Innovation in mining and mineral recovery – is there more to life than froth and bubbles?

  • By Robin Batterham AO FAusIMM

Professor Robin Batterham AO FAusIMM will be delivering the AusIMM Hunter Region Branch Jameson Distinguished Lecture on Thursday 3 August, 2017. The following article is based on the lecture to be delivered, which is titled ‘Innovation in mining and mineral recovery – is there more to life than froth and bubbles?’ View the event flyer for more information on the lecture and to register.

Professor Robin Batterham AO FAusIMM.

The upcoming Jameson lecture is about innovation. There can be no doubt that Graeme Jameson is one of Australia’s great innovators. The impact of his work is measured in billions of export dollars as well as contributing to more sustainable mining. How do some pull off such great achievements and others not? We will explore this in some detail.

First up, we should note that innovation is about a change that occurs in the market place of end users and brings benefits. A definition that is terribly prosaic, even boring. Much more interesting for many to talk about research and breakthroughs, creativity, innovative thinking or even the latest trends of open innovation and now ‘Innovation 3.0: embedded innovation’. This is all good for discussion but overlooks the fundamentals; innovation is about someone (or a team) that is part of bringing something new to the market place.

We are told by many that we are not very good at innovation as so few of our firms innovate, as our researchers in universities are so poorly connected to firms, as our levels of venture capital are too low, the list goes on and on. Indeed, in one much quoted OECD study, we are near the bottom of a list, second only to Mexico. Fortunately, the recent Australian Intellectual Property 2017 report suggests that we are not quite as bad as some think. This is good, as two simple sanity checks suggest we are actually good at innovation. Firstly, our mining and mineral processing industry is world-class in terms of competitiveness and in terms of technology: simply look at where the big thrust for autonomous machines blossomed, or a world-class safety record, let alone developments going back more than a century. Secondly, and as a result, let’s not forget we are a rare country to be (technical) recession free for 25 years.

So to the topic of innovation: it is far more than the excitement of trying, the thrill of discovery and the reward of success in the market place. All of this is the stuff of froth and bubbles to play on words. It is more about a deep appreciation of process at the fundamental level, combined with a vision of how the full scale end can be changed. In between is brilliance, perseverance, focus, a sense of proportion, being able to deal with people and knowing deep down that failure can be expected all too often and is simply a part of learning.

I often joke that innovation is like singing, skiing, sailing, skating and a few other things that start with the letter ‘s’. Put simply, the more you do of it, the better you get at it. How can this be? It is because innovation is path dependent. The opportunities you pursue and how you pursue them depend on your (and your co-conspirators) knowledge and experience just as much as on your native intelligence, creativity and perseverance. So, no excuses, let’s get on with it!

As to the question of what environments are conducive to innovation, one notes that in large organisations, where I have mostly worked, there must be the magical combination of leadership at the top (ie a desire to see innovation as the only long-term strategy) and a willingness to collaborate at lower levels. Without collaboration, one inevitably hits the ‘done it before and it didn’t work’, or ‘not a matter of priority’, or…the list is endless. Reward systems have to match strategy and often they don’t. I well recall the embarrassing difference between the German members of the HIsmelt team and the Australian members when the first developments were underway in Germany in the 1980s. Some were financially rewarded (by law) as part of every patent, others not.

We also have to be humble enough to know that no matter how good a particular innovation is at the time it is introduced, technology is a leaking sieve. It ultimately gets out. Further, once you see someone has achieved an improvement, it is so much easier to build on this and improve it further. Thus, some innovations will last and others not. One of my most satisfying innovations was to be involved in the development of the unique mineral processing route for Century Zinc. It took us two years and it was hard to tell the team at the end that the company had sold the asset – after all that work. Another involving froth and ultra-fine bubbles was a bioleach reactor that was tried at full scale, but then the market need (at Panguna mine) vanished with the uprising on Bouganville Island. Life is always full of surprises.

Finally, one can look to the future and argue strongly that as technology is not predictable in the long run, that competitive pressure and opportunism will be around for a long time, we will continue to be surrounded by innovation in mining and mineral processing. Mindful that the best way of predicting the future is to invent it, my current best guess is that grinding and flotation will have largely disappeared within 40 years. Instead we will have in-place recovery: not by nanobots but by opening up deep mineralisations by removal of underburden (remember that cities love rock for construction, cement, roads, etc) and opening up the mineralisation by caving or fraccing and then in-place leaching, most likely with barriers in place. This will be the innovative mine of the future (Batterham, 2017).

Reference

Batterham R J, 2017. The mine of the future – even more sustainable. Minerals Engineering, 107, 2-7.

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