NRCan Driving Innovation

Janice Zinck, a director at Natural Resources Canada, has confirmed that she will be presenting at Mines and Technology Vancouver in June. We caught up with Janice to hear in advance her views on recent technology innovations and how this might affect the mining sector.

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Janice, as a director of CanmetMINING (a research, development and innovation arm of Natural Resources Canada) can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming presentation? What can delegates expect to learn?

My presentation will focus on how the application of green mining technologies can provide a wide range of benefits. These benefits include not only improved environmental performance, but also significant economic advantages. Through the adoption of green and clean technologies, challenges associated with production, energy, waste and waste efficiency can be addressed. The result is often enhanced community and investor confidence, as well as reputational improvements. 

Janice Zinck

What new technology innovation have you seen over the past 12 months that most excites you, and why?

The pace of technological innovation in the mining sector has been growing rapidly in the past year. We have seen significant adoption of data-driven technologies and approaches. The use of blockchain to support responsible and ethical sourcing is an exciting development that could affect supply chains. The growing development and application of smart sensors is providing improved efficiencies well beyond previous levels. It is estimated that the use of smart sensors could offer in excess of US$30 billion to the mining sector.

One of the most exciting innovations of the past year has been the deployment of the world's first autonomous trains at Rio Tinto's iron ore operations, AutoHaul™. The network includes approximately 200 locomotives and more than 1,700 km of rail lines, which transport ore from 16 mines to four port terminals. 

What can the mining sector learn from other industries when it comes to technology implementation?

Mining companies should look to other industries not just to learn about technology implementation but also to see if technologies from other industries can be applied to mining. A systems integration approach will be needed to maximise technological benefits and adoption potential. As well, collective effort and a commitment to collaborate on key challenges are required. 

When it comes to implementing mining innovation, what is the biggest challenge you have faced, and why?

Due to the nature of the industry, technology scale up and performance confidence remain challenges when implementing innovation changes. The lack of sufficient piloting and demonstration of new technologies will often result in implementation failure, where the change does not result in process improvements or results in expensive operational downtime. Bridging the 'valley of death' between technology development and full-scale commercialisation remains an issue.

In addition, there are regulatory obstacles when it comes to the implementation of new technologies. A rigorous and prescriptive regulatory framework requires that novel technologies provide strong performance data prior to implementation. To minimise the risk of adoption of novel technologies, they require proper scale-up and large-scale demonstration. It not as simple as beta-testing a new IT platform or software. Acquiring accurate performance data is extremely costly but without this information regulators lack predicable assurance. To further complicate the situation, regulations frequently vary across jurisdictions; implementation of technologies allowed in one province may not be supported in another.

Canada has always had a strong mining innovation track record, however in recent years the innovation ecosystem has become fragmented. We need to work together in true partnership with common objectives in order to maximise results and value. 

What have been the most important innovations for the Canadian mining industry?

In recent years, there have been several technological advances in the industry. The transition to data-driven technologies, 'Big Data' and machine learning is accelerating the pace of development for a suite of advanced sensors for everything from ore sorting, rock mass stability, water quality and ventilation to health and safety; and the list goes on. Remote rock breaking, automated hoisting, autonomous vehicles, drones, underground LTE (the 4G-based Long-Term Evolution technology) and 5G networks, and electrification have all been important innovations for the Canadian mining industry. 

What future innovations would be of particular interest to Canada?

Mitigating the impacts of mining and milling will continue to be a driver for innovation as it is a key component in maintaining a license to operate.  With automation and machine learning will come improved worker safety and environmental performance, as well as help to address predicted worker shortages. The digitisation will provide improved transparency and greater opportunity for performance optimisation.

Ultimately, the application of advanced technologies will increase resource extraction efficiency and eventually shrink the mining footprint. In addition, the use of technologies for remote operations (such as small modular reactors) and more selective mining innovations will become more and more important as access to deposits becomes more challenging. 

What role does the Canadian Government play in facilitating, or implementing, innovation in the mining sector?

The Canadian government plays several important roles in the mining innovation ecosystem. The federal government works with provincial and territorial governments, industry and other interested parties to foster a more effective mining innovation ecosystem to support activities across all phases of the mineral development cycle. The recently released Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan (CMMP) presents a strategy for mining innovation in Canada. As well, under Natural Resources Canada, CanmetMINING works with mining stakeholders to develop and assess green and transformative mining technologies. 

Programmes led by CanmetMINING include Green Mining Innovation (now in its 10th year), the Rare Earth Elements and Chromite R&D programme aimed at providing the technological innovation to bring Canada deposits to production, and the newly launched Mining Value from Waste programme (a pan-Canadian initiative to address tailings and other waste through reprocessing, repurposing and liability reductions). 

Janice Zinck will be presenting at Mines and Technology Vancouver in June. 

Chris Hinde

Chief Commentator, Mining Beacon

Previously editorial director of Mining Journal, and more recently head of S&P Global Market Intelligence's metals and mining team, Chris is now Mining Beacon's editor-in-chief and lead commentator. He posts two blogs every week, one on Monday reviewing market conditions over the prior week, and a second on Thursday looking at issues on the global mining scene. There is also a quarterly blog on business opportunities in the sector.