August 2017

Science in the sandpit – developing a mining innovation hub in Western Australia

  • By Clytie Dangar, General Manager – Stakeholder Engagement; Luke Keeney, General Manager Implementation; and Jon Rutter, Senior Mine Geologist, CRC ORE

Bringing mining research closer to the action by developing a mining technology centre of excellence in Kalgoorlie-Boulder

Based in Brisbane and jointly funded by the mining industry and the federal government, CRC ORE I (one) was established in mid-2010 with an initial five-year term. During this period, much of the initial discovery and development research was undertaken. It became apparent during this time that the impacts of declining grades, declining productivity and increasing costs for industry players was acute. Many individual technologies had been diligently developed by a range of METS companies that solved very specific issues along the mining value chain. Bold claims of potential value were being made, but were difficult to prove without running the risk of disrupting the already fragile or stressed production process. It was challenging for mine managers or production plant managers to introduce new technologies that might impact other departments outside their control. METS companies often struggled to convince their customers to take a chance on their point solution without being able to accurately predict or control flow-on impacts across the whole operation. Working on integrated solutions or offering a broader vision of transformational, technology-driven change was challenging. It was these conditions that drove the industry to come together and seek matched funding from the Commonwealth Government to form CRC ORE.

CRC ORE II (two), the second six-year funding program, has brought together research, mining and METS organisations as ‘essential participants’. It now drives a very applied approach to research and development, an inherent focus on proving economic value and the streamlining of the implementation process to industry. The pinnacle technology developments of Grade Engineering® and the Integrated Extraction Simulator (IES) from CRC ORE I are now enabling the optimisation of mineral extraction by separating ore from waste material as early as possible in the mining process. This is followed by linking individual operational predictive models together to be able to effectively simulate the whole of mine process to optimise outcomes and, ultimately, value generation.

Grade Engineering®

So much energy, water and other resources are consumed in processing material that has little or no value. By exploiting the natural heterogeneity of the deposit, rather than attempting to mask it, Grade Engineering® is an approach that aims to increase head grades by the early physical rejection of non-viable material through several pre-concentration techniques, or ‘levers’. These include:

  • preferential grade deportment by size – how the ore naturally deports by size fraction
  • differential blasting for grade by size – using blasting techniques to increase the deportment by size
  • sensor-based bulk sorting – in the pit
  • sensor-based stream sorting – in the plant
  • coarse gravity separation – dense media, in-line pressure jigs, etc.

Figure 1 shows a visual representation of these levers.

Much of CRC ORE’s current research program is focused on developing new technology to support each of these levers.

While Grade Engineering® offers the potential for transformative value generation, it requires a considerably different approach from conventional mining methods. This has significant implications for other upstream and downstream processes.

Industry players have recognised that any significant change normally brings significant risk. A mine manager is very unlikely to support such fundamental change unless they can be convinced – by methodical, scientific evidence using real mine data supported by an independent organisation – that it will deliver significant value or improvement that can be sustained. This approach is also enhanced by the IES, the other key technology program at CRC ORE.

The Integrated Extraction Simulator

IES is a collaborative multi-year program to build the next generation simulation platform. Not just for use in the traditional area of processing design, IES is moving simulation into the realm of optimising the entire business chain. What sets IES apart is its full value chain integration from block model, blasting, comminution, flotation and beyond. Being cloud-based and multi-component, IES allows simulation from blast to final concentrate in a few seconds, and all on the same flowsheet. It does not aim to replace existing models, but provides a platform for existing models to be integrated and further developed. This allows the discussion and evaluation to move from anecdotal engineering to real economic and scientific investigation.

Much of CRC ORE’s work is now focused on further developing, proving and demonstrating the value of these transformative technologies for the benefit of its essential participants and the broader industry.

Developing the mining innovation hub

Over a year ago, staff at CRC ORE were debating how to maximise the impact of the organisation’s work on the Australian mining industry. As a collaborative research centre (CRC) responsible for furthering research to optimise resource extraction (ORE), the organisation’s key objective is to ensure that it delivers significant economic, environmental and social benefits to Australia.

CRC ORE’s mining participants including BHP, Anglo American, Teck Resources, Glencore, Anglo Gold Ashanti, Sumitomo and Newcrest, which have a large global presence. As research and projects evolved, it was apparent that a significant portion of the CRC ORE work was concentrated in porphyry copper deposits, with site trials being undertaken principally in overseas operations at the participants’ request.

These trials have generated excellent results and created productive collaboration between site personnel and CRC ORE. They have also effected deep partnerships  involving miners, mining equipment, technology and services (METS) companies and researchers. They are, however, sometimes hampered by the sheer logistics and difficulties in operating at overseas locations. CRC ORE needed to find a way to foster similarly effective collaboration and mine site activity closer to home.

The idea soon took hold for the development of a mining innovation hub closer to mining operations in Australia. The reasoning was that such a hub could foster similar cutting-edge research and applied innovation opportunities being developed at CRC ORE for the benefit of smaller or mid-tier miners and METS companies.

So, with thoughts forming of CRC ORE developing a mining innovation hub in Australia, the next challenge was deciding where to locate it for the greatest impact. Kalgoorlie-Boulder was quickly identified as a great location due to its proximal location to a broad sector of the Australian mining industry.

In June 2016, CRC ORE commissioned an initial study, to be undertaken by CRC ORE and Curtin University’s Western Australian School of Mines (WASM), to assess the potential for creating an industry-led technology innovation hub in Kalgoorlie-Boulder. The scope of the study was to:

  • provide some early testing of the concept with industry
  • assess the key issues facing the mining sector in the WA Goldfields region
  • determine what types of activities should be conducted through the hub to solve these issues
  • consider if Kalgoorlie-Boulder was the best location
  • uncover the key challenges in setting up such a hub.

