Igniting Innovation (Potential Area of Focus)

Innovation is a key ingredient to the success of the mineral and metals industry. Mining involves complicated processes, the use of large, expensive machinery and equipment, and exploring extensive areas of land. Applying innovation in these areas can enhance efficiency, lower costs, and maximize extraction.

Although Canada has abundant mineral resources, producing ore bodies are depleting and mining companies are looking to increasingly remote locations and deeper deposits. Further, unlocking Canada’s mineral potential requires research, development and investment in technologies suitable for cold climates. Innovation can help meet these challenges, while reducing the footprint of the industry.

Canada is a leader in mining innovationFootnote 1 and it has a number of advantages, such as a highly skilled workforce with expertise in extractive technologies and geological and biological sciences. Canada has a strong research and development system—including centres of excellence housed in universities—that provides innovative ideas and knowledge relevant to the natural resource sector, an open investment climate, and the second lowest marginal tax rate on new business investment in the G7.Footnote 2

Innovation can include the development and adoption of clean technologies. These can be defined as products, processes or services designed to remediate or prevent environmental impacts, or that are less polluting or more resource-efficient than equivalent “normal products.”

Mining companies adopt clean technologies to improve efficiencies and reduce the environmental impact of mining-related activities.Footnote 3 For example, fossil fuels—particularly diesel—are the primary fuel for mining operations. The transition to cleaner diesel equipment and the adoption of electric and battery-powered equipment can improve energy efficiency, be less polluting, and result in lower maintenance costs.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is another example of innovation that has implications for mining. AI includes “machine learning,” where mining equipment can perform increasingly complex tasks, including difficult and hazardous processing activities. It also involves the management and transmission of large amounts of data, and real-time business and operation decision-making.

Industry is Leading the Way

  • Rio Tinto’s Diavik Diamond Mine in the Northwest Territories is the world’s largest wind-diesel hybrid power facility.
  • Glencore operates a 3 megawatt wind turbine and cutting-edge storage capabilities at its Raglan nickel mine in Northern Quebec.
  • SunMine in British Columbia is turning one of the world’s largest lead and zinc mines into Western Canada’s most significant solar project.

Challenges

Mining companies face pressure to create shareholder value in the short-term, while the benefits of innovation can take a longer time to realize. Further, the costs associated with investing in innovation are significant. A single piece of machinery can cost upwards of $1 million, mining operations rely on thousands of pieces of equipment and often run 24 hours a day, and new ways of doing business require resources for skills and training. Securing financing for new or untested equipment can also be difficult. As such, mining companies may be cautious to invest in innovation.

Another challenge relates to the fragmentation of the innovation ecosystem. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are more than 4,000 research, development and innovation programs and some 40 mining research organizations in Canada.Footnote 4 Collaboration across such a wide range of programs and stakeholders is difficult, which dampens the collective effort to develop and adopt innovative products and processes.

New and emerging technologies such as AI and automation hold great promise for increasing mining efficiency and effectiveness, but also raise questions related to their effect on skills requirements, workers and communities. Companies and workers may need to adapt to new conditions resulting from the adoption of innovation.

Establishing carbon pricing mechanisms, such as a carbon tax or a cap and trade program, can serve as an incentive to reduce emissions and drive innovation. However, some have raised concerns that the Canadian mining industry, considered “emissions-intensive and trade exposed,” will be subject to additional costs resulting from a carbon pricing mechanism, and that operations in northern climates that rely on diesel will be disproportionately affected.

Discussion questions

  • How can we increase innovation and clean technology in Canada’s mines, and export this expertise?
  • How do we balance the benefits that emerging technologies (e.g., AI and automation) with their impacts on workers and communities?

AI in Action

Goldcorp’s Red Lake mine in Ontario is using IBM’s Watson cognitive analytics to analyze and synthesize large amounts of information.

Watson combines geological and drilling data, drilling reports, surveys, historical information, and internal data contained in process logs, reports, and studies. Watson then integrates this data with field knowledge from geologists and engineers to determine the exploration targets most likely to be successful.

As a next stage, Goldcorp is hoping to create Canada’s first all-electric underground mine by 2019 in Borden, Ontario.
 

Footnotes