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Modern mining infrastructure, innovations to address junior mining, exploration challenges

5th November 2021

By: Schalk Burger

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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Innovation and technology development to promote and reinvigorate the country’s moribund exploration, emerging and junior mining sector are focused on developing shared infrastructure and innovations to reduce costs and make exploration more effective and efficient.

Research, development and innovation are dedicated towards what the mining industry needs to be globally competitive from an economic point of view, including productivity, lower costs and environmental, social and governance issues.

Further, innovation infrastructure, such as a test mine and a mining industry platform that were too expensive for single organisations to build, were being built for use by all relevant stakeholders to support mining modernisation, industry organisation Minerals Council South Africa modernisation and safety senior executive Sietse van der Woude said this week.

"The Minerals Council is looking at mining modernisation not only from a technology perspective, but also at social and business model modernisation. We are actively looking at building a platform and infrastructure that all stakeholders can use, such as geographic information systems and access to a test mine," he said.

Modern mining in South Africa must be socially just and ecologically sustainable, as well as inclusive and people-centric. This requires meaningful engagement among all stakeholders to co-create modern mining methods that will improve the lives of employees and communities, as well as develop new ways to upskill employees for the new jobs in mining and reskilling them for jobs in other sectors of the economy.

"The [mining industry development organisation] Mandela Mining Precinct, its partners and all key unions signed an agreement in October to ensure meaningful involvement of organised labour as mining journeys towards modernisation," Van der Woude highlighted.

Meanwhile, Mandela Mining Precinct strategic technical adviser Dick Kruger emphasised that an important programme was the Successful Application of Technologies Centred Around People (Satcap), which was aimed at supporting worker, rock-drill operator and overseer training and engineering skills development, as well as digital literacy to ensure that overseers could effectively supervise workers using sophisticated equipment.

Similarly, the Mining Skills 4.0 programme focuses on improving the effectiveness and approaches to training by leveraging cognitive and behavioural science to improve understanding and retention, as well as embed positive behaviours, said open innovation organisation Research Institute for Innovation and Sustainability (RIIS) engagement manager Alexandra Lugagne.

"These trends, in combination with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, have great potential to improve health and safety outcomes, and virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality allows employees to learn in a safe environment, which still allows for real-time virtual interaction where trainees will encounter replicas of physical equipment and hazards found in the mine. This innovation is being piloted at a gold mining operation to drive an overhaul of the company's e-learning system," she said.

Technology has advanced in many areas. The challenge was to ensure smooth training and skills development so that people were best able to use the technologies. To this end, the South African mining modernisation partners provided advice on curricula and training mechanisms to help ensure that the mining industry had the skills in the future to remain globally competitive and productive, she added.

Further, RIIS had seen an emergence of new technology platforms and domains that were drastically changing the cost structures of different businesses, said RIIS CEO Davis Cook.

"Two applicable technologies include space-based technologies and artificial intelligence (AI). These technologies are maturing to becoming action-oriented business tools. For example, muon tomography uses cosmic ray muons to identify resource bodies from space. The signals can be cleaned to provide significantly more accurate information and, thereby, lower risks and costs of exploration, with costs in the order of R25/km2 to R70/km2."

The use of AI systems in orebody recognition is gaining traction around the world. AI is capable of re-analysing existing data sets to discover previously missed orebodies.

“This creates new efficiencies in optimising for initial search locations, though it does require detailed and updated minerals cadastres,” Cook pointed out.

Additionally, the RIIS real-time information management systems (RTIMS) team was making progress to develop a platform to enable complex decision-making and business support. The RTIMS portal woukd be free to use and accessible to the industry, and would house all the technology information needed to help the mining industry digitise its processes. The ultimate vision was for mining value chain technology components to be tested and approved for use on such platforms, said Lugagne.

"The open data analytics platform being developed on RTIMS will democratise access to data analytics and will enable the development of AI models to generate insights and make advanced analytics possible for more industry participants and stakeholders," she said.

Meanwhile, Mandela Mining Precinct advanced orebody knowledge programme manager Michelle Pienaar detailed work done to ensure optimal extraction with less waste and zero harm to people and the environment.

"The technologies are not limited to deep-level mines and there are opportunities for their use in openpit mines. While our focus is on the gold and platinum sectors, we are also exploring technologies used in the mining of other commodities and other industries. However, the technologies must be cost-effective," she said.

Further, about 40% of mining injuries in South Africa were associated with falls of ground and seismic-related incidents, and safety was a core focus of the advanced orebody knowledge programme, Pienaar said.

Ground-penetrating radar, electrical resistivity tomography and tunnel seismic tomography can help miners determine what lies beyond the rockface, inspect hanging walls, detect cavities and faults, and map out orebodies to improve mining planning.

"Information on what lies ahead of the face must be provided timeously not only to the personnel at the face from a health and safety perspective, but also to personnel on the surface to say that there is a problem or risk ahead of the face," she explained.

A smart drill programme is investigating the interaction of diamond drill bits and rods in terms of how they behave with different rock types. With this information, machine learning and AI systems can be used to determine information on lithographies and rock types from the behaviour of the drill.

"Better understanding will help improve mining and the intention is to take the project further to support mechanisation projects. Better understanding of rock behaviour will also lead to better blasting and cleaning," she said.

Another project was statistical analysis to determine potholes or cavities in orebodies. This used historical data that was reinterpreted to predict pothole sites, and the project was being extended to look at geological features and other anomalies such as water and gas intersections, said Pienaar.

Meanwhile, the Isidingo rock drill innovation challenge led to the development of two hydro-powered rock drills that were half the weight of conventional rock drills and drilled holes twice as fast with much less noise, and could drill parallel holes, said Kruger.

"On the practical side, we have tested light-weight synthetic elongated supports that weigh 12 kg to 16 kg, are fire-proof, easy to handle and cheap, as they are made from recycled materials. If any industry participant has suggestions on additional ways we can contribute, we are glad to help," he said.

Further, the Mandela Mining Precinct in October signed contracts with two universities to establish research chairs for innovation and mechanised mining systems, Kruger said.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online



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