evidence that South Africa can no longer rely on this sector as it did historically”.
Gunpath also notes that, from 1993 to 2013, gold’s contribution to South Africa’s GDP halved from 3.8% to 1.7%, while gold sales fell from 67% of mineral sales in 1980 to just 12.5% in 2014.
This is a trend that industry and academic institutions need to address as a matter of urgency, assisted by favourable tax and political policies, as well as technological innovation, he stresses.