Comminution and Material Handling
Technological advancements to lower carbon footprints and increase efficiency
Concentration begins with comminution, involving crushing and wet grinding, which consumes around 50% of mine site energy and is the process representing the largest or second-largest capital and operating expenses. Considering the energy-intensive nature of comminution, the circuit design of the process can make or break an operation’s profit margins, which is decided upon primarily based on the ore’s characteristics, plant capacity and product size. A traditional option for circuit design is SAG milling, however, there are more than 20 variations or alternatives to it.
The SAG circuit is considered due to its capacity to process high tonnages. However, it is one of the most inefficient circuits of comminution. If the ore characteristic allows for it, then the use of high pressure grinding rolls is more energy-efficient. Hofmann Engineering is investing in innovations in HPGRs. “We are always looking at opportunities to carry out product improvement on the components we manufacture through redesigning, using better materials, heat treatment and machining processes to aim for longer lifetime and therefore lower operational costs,” commented Simao Antunes, general manager of Hofmann in South America.
On the other hand, Weir Minerals supplies Enduron HPGRs, which maximize crushing pressure using large lateral walls to ensure the materials do not exit the high-pressure area without undergoing crushing first. As a result, it decreases energy consumption by up to 40% compared to traditional grinding circuits.
As for innovation in mills, ME Elecmetal is using sensors to reduce downtime by ensuring the right amount of tension on the bolts. The company launched several initiatives to introduce smart mill liners. “ME PolyFIT products are part of a new generation of mill liners that combine different materials including rubber, castings, steel plates and ceramics among others, that fit each operation depending on the type of ore and operational conditions,” elaborated José Pablo Domínguez, general manager of ME Elecmetal in South America.
"We are always looking at opportunities to carry out product improvement on the components we manufacture through redesigning, using better materials, heat treatment and machining processes to aim for longer lifetime and therefore lower operational costs.”
Simao Antunes, General Manager South America, Hofmann Engineering
The use of data analytics
Data has been granted the title of ‘the new gold’ in recent years, as its processing and analysis can lead to considerable improvements in operations and efficiency as well as reducing costs. Data is relevant to every stage of mining, from exploration to production and mine closure. It is also pivotal in enhancing operational safety during blasting in underground and open-pit operations. “The mining industry today leverages vanguard technologies in its processes, such as automated or remote-controlled machinery and smart sensors for the collection and analysis of large amounts of data,” stated Roberto Saragoni, operations manager of Sistemas de Transporte de Materiales (STM), a bulk material handling equipment provider. “Real-time data from these sensors attached to material handling equipment helps to optimize performance by reducing maintenance stops.”
According to Eduardo Gorchs, CEO of Siemens in South America (without Brazil), Chile is leading the digitization efforts of data acquisition and analysis in material handling. “Peru is seen as a world leader in digital mining, but many digitalization technologies for mining are developed in Chile as a hub,” he confirmed. “One of these digitization initiatives is conveyer belt monitoring, where data is sent to a cloud system which allows for building a digital twin of the conveyer itself.”
"We are incorporating digitalization as part of its internal solutions and approach. For example, we operate using sensors to reduce the downtime of the mills by assuring the right tension on the bolts to avoid failure."
José Pablo Domínguez, General Manager South America, ME Elecmetal
The amount of data collected every day at mine sites is immense, and it is difficult to identify which could be of use to enhance operational efficiency, especially since data and analytics tools are still at the beginner stage in the industry. Many companies are still working on the advancement and development of data analytics tools across machinery and equipment components, such as Fast Pack, Bosch Rexroth, Outotec Metso and Weir Minerals.
The prevalent use of real-time data analytics in the mining industry is to predict when a piece of equipment or machinery could fail. For example, Bosch Rexroth uses Internet-of-Things (IoT) in its connected hydraulics solutions to predict unplanned system downtimes. Weir Minerals also leverages IoT with smart sensors on its products. “It collects vital operational data that is transformed more visually to the customer through a digital interface,” elaborated Ricardo Garib, president of Weir Minerals. “The service provided by the platform allows problems to be identified before they occur, reducing downtime and optimizing equipment performance throughout a circuit. Equipment wear and tear can be easily controlled and trouble spots can be detected before they become major problems.”
Even though the use of data will revolutionize mines’ efficiency, it is challenging to source data from multiple platforms and equipment onto one system to make informed decisions. The industry has only scratched the surface of data analytics and there remains significant room for development. For example, an area of potential growth using data analytics is the logistics aspect of the industry, which tends to be the most inefficient process.
Barriers and challenges to mining technology
There is no doubt that the industry is keen to promote and incorporate technologically advanced equipment and machinery into its open-pit and underground operations, however, it remains risk-averse regarding introducing or allowing piloting of new technologies at mine sites, which is key to developing any new technology. Therefore, new technologies must be introduced through cooperation with piloting centres, such as Ciptemin. “Ciptemin is financed publicly and focuses on providing the means to trial mining technology,” explained Cynthia Torres, executive director of the company. “We offer test spaces imitating real operational conditions at the industrial and semi-industrial level so that the supplier can validate their solutions. Once the technology is tested successfully, the supplier is granted a certificate and proceeds with commercialization separately.”
Following the successful trial of the new mining technology, the next step is more crucial: implementation. This stage could pose a challenge to the process if the workforce lacks the necessary skills to correctly execute it. The implementation process challenge was amplified under the health crisis’ travel restrictions. Sandvik, for example, responded by establishing the Sandvik Digital Training Centre, allowing for remote training options for employees and customers’ technicians.
Meanwhile, Epiroc has a new approach to ensuring a highly-skilled workforce “We are recruiting professionals from other industries such as communication who quickly adapt to the software, as well as expats from Venezuela in the case of El Escondida,” commented Izzo.
Finally, another challenge and risk that tends to be overlooked as mining companies move to modernize their mines is cybersecurity. As the industry opens up to internet-connected technologies, it also opens itself up to cyberattack vectors that must be addressed through proper internal controls, or else it risks crippling operations by a single attack.
Ramon Opazo, CEO of Antirion, a leading software provider for mining companies in Chile, stated: “The Chilean mining market is aware of the importance of preventing cybersecurity breaches. There is an improvement in technological culture; however, we believe that progress can be made in some areas.”
Image courtesy of Freeport-McMoRan