Mining modernisation to benefit junior miners, exploration in South Africa

4th November 2021

By: Schalk Burger

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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The development and application of technologies and techniques in mining to make it safer, more productive and more efficient is benefiting junior miners and adding tools and capabilities to stimulate minerals exploration in South Africa, mining and technology experts said on November 4.

During a webinar hosted by industry body the Minerals Council South Africa on modernisation's role in boosting junior mining in South Africa, presenters highlighted some of the technologies that were under development, being trialled or entering the market that were helping to overcome various challenges in mining.

The mining technologies, including two new hydro-powered rock drills, light-weight synthetic support elongates, advanced orebody mapping, real-time information management systems, and artificial intelligence and machine learning systems, under development and being piloted or trialled in mines were equally applicable to junior miners as they were to large, modern mines, said mining industry development organisation Mandela Mining Precinct strategic technical adviser Dick Kruger.

"Highly mechanised mines will have a totally different layout compared to mines that use hand drilling, and the combination of technologies will enable faster mining and for mine development to get ahead of the orebody and create reserves. Creating reserves is critical for junior miners, as past experiences in South Africa have seen junior miners running out of ore reserves," he noted.

The Mandela Mining Precinct and its innovation partners the Research Institute for Innovation and Sustainability (RIIS) and the Minerals Council had been investigating nascent and mature technologies worldwide for their applicability in mining in South Africa, he added.

For example, ground-penetrating radar (GPR), electric resistance tomography (TPR) and tunnel seismic tomography (TST) could help miners determine what lay beyond the rockface, inspect hanging walls, detect cavities and faults, and map out orebodies to improve mining planning, said Mandela Mining Precinct advanced orebody knowledge programme manager Michelle Pienaar.

"These technologies are available in South Africa, but the work [the Mandela Mining Precinct] is doing aims to test and optimise their use for operational underground gold and platinum mines," she highlighted.

Additionally, digital exploration, enabled by light detection and ranging (Lidar), satellite mapping, magnetic and gravity inversion sensing, was important for exploration, as the speed and efficiency with which these tools could gather data had increased dramatically since their initial development often decades ago, said diversified metals explorer Orion Minerals CEO and Minerals Council Junior Miners Leadership Forum chairperson Errol Smart.

"The high resolution of these tools and using cloud technologies to interrogate massive data sets are changing things, and regions that are using these capabilities are discovering new orebodies almost every week. South Africa stopped exploring for new deposits decades ago and missed the boom in exploration that happened worldwide during the 1990s, which led to several countries' mining industries growing rapidly," he said.

Elsewhere in the world, junior miners were pathfinders and scouts; the people who went ahead and innovated and did things that the larger miners did not do. Prospectors should be the experimenters, explorers and discoverers. In South Africa, junior miners had become relegated to scavengers, Smart asserted.

"South Africa has a lot of catching up to do in applying technologies locally that are part of standard practices worldwide. We can become leaders in discovering new ore deposits again, and then use the amazing technologies we developed to extract the minerals. The opportunity for South Africa lies in bolstering the contributions of junior miners to discover new orebodies," he said.

In terms of exploration, if one looked at AI and deep learning systems, there was some exciting work happening around the world reanalysing existing datasets and cadastres to identify new orebodies and create efficiency in the initial search locations, added open innovation company RIIS CEO Davis Cook.

"From reanalysing data, Australia has identified some 600 potential new deposits that has allowed for new exploration projects. This is one area [the mining innovation partners in South Africa] are looking at to create opportunities for junior miners in particular," he said.

Further, essential minerals critical for modern economies and technologies presented an excellent opportunity for junior miners, as, with a few exceptions, deposits of these minerals were of modest size and on-surface or at shallow depths, Minerals Council South Africa modernisation and safety senior executive Sietse van der Woude pointed out.

"Critical minerals are metals and non-metals that are vital for the economic wellbeing of major and emerging economies, yet supply of them is at critical risk owing to geological scarcity and geopolitical issues, such as trade policies and others," he explained.

The US and European countries had updated their lists of critical minerals and developed specific action plans that included improving international cooperation with other nations. This presented a significant opportunity for international partnerships to be established and to support investment for South African mining, he said.

"Modernisation is necessary in mining, as South African mining's productivity decreased by 7.6% over the past decade, while costs increased 2% to 3% in real terms, placing the country's mining output in the upper half of the global cost curve. This affects the local industry's global competitiveness and makes mines less economically viable and unable to compete effectively for investment into new projects compared to other resource-rich geographies," Van der Woude noted.

Further, modernisation in the way mining was conducted was directly linked to improved performance in environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics, with the clearest evidence being the improved health and safety achieved during the past three decades as the country progressed to zero harm to the workforce, he said.

Additionally, companies worldwide that have higher ESG ratings, on average, delivered returns of 34% to shareholders over the past ten years, which was about 10% above the general market index, and this provided a compelling reason and opportunities to include these metrics in new products and operations, as well as leading to improved access to capital, given evolving investor priorities and values, he highlighted.

Junior miners could be as modern and mechanised as any large, modern mine, with the main difference being that junior miners were mostly smaller and tackled orebodies that were not of interest to large mining companies. This was why the technology development work being done by the Mandela Mining Precinct and its innovation partners was especially relevant for junior miners, emphasised Kruger.

The partner organisations showcased a range of mining technology innovation and development projects. The partner organisations encouraged the mining industry to engage with them to explore ways of modernising mines or specific processes, Cook added.

Edited by Chanel de Bruyn
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online


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