The modernisation of mining operations is essential to contribute towards the survival of the South African mining industry by enabling mining at increased depths and narrow, hard rock reefs. In turn, this will help extend the life of platinum group metals (PGM) mines, preserving employment and, with the use of modern equipment, also improving health and safety. (Watch Creamer Media video using barcode access at the end of this article.)
Without substantial modernisation of the mining technologies and new mining skills, PGM mining will decline materially down a cliff – see graph – from 2023, and gold mining becomes relatively insignificant from 2025. However, if modern continuous fully mechanised mining is introduced, the mining of these precious metals could be extended out to 2045, as is also indicated in the attached graph, used during the Mining Phakisa of 2015 and based on the commodity prices, input costs of mining and the rand:dollar exchange rate.
Local mining is being negatively impacted by, among other factors, increased mine depth, increasing shift overheads, for example, more travel time required to get to the rock face, higher electricity tariffs and rising labour costs.
In addition, the fluctuating rand:dollar exchange rate and relatively weak commodity prices have resulted in many mines facing severe financial pressure.
“We’ve realised that we have to help the mines from a technological perspective, through the implementation of a collaborative research and development (R&D) programme,” Department of Science and Technology (DST) chief director of technology localisation, beneficiation and advanced manufacturing Beeuwen Gerryts told Mining Weekly in an interview to mark the launch of the new Mandela Mining Precinct, where government and business are in a partnership to revitalise the South African mining industry through modernisation.
During the Mining Phakisa, the South African Mining, Extraction, Research, Development and Innovation (SAMERDI) strategy was developed to maximise the sustainable returns of South Africa’s mineral wealth through collaborative research, development, innovation and implementation of mining technologies. SAMERDI focuses on the following themes:
- longevity of current mining operations;
- mechanisation of drill and blast;
- non-explosive mining;
- advanced orebody knowledge;
- real-time information management systems; and
- successful applications of technology map.
“From the same mines, we’re able to extend the life substantially,” Gerryts explained to Mining Weekly.
Simultaneously, as a consequence of people not being exposed to harsh rock face conditions, health and safety will be improved.
People will be moved away from the face and provided with semi-automated or automated equipment that will extract ore, feed it back to collection points and ensure that the orebody alone is mined, and for this, new equipment with, for example, a height less than 800 mm (instead of 1.5 m) is required to mine such a narrow reef.
Improvements in energy and water use are also envisaged.
The DST and the Chamber of Mines (CoM) are leading the research that is performed by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Universities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Witwatersrand. In addition to the strong solution-based research, development and innovation focus, SAMERDI is also aimed at increasing the number of black and female researchers and engineers.
Because of the need for semi-autonomous operations in an isolated environment, Gerryts regards the mining modernisation programme as an ideal pilot for developing and maturing indigenous Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) technologies and solutions.
For example, there will be a need for sensors and control systems on the rock face, throughout the mining environment, embedded in mining equipment, and on the people. These sensors will require fast and effective wireless communication and positioning systems, which are not currently part of the conventional mining operations. These requirements will open the way for local researchers and engineers to develop indigenous, revolutionary technologies and solutions, which are already being developed by some large mining companies.
“We’re working together to determine the extent to which we can leverage off investments already made on the modernisation journey.
The conditions are unique, so there are some problems South Africans will have to solve themselves,” Gerryts commented.
While partnering with leading foreign Industry 4.0 technology providers, South Africa’s unique mining requirements provide an opportunity to be part of some of the niche technology developments.
The local mining equipment manufacturing companies that form part of the Mandela Mining Precinct have already been highly successful in exporting into Africa and the rest of the world, and every effort is now being made to strengthen their offerings significantly.
SAMERDI is funded by the DST, which has allocated in excess of R220-million for the period from 2017/18 to 2020/21; the CoM contributed in excess of R33-million for 2018, with an undertaking to determine their new financial allocation yearly, and the Department of Trade and Industry has provided R8-million to the 16-member Mining Equipment Manufacturers of South Africa, which is monitoring 34 projects at mine sites provided by the CoM. In addition, a number of other mining related societies and institutions have also moved into the Mandela Mining Precinct.
The official opening of the Mandela Mining Precinct on May 4 could thus be the starting point of the development of a significant comparative advantage for South Africa as it reclaims its competitiveness in mining, a critical industry for South Africa in the attainment of some of the goals of the National Development Plan.