Globally, miners are faced with increasing headwinds that are combining to erode operating margins. Declining ore body grades and fewer skilled workers are increasing production costs while fluctuating global commodity prices add to an air of uncertainty. Despite the fact that companies are focused on corporate and social responsibility (CSR), they are being hit with growing demands and rents from local governing bodies.
In search of a competitive advantage, miners are focusing on productivity improvements, which can have immediate impacts on the bottom line. The effect is significant as stated by BHP Chief Executive Andrew Mackenzie: “For us, every 1 percent improvement in productivity translates to a $170 million saving.”
The use of technology is gaining traction as a means to help companies improve productivity. Miners have always relied on data for their operations, and today’s technologies can help harness even more data that can open doors to improved business efficiencies. Take wireless, for example. It is a proven technology already in use in many mines, primarily in the pit to track mobile equipment, but can be used throughout a facility to access applications that were previously too expensive to measure or simply could not be measured using wires.
Deploying wireless measurements opens a host of opportunities for better mine productivity and safety performance. From automating remote leaching pads to gaining insight into rotating equipment to measuring for environmental compliance, wireless will help facilities improve recovery rates, move to zero harm exposure, and help meet CSR pacts.
One Example: Improving Worker Safety and Mineral Recovery in Leaching. When a company develops a heap leach, millions of dollars are typically invested in the design and operating parameters for a given pad. Although the leaching process has been used in mining for hundreds of years, automation has not progressed much beyond measuring leaching solution flow into the pad and the heap leachate flow from the pad. Often too, measurements on the pad are performed manually and operations do not have insight into potential operational problems unless a visual inspection is conducted.
Oxide leaching uses either a spray or drip system, and in either case, one of the chief problems experienced is the plugging of these lines. Once a line plugs under a given pressure, solution is applied to other parts of a pad in excess of design rates. Not only does over application of leaching solution increase acid use and cost, it can cause localized flooding and compromised safety when an unsuspecting worker walks on a structurally weakened pad zone.
So why doesn’t anyone measure for this plugging now? Simply put, it’s not very practical given the remote location of leach pads, and the fact that electrical wires corrode and fail because of the acid used in the process. Wireless solves these problems and enables operators to detect plugging remotely. With remote data access, leaks can be detected and contained by controlling pressure so that design rates of acid application can be maintained. Miners can even design a system with wireless valves where flow can be modulated to certain zones remotely. Through this automation, both safety and operations are improved—workers no longer have to visit the pad and the proper amount of leaching solution is continually maintained for optimal recovery.
After installing wireless sensing on this leach pad, this mining company was able to increase copper recovery, reduce acid use, and reduce leach pad collapses. The project paid for itself in less than six months.