Triggered by intense scrutiny from investors, customers and supply chain partners, the mining industry is stepping up to the sustainability challenge. By mid-2021, S&P Global reported on its Market Intelligence website that seven of the world’s 10 biggest metals and mining companies had pledged to reach net-zero emissions or achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier.
But promises are no longer enough for the industry’s stakeholders; they want proof of how companies plan to achieve their goals. “With each passing year, pension funds, institutional investors, and the environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment community demand more specifics about how companies plan to move from strategy to execution,” consulting firm Deloitte reported in its Tracking the trends 2021 report.
At Gold Fields, a leading global gold producer, innovating to decarbonize operations has become a business imperative.
“It takes tremendous resources and support from within companies to set targets and align with the industry movement towards decarbonization,” said Gavin Mann, mining studies manager at Gold Fields in Australia. “But doing nothing isn’t an option. The conversation around decarbonization has really been heating up, especially in the last 18 months or so in the mining space. A green profile is becoming a requirement for entering the industry, and it makes access to capital easier.”
As a result, Gold Fields is embracing renewable energy technology to reduce Scope 1 (generated on-site) and Scope 2 (off-site sources such as power generation) carbon emissions in its Australian operations.
“Around 60% to 70% of our on-site infrastructure runs on electricity, so the low-hanging fruit is to transition to the most readily available carbon-reducing technology in the market,” Mann said. “We often operate in remote locations, so renewable energy micro-grid power setups give us some independence from larger scale power. That gives us control over our Scope 2 emissions and enables a big step toward our carbon reduction target. In addition, as the cost of renewable power is now equivalent or marginally better than carbon alternatives, a roadmap is emerging for the electrification of vehicles and other carbon-producing equipment on site.”
Gold Fields is not working alone. As part of the Electric Mine Consortium (EMC), the company is collaborating with mining and technology providers around the world to achieve the speed and scale of innovation needed to accelerate sustainability across the industry’s complex supply chains.
“The EMC includes battery suppliers, original equipment manufacturers and other players in the market who are keen to define, develop and demonstrate the services the industry needs,” Mann said. “Government groups are also eager to jump in behind that with job creation and training, to ensure that the relevant skills will be available when they’re needed.”
EMC’s origins lie in a collaborative investigation by global research platform State of Play, to establish the potential value of electrification as a key enabler for decarbonization in mining. It found a strong desire among companies to electrify their operations – along with concerns about a lack of established technologies and processes to help them do it. The result: a resounding demand for companies across the mining value chain to help each other overcome the obstacles.
“Asking companies to redesign their mines and invest in new equipment is a big issue in terms of risk, especially when metal prices are high and their focus is on productivity,” said Graeme Stanway, State of Play’s founder and chairman. “Gold Fields, along with a lot of the base metals producers we were working with, understood that they needed to achieve a certain scale in accelerating trials to influence the supplier ecosystem, shape policy and communicate the benefits. This is what the consortium supports. When companies can see the data and see the solution in action, they’ll push it into their pre-feasibility studies.”
Participating in the EMC gives companies a platform for collaborating with peers across the industry value chain and gaining access to trials and conversations. For instance, Gold Fields and IGO, an Australian metals producer focused on clean-energy materials, are working with universities to advance energy storage design.
“They’re looking at technologies outside lithium, which has some degradation issues, and they’re going to trial large-scale pilots in gravity kinetic batteries, vanadium and sodium,” Stanway said. “Once that technology has been demonstrated, I think we’ll move quickly toward full-scale renewable mines that are self-supporting.”
SCALING UP WITH SIMULATION
New solutions will emerge from collaboration, and the technology used to create and test them at scale is tried, trusted and widely available.
“[Computer] simulation technology – which has been proven in many other industries – brings huge increases in speed and scale and enables people to experience innovative solutions in the virtual world,” Stanway said. “When companies started applying it in the automotive and aerospace industries, for instance, vehicle and aircraft design was quickly transformed. Reliance on decades-old models gave way to the simulation, testing and analysis of multiple design variations – created by humans and algorithms – in the virtual world.”
By using a single source of data to create virtual twins – scientifically accurate, real-time 3D models of entire systems and operating environments – companies across the value chain can collaborate to develop the solutions they need now.
“Companies are looking at how better ore body knowledge can help them optimize mine design in terms of inclines versus shafts, for instance,” Stanway said. “That, in turn, will enable early adoption of different ventilation approaches, or equipment that doesn’t require heavy batteries. Business models are another big innovation area as electrification brings new contracting and financing models, with huge opportunities for service providers to enter the industry and innovate around bottlenecks.”
Being able to rapidly evaluate different scenarios via virtual twins is a big advantage for a company like Gold Fields, Mann said..
“Time is one of our most valuable resources. With simulation, we can quickly gravitate toward the better overall scenarios in terms of mining configuration. We can take it all the way down to the block model, which is the key input to any mine design, and then build a completely different scenario from the ground up. It also enables proactive management against productivity targets. By running simulations to identify the best path for meeting end-of-year goals, you’re putting yourself at least one step ahead of the game, whatever happens. You’re chasing those targets down instead of reacting to events.”
Mining has been slower to embrace simulation technology than some other industries, but the need for rapid progress on sustainability means that the technology’s moment in the industry has now arrived.
“Mining is a variable and sprawling industry where things break, and this might explain why simulation hasn’t yet found the penetration it has in other industries,” Stanway said. “Collaboration changes that. We’re at the start of an exciting curve of applying simulation to risk models, design and commissioning. Within the EMC, even some of our harder-to-convince members have been asking why we weren’t doing this before electrification.”
- Watch a webinar that examines how the mining industry is addressing rising pressure to reduce emissions through energy storage systems
- Read an article in the Sustainable Mining Network community: Electrification of Mining: carbon-free by 2050 and the Electric Mine Consortium.
- Discover why Dassault Systèmes' Michelle Ash believes now is the time for companies across the mining value chain to co-create solutions to reach net-zero