The need for the mining industry to embrace innovation has been spoken about many times.
And Dominic Fragomeni says many companies have done some amazing things and there’s plenty of large and small ways the industry can continue its transformation.
The vice president of Expert Process Solutions, a Glencore company, says after 30 years in almost every aspect of mining, he’s had time to think about some opportunities in the industry.
He shared his thoughts and experiences with the Canadian Institute of Mining (CIM) Sudbury branch on April 25 at Dynamic Earth as a distinguished lecturer for their last general membership meeting of the season.
His talk covered many areas, but focused on the mineral processing step, where rocks are crushed and turned into ore concentrate. Often overlooked for innovation, he said it is at this step companies can start to extract more value from ore by making it much more efficient and increase the economic viability of an operation.
Part of the presentation included projects Glencore is working on to bring to the market, as well as others being developed.
He explained there is a difference between research and development and innovation.
“Research and development is taking some funding and turning it into an idea, innovation is the other way around,” he said.
Fragomeni said for him, research and development in the industry has to have some kind of business advantage, be it environmental, quality of life or licence to operate.
It should also change how people live, using how evolving methods of communication is changing the way society runs.
How innovation comes about is a hot topic of debate. Some believe it happens with dramatic leaps forward with high risk and big rewards, others feel it happens with small, incremental changes and continuous improvement.
Fragomeni explained the industry focuses too much on the transformational innovation. Continuous improvement is another way the industry can make significant gains.
“Sometimes it takes a little bit longer, but it makes a difference. We need to look at both,” he said. “There is a need to have some transformational innovation, because you can’t leap across a chasm in two small leaps.”
Globally, Canada is falling behind with its research and development in mining, he said. A 2015 report by McKinsey and Company showed mining activity plateaued over the past decade. It made recommendations, including focusing more in innovation.
He pointed out much of his presentation took material and information from other sources and people, but wanted to show how mining has been relying a lot on decades old technologies and processes, with a focus on mineral processing.
“The process starts with we take these big rocks and we make little ones out of them, and you can say that’s exciting,” he joked. “We’ve been doing it almost the same way for a long time.”
He pointed out the design for a standard crusher machine used to break rocks down hasn’t changed in decades. Part of the reason is they work very well, but it’s time to start exploring other options.
He described mineral processing as the middle child of mining. Like the stereotype, it gets overlooked in favour of the more expensive mine and smelter processes. More resources are poured into getting the rocks out of the mine, then smelted and the metals to market.
Most of the time mineral processing is lower cost. Even then, Fragomeni said about three per cent of the world’s energy goes to breaking rocks. Any incremental change to this process can make a big difference to the industry and environment.
There are a multitude of ways the mineral processing phase could become more efficient. The current model is drill, blast and muck, but other options are being considered, from cutting rocks, to sorting rocks right at the face.
“This could move the mineral processing plant as close as possible to the face,” he said.
There have already been many industry-changing innovations, including sulphur dioxide management.
Fragomeni related when he was a child growing up in the city going outside and the air was blue from smelter emissions. It’s been a remarkable transformation in the Sudbury Basin, he said, with the mills being integral.
“For a long time it has been a smelter story, and in many ways it is where the ore is heated and the (sulphur dioxide) is captured,” he said.
But it is also a milling story. What isn’t recognized is how much of the mineral that contains the vast majority of the sulphur is rejected in the concentrators. The recovery of nickel stays the same and has even gone up.
Fragomeni is giving this presentation with CIM branches and at special events across Canada.
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