The mining supply sector is invisible, disrespected and dumb, but it could be responsible for saving the world
Invisible for two reasons. The first is just statistical. According to the Standard Industrial Classification, there is no mining supply industry. Firms from hundreds of industries supply the mining sector.
That is why the distinguished Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity in Toronto failed to notice a mining supply cluster in Sudbury for the second time when it published its second inventory of Canadian clusters. They couldn’t see what Statistics Canada didn’t measure.
The mining supply sector is also invisible because it is dumb — dumb in the dictionary sense of “unable to speak.” Mining suppliers are diverse, geographically scattered, generally small and largely unorganized. Few are fully specialized in mining. They are defined in terms of the industry they supply.
The mining industry, on the other hand, is well defined and well measured, producing key exports and inputs for the entire material economy.
The challenge for the mining industry is to double production while reducing fossil fuel use and environmental impacts. It has to do this in the face of falling grades and increasingly stringent regulations. If the mining industry fails to meet the challenge, we will not be able to provide a growing population with a better quality of life while dealing with climate change and ocean acidification.
Since almost all of the innovation that drives productivity up and impact down in the mining industry come form the equipment and supplies that miners use, the challenge really falls to mining suppliers.
And how will suppliers meet this challenge? Two tech revolutions already offer a whole menu of opportunities for existing and new suppliers.
The energy revolution will create a supply boom that does not depend on opening new mines. In fact, the action will be in retrofitting mine energy systems. For example, Sandfire Resources, a gold and copper producer based in Western Australia, recently announced that its new solar power plant will soon start powering its DeGrussa mine. This is a conventional photovoltaic system. Codelco in Chile has a 27.5 MW installation that should supply more than 80 per cent of the heat used to refine copper at the Gaby mine, one of the largest copper mines in the world. Recent studies by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia have identified the potential to use concentrated solar thermal (CST) energy in high-temperature processing of ores such as bauxite, copper and iron ore. Wind power at remote sites can generate hydrogen to replace diesel fuels. Using hydrogen underground reduces ventilation requirements, which in turn reduces energy costs.
Biological processes are also coming on strong. Bioleaching is already used to produce 10 per cent of Chile’s copper from low-grade sulphide ores. So far, the process relies on wild strains of bacteria. Bioengineering will open an entirely new supply chain for customized bacterial strains (see story on Page 44). BacTech of Toronto has developed a biological process to produce gold without the use of mercury that could eliminate the massive release of mercury from artisanal mining around the world. Bioleaching can also deal with higher arsenic concentrations than pyrometallurgical processes. Equally important, bioleaching can extract valuable metals from tailings piles around the world. History suggests that this will be a huge market: environmental regulations tend to get more stringent once technologies are available for reducing emissions.
Mining companies will buy these technologies. Someone has to supply them.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is simple. Create the products that will save the world.