Robots and deep sea worms: The future of mining

Other News Materials 27 August 2008 02:01 (UTC +04:00)

Global mining innovation, which has been treading water for about half a century, could be about to break out as it looks to robots and giant ocean bed worms for inspiration, according to mine technology experts, Reuters reported.

Miners will have to start spending more on innovation as they tackle tougher terrain to reach riches, said Sverker Hartwig, head of technology and an inventor at global mine machinery maker Atlas Copco.

"Here is the problem. Surface mines are going deeper and deeper and ore grades on a global scale are getting lower and lower," Hartwig told Reuters during a recent interview in Chile, a copper mining powerhouse.

Just as metals are experiencing one of the longest price "up" cycles in recent history, mines that have fed demand for decades are aging and miners are scrambling to find new ways to retrieve dwindling resources.

Whether it is drilling into ocean beds or digging further into the earth's surface in remote jungles, miners are going to have to find new ways to extract minerals faster to take advantage of booming commodities prices.

For Hartwig, the last major innovation in the industry was in 1958, with the Rubber Wheel Articulated Loader, a mechanical shovel that replaced most rail-bound mining by the 1970s.

"Many of the new underground mines which are planned are very deep, very large and in some cases with very bad rock, and the investments they need to do in money and time are completely unbelievable," he said.

It can cost between $50 million and $100 million to find a decent minable resource. It costs a further $1 billion to build a traditional "block-caving" mine, popular for low-grade, underground deposits.

The cost and time scales are intimidating to company boards reluctant to bet the farm on mines that will not provide cash flow for at least another decade.

"If they could cut that time by 30 percent, they would be making so much more money it would be incredible," said Greg Baiden, who holds the Canadian Research Chair in Robotics and Automation at Canada's Laurentian University.

"Mostly, everybody is just dipping their toe in the water these days in terms of innovation," Baiden, who is working on ways to make mines completely automated, said after attending a recent mining technology seminar in Santiago.

Miners and industry inventors agree the need for speed will drive new technologies in the industry in coming years and that as well as new ways to dig, innovation will manifest in cost savings, new processing technology, more efficient use of water and energy resources and automation.

Industry executives interviewed by Reuters said projects to cut costs early in the decade, when metals prices were at rock bottom, are being taken up again in the face of soaring energy, fuel and raw materials costs.

Chile's Codelco, the top world copper producer, is working with institutes to develop new geophysical and geochemical technologies, and is now using unmanned monster trucks to haul mineral at its Gaby copper mine in northern Chile.

Work is being done on bioleaching, a biohydrometallurgy method still being perfected by which specific metals are extracted from their ores through the use of bacteria.

On the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, scientists have identified giant tube worms capable of withstanding extremely high temperatures and sulfur levels and whose host bacteria turn carbon molecules and nutrients into organic matter.

"I believe the next breakthrough is going to come when people actually go to mine underwater and bring back a few of these animals and we start putting them to work in our processing plants on the surface," said Baiden, eyes gleaming.