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Ventilation-on-demand patent sparks controversy

June 1, 2010
by Norm Tollinsky
In: Technology with 0 Comments

A patent awarded to Simsmart Technologies for its Optimized Mine Ventilation on Demand  (OMVOD) technology has caused an uproar in the mining community in advance of an international symposium on mine ventilation in Sudbury June 13 to 18.

Simsmart, a company based in Brossard, Quebec, has sold its ventilation-on-demand (VOD) system to Xstrata’s Nickel Rim South Mine and to Vale Inco’s Totten Mine, according to Mark Anderson, Simsmart’s director of mining, but other developers of VOD systems are up in arms, fearing the patent, if not successfully challenged, could preclude them from marketing their technology.Another ventilation-on-demand developer, Sudbury-based Bestech, is in the process of commissioning its NRG-1 ECO system at two mines in the Sudbury area: Vale Inco’s Coleman Mine and Xstrata Nickel’s Fraser Mine.

“Both companies have technologies that provide value for our clients in terms of reducing their operating costs and improving health and safety, but we do it differently,” said Bestech president and CEO Marc Boudreau. “Bestech didn’t invent ventilation-on-demand and neither did Simsmart. The concept of ventilation-on-demand has been around for 15 years. A lot of companies have developed various versions of it.”

Boliden and LKAB, two Swedish mining companies, have ventilation-on-demand systems operating in their mines, as do some Finnish and Norwegian mines, said Cheryl Allen, Vale Inco’s chief ventilation engineer.

Simsmart president Michel Massé has publicly stated that the patent doesn’t cover the general concept of VOD, “but rather a method and system that optimize the air demand calculation and distribution at a minimum operating cost.”

Boudreau insists it goes too far, notwithstanding Massé’s reassurance, and has filed a request for re-examination of the patent with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

“The mining ventilation community is not accepting it,” he said. “It’s not just Bestech. I understand they have a sophisticated ventilation simulation-modelling tool. If they want a patent, maybe they can patent that. I don’t know.”

Bestech has been developing VOD systems long before Simsmart even realized there was an application for its technology in the underground mining industry. It released the first version of NRG-1 in 2003 and has released several enhancements to the product since then.

Energy management

“NRG-1 is an energy management system,” explained Boudreau. “It controls any energy-consuming device – not just ventilation. That’s one of the big differences between our technology and Simsmart’s technology. They have a system that models ventilation systems and they attempt to control ventilation systems with their model, whereas we have a system that controls any type of asset, including pumps, compressors and material handling systems.”

The first release of NRG-1 was a scheduler. Version 2, however, allowed for ventilation control in real-time and dynamically by event, such as a loader entering a zone or a deficiency in air quality.

Bestech’s newest version, called NRG-1 ECO, includes “a whole architecture underground with hardware and a very elegant 3-D interface,” said Boudreau.

The deployment of NRG-1 ECO at Coleman and Fraser mines is part of a $4.5 million proof of concept project called the Mines Emission Reduction Initiative (MERI) funded by Vale Inco, Xstrata Nickel, the Centre for Excellence in Mining and the Sustainable Development  Technology Corporation (SDTC), a foundation created by the Canadian government to support the development and demonstration of clean technologies.

The $1.4 million allocation by the SDTC was awarded in 2006 to Quebec-based Green Canal Holdings, a developer of energy-efficient technologies, but it had a hard time putting together a consortium of technology partners and mining companies as required. It first attempted to work with Delta Remote Control Systems of Norway, then connected with Simsmart, which until then had focused primarily on training, simulation and tracking systems for the naval military sector and the U.S. Navy in particular.

Xstrata came to the table at that point, following which Simsmart opted to terminate its relationship with Green Canal and work directly with Xstrata in Sudbury. Left with $1.4 million in approved funding, but no partners, Green Canal connected with Bestech, which had no trouble establishing a consortium and getting commitments of several million dollars for a proof of concept deployment of NRG-1 ECO.

Bestech’s technology has been installed on one level at both Fraser and Coleman. At Vale Inco’s Coleman Mine, however, the plan is to extend the system to five other levels “once we get it up and running and they’re happy with it,” said Boudreau.

$8.5 million CAF study

A concurrent $8.5 million CEMI-led ventilation-on-demand study funded to the tune of $4.25 million by the federal government’s Community Adjustment Fund (CAF) with matching dollars from industry, “will install, test and measure the efficacy of novel ventilation-on-demand technologies to decrease energy costs and increase productivity,” according to CEMI’s 2009 annual report.

Solution team members for the CAF study include Bestech, Vale Inco, Xstrata Nickel, CANMET/Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Mining Innovation Council.

Approved in August 2009 as part of a two-year, $1 billion economic stimulus initiative to address the short-term needs of Canadian communities impacted by the global recession, the CAF project will study the impact of mobile equipment emissions and ventilation-on-demand on underground air quality. One objective, said Boudreau, is to set the stage for a re-examination of provincial government regulations that dictate ventilation requirements.

Currently, the regulations are based on engine size, whether the vehicles are running or not and regardless of the type of fuel or diesel particulate emissions released.

“We’re hoping to get to a quality of air model that will hopefully be able to reduce the amount of ventilation that’s required,” said Boudreau. “To have a chance of changing those regulations, we need to have a much broader base of information from the mine, correlated to what’s in the zones and to the activities in the zone. We also want to know how quickly the ventilation changes the air quality when it comes on.”

The growing interest in ventilation-on-demand by the mining industry isn’t surprising, considering that between 40 and 60 per cent of an underground mine’s energy costs are related to ventilation.


At Xstrata’s Nickel Rim South Mine, according to Simsmart’s Andersen, “energy savings from ventilation-on-demand will be about 59 per cent, or $2.5 million per year, so we’re looking at paybacks of not much more than a year or a year and a half.”

At Xstrata Copper’s Kidd Mine in Timmins, he added, “the ventilation energy bill is $20 million a year.”

With ventilation-on-demand technology, said Andersen, Xstrata “can redirect air that’s available to where it’s required as opposed to mass ventilating a mine.” Furthermore, as a mine goes deeper and wider, it may not be necessary to spend money to boost ventilation capacity.

Both the Bestech and Simsmart systems are designed to control ventilation automatically by tracking personnel and the location and operating status of underground mobile equipment using RFID tags and tag readers.

Neither system, however, has been fully deployed and tested, and claims related to energy savings have yet to be validated.

If Simsmart’s patent stands, there are concerns that costs will go up and development of the technology will suffer.
“This isn’t about Bestech or Simsmart or any other manufacturer of ventilation-on-demand type technology,” said Boudreau.  “It’s the mining industry that has to win here. They have to have the flexibility to select a solution that’s best for them.”


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