The project team set out on a planned consultation process with industry representatives and other stakeholders to take place over the following six months.

Early investigation uncovered several key problems facing the mining industry in the Goldfields region. Mining companies in the region are often challenged by low grades, increasing costs and limited funds to commission site-specific research to better exploit their reserves. There are also limited examples of effective knowledge sharing amongst sites in the region. Like other mining regions, researchers and METS organisations face difficulties in linking applied research with industrial application though demonstration at working sites. There are limited technical resources in the region to support ongoing product development, and those that are based there are often forced to leave to pursue ongoing professional development elsewhere.

An important question that was raised early on was ‘why should such a hub be based in Kalgoorlie-Boulder and not Perth?’ It was important that such a hub should not merely replicate services already available and supported in Perth.

It became apparent that there was good reason to consider Kalgoorlie-Boulder over Perth. For a start, there are many operating mine sites and development projects relatively close by. This provides a unique opportunity to link key technologies to operating sites and enables easier access to conduct larger scale bulk pilot testing campaigns. There was also diverse range of geological and mineralisation styles ideal for technology development and application. It also provides a great opportunity for industry professional development training, from operator level through to senior management, which will grow capability and capacity within Western Australia.

The area is known for its strong small business capability and has a culture of regional entrepreneurship and innovation. The WASM campus is already well established and has close industry links, partly via its devoted alumni, which will give the project a great head start.

In addition to the early support from WASM, CRC ORE was conscious that there were other potential founding partners that would be interested in exploring the development of the hub in Kalgoorlie-Boulder.

CRC ORE already had a collaborative partnership with the Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia (MRIWA). MRIWA had signed up as an essential participant to CRC ORE II, and its participant contribution had been directed towards funding several CRC ORE research projects. This included the development of GE View, an initiative to develop the potential of the vast GeoVIEW.WA database by applying Grade Engineering® tools to uncover new economic opportunities within the deposits listed.

It was also apparent that a mining innovation hub would closely align with the aims of the federal government’s mining growth centre, METS Ignited. The hub could neatly support METS Ignited’s Living Labs concept and could also contribute to its efforts to establish a mining cluster in the Goldfields region.

The hub also has synergy with the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s growth plan and the development of a science precinct in the city. An earlier report, commissioned by the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder and the Goldfields-Esperance Development Commission, recommended specifically that a ‘sustainable mining technology services cluster’ be established in the region to take advantage of its comparative advantage in mineral extraction. CRC ORE believes that the mining innovation hub concept could deliver this.

All parties engaged during the consultation phase supported the mining innovation hub concept. Some important feedback was that the hub must:

  • Be sustainable in the long term. There is some history of initiatives being funded for initial infrastructure and early development without consideration of support for ongoing operational requirements.
  • Should not compete with existing organisations.
  • Must be driven by industry and industry needs.
  • Should fit with the regional growth plan.
  • Should be independently managed and not for profit. This provides the opportunity to provide independent evaluation and advice without commercial interest.

CRC ORE has recognised that the hub’s long term viability will only be assured if it delivers tangible value from the start. The lean start-up model is favoured, with a focus on minimal infrastructure and overheads at the beginning with emphasis on getting some projects underway. The initial concept has CRC ORE managing the hub for a period, utilising the existing CRC ORE project management and governance framework, and then transitioning to a separate independently managed entity over time.

Being industry-directed is critical. CRC ORE would be proposing the early establishment of an advisory council with a majority of METS and mining company representation, along with subsidiary relevant stakeholders including research entities and local, state and federal governments.

Having completed the pre-feasibility phase of the project, work now moves to a more detailed study phase with deeper engagement with industry and other stakeholders. This is scheduled to be completed by Q3 2017. The aim is to have the framework in place and activities up and running by the end of 2017, subject to relevant management and board level approvals.

A breakfast was held during the Austmine 2017 conference in Perth to promote the initial hub concept. Sponsored by CRC ORE, Curtin University and MRIWA, the breakfast was attended by a range of researchers, regional mining company and METS representatives along with other government representatives. There was significant interest and broad support for the concept and CRC ORE has since fielded several expressions of interest from people wanting to learn more and get involved.

Already three or four interesting research project opportunities have been identified and are now being scoped with involvement from several local mining companies, METS companies and researchers.

These include a project to undertake a Grade Engineering® (screening/differential blasting/particle sorting) study to define opportunity in a local gold-nickel mine; and another to conduct bulk grade by size testing on samples from a gold site, as well as investigating the opportunity to upgrade a marginal grade stockpile at another site using Grade Engineering® principles through a combination of screening and particle sorting.

Several PhD student projects are being considered, including Grade Engineering® and downstream processing impacts in a lithium deposit; Grade Engineering® strategic mine planning and optimisation in underground operations; and a broader project considering the development, adoption and sustainability of technology in the Goldfields region.

It is intended that the hub would be available to all entities and provide an avenue for the potential development of multiple research and innovative projects, not just those initiated by CRC ORE or its primary collaborative partners.

While more work needs to be done to move the project from concept to reality, early feedback and interest is indicating the development of a mining innovation hub in Kalgoorlie-Boulder has merit and could be another important step in establishing Kalgoorlie-Boulder as a centre of excellence in mining technology development and knowledge transfer. The long-term vision would see it recognised as a centre for METS companies and researchers to embed their technologies with a clear pathway to utilisation in the region, Australia and, ultimately, internationally.  

For more information please contact Clytie Dangar, General Manager Stakeholder Engagement at CRC ORE by email: c.dangar@crcore.org.au.

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