Sustainability-Driven Technological Innovation in the Minerals Industry

By Juliana Segura-Salazar

Sustainability-Driven Technological Innovation in the Minerals Industry

Mining—considered here in a broad sense, which comprises both mineral exploitation and processing operations—has been historically one of the industrial activities that have contributed the most to the economic development of humanity, serving as the basis of several industries including energy, construction, chemical, pharmaceutical, automotive, electronics, aerospace, ceramics, cosmetics, detergents, glass, metals, paints, paper, plastics, and fertilizers, among others. Indeed, mankind continues to rely heavily on metals due to their multiple important characteristics—malleability, ductility, electrical and thermal conductivity, and durability—which make them a very good and cost-effective option for several applications. Such metals are mainly obtained from primary resource extraction, and this scenario will certainly remain unchanged in the next several decades. This will continue as such despite all recent efforts towards improving the recyclability and circularity of metals contained in the discarded products, as well as other sources of waste associated to mining activities, such as the case of building and construction materials.

Contrasting to the unconstrained growth of the mining industry in the past, there are governments and institutions that have been promoting the vision of the Club of Rome which postulates that economic development based on the continuous increase in extraction of primary mineral resources is not sustainable. The result is that the concepts of sustainability and of sustainable development (SD) have since become progressively incorporated as a priority topic in regional and national government agendas in several developed and developing countries. There is also a general recognition that mining and mineral processing operations present, in general, low conversion efficiencies, high energy intensity, large volumes of tailings and emissions, besides a number of impacts whose magnitudes generally increase as the scale of production is intensified and run-of-mine ore grades drop. All of these contribute remarkably to the ongoing debate whether mining may or not be rigorously considered sustainable.

Sustainability-Driven Technological Innovation

Technological innovation is key for sustainable human development. Along the last centuries, there have been a series of radical technological innovations which have been associated with the different economic cycles. This theory has been supported from a neo-Schumpeterian perspective, rooted in Kondratiev’s work concerning the cyclic phenomena in the modern world economy. Thus, each “Kondratiev cycle” has emerged as a new paradigm in relation to a scenario of economic crisis. In that sense, innovation and wide diffusion of technology have relied on prior development in different areas and have led the way to new cycles of technological innovation. Technological waves started with the industrial revolution, until the more recent information and telecommunication wave. It has even been argued that the “Life Cycle of a Technological Revolution” can last for about half a century. Therefore, the recent economic crises from 2007–2010 could be interpreted as a possible sign of the end of an economic cycle and the beginning of a new wave based on more sustainable modes of production and consumption, led by the resource use efficiency, the use of cleaner technologies, and the valorisation of wastes. In that sense, a series of technological, social and institutional changes occurring simultaneously and focused on the same goal are required.

The mineral sector became innovative particularly from the beginning of the 20th century, with the rapid expansion of electricity as a power source by industry. This led to the development of large-scale machinery—first reducing, then eliminating human muscle—and to the improvement of wear and impact resistance of the materials used in these artefacts and in working tools. Further, mineral resource extraction for use in technologies accelerated particularly since the second half of the 20th century. However, this also implied increasing impacts on soil, air, and water, as well as in the communities located nearby. As such, the availability per se of technological advances does not guarantee that they will be adopted responsibly by the mining industry.

On the other hand, it has been argued that most of these innovations have come from outside of the mining industry, either through transformation industries, suppliers or equipment manufacturers. Indeed, the main focus of these innovations has been to increase the techno-economic feasibility of operations. It has also been established that this industrial sector tends to be perceived as conservative and averse to risk. In fact, there is a tendency to protect the competitive advantage in relation to technological solutions offered by suppliers, which becomes a limitation for publicizing the best technologies and practices in the industry. However, some partnerships have been created between mining companies, governments, and research institutions. An example is the AMIRA International initiative, which has allowed fostering innovation at R&D level in the sector. The need to innovate derives, on one side, from the environmental and social responsibility of mining companies along the life cycle of its projects. On the other hand, this need is connected to the intrinsic uncertainty of the geological materials, and also to the various sources of variability—deposit and ore characteristics, bulk properties, logistics, customer’s needs, commodity prices, etc.—along with the productive chain.

The multiple factors and stakeholders involved in the development of mining activities require adopting innovations in the minerals industry, with the aim of making both present and future operations globally sustainable. As the easily mineable resources become scarce and head grades drop, more complex concentration methods are needed. This is where technological innovation becomes a requirement to make operations more sustainable, so that the real production costs become competitive in the market, the mining waste is reduced, and the resource use efficiency as well as the recovery of the valuable minerals increase, besides reductions in costs and impacts of infrastructure and transport are achieved. Indeed, whereas the supply and demand determine the commodity prices in the short term, technological innovation and its rate of incorporation in operations are key to support the stabilization or even reduction of commodity prices in the long term.

The relatively limited volume of funding for research and development in the minerals industry, when compared to other industrial sectors, does not render it a label of a high-tech industry, in which information technologies are highly incorporated. As such, this is an important path that could be followed in the upcoming years in terms of innovation in the minerals industry: integrating the use of eco-efficient technology with information systems in the production processes, considering the multiple sources of uncertainty, as well as the factors that are either directly or indirectly associated to the mining industry.

Technological innovation aiming at sustainability can also be incorporated from design. From one side, equipment manufacturers can introduce enhancements not only by reducing costs and improving the functionality of artefacts, but also optimizing the use of the materials through dematerialization, recycling and substitution. On the other hand, there is great potential to incorporate innovations in exploitation and processing operations from the conceptual design stage of the mining project. As such, concepts of recycling can also be adopted at this level—for rock waste and tailings, and possibly aiming at recovery from industrial and urban wastes, such as Construction and Demolition Wastes (CDW)— to mitigate the environmental impacts at a larger scale and generate additional social benefits, on the basis of industrial ecology and circular economy principles. There is also enormous potential for eco-efficiency improvement throughout the operation. In the metal production chain, the initial stages up to the ore concentrate production represent an important fraction of the total economic costs per unit of metal produced. These stages are characterized by their high inefficiency, both in metal recovery, and in resource use.

As mentioned, it is possible to take advantage of technological innovations to not only improve economic, but also social and environmental aspects of the mining operations. However, the total socioenvironmental benefits that arise are usually challenged by the drop in ore grades and by the increase in total production, in spite of efficiency improvements. This is, in part, due to the rebound effects, which are difficult to quantify but must be considered with the aim of reaching the SDGs. On the other hand, technological innovations have allowed processing of increasingly complex ores. Traditionally ores in deposits located close to the surface and with relatively high grades have been processed. With the progressive decline in ore quality, added to the social pressures for the use of land, and to the population growth and continuous increase in consumption of goods and services, resources from unconventional sources are being sought, including technologies such as in-situ mining, deep underground mining, deep-sea mining, phytomining and landfill mining. Each one of these options has potential risks, benefits, and impacts in time that need to be investigated and anticipated. As such, metallurgy and particularly mining has great challenges from the technological standpoint, since it has been traditionally focused on the exploitation and processing of minerals that occur naturally and relatively easy to extract. 

Juliana Segura-Salazar
Research Fellow

Juliana Segura-Salazar is currently working with the Imperial College London, Department of Earth Science and Engineering