Next-Generation Mining

A Vision for the Future

Safe, sustainable, socially conscious, digitally connected and autonomous are the catchwords of ‘the mine of the future’. Both juniors and producers subscribe to this vision, while service and equipment providers are playing their part in turning the vision into reality. But first, license operators and supportive businesses alike must tackle current realities, the practical matters of implementing ESG practices in West Africa, and the risks of not doing so.

The social element

Simon Meadows Smith, the managing director of SEMS Exploration Services, thinks the social impact is the most delicate part of ESG in West Africa because mining can be a completely new activity for many local communities who live in remote areas and may have never come into contact with miners before. Early dialogue is crucial, stresses Smith. Junior companies seem to follow this rule, engaging from the beginning with their host communities through consultation work. The worst that a junior can do is not speak to local chiefs and dwellers before an upcoming drilling program, warns Peter Ledwidge, founder and CEO of junior company Mako Gold (ASX: MGK): “This is the quickest way to turn a community against you.”

Mako Gold has hired an international consultancy company to make sure its CSR mandate is well thought through and its staff receives the right training in order to liaise with local communities at its Napié project in Ivory Coast. Juniors can also contribute through small material investments which bring mutual benefits and which are tailored to the needs of the community. Mako has contracted Geodrill to install a water bore and it is fixing the local roads shared between locals and the operator. With a longer history in its host country, GoviEx Uranium (TSXV: GXU) wants to forge synergies with local NGOs in Niger as a way to increase the scale of its community programs in education, health, access to water and sustainable farming.

The attention that juniors pay to the social license before a mining license is a mark of business pragmatism aside from other moral concerns. In a recent survey by EY Mining & Metals, more than half of global mining executives identified the social license as the biggest risk to their business. Moving up to the producers, host communities are gradually regarded as shareholders more than stakeholders, an attitude applauded, in turn, by listed shareholders. Big mining operators have formalized investment mechanisms to make sure company gains translate into community gains. Gold Fields (JSE: GFI) has invested over US$79 million through its Gold Fields Foundation in Ghana in the last two decades. For every oz of gold produced, Gold Fields sets aside US$1 for the fund, topped up with 1.5% profit after tax. In June this year, Endeavour Mining (TSX: EDV) launched the Endeavour Foundation with a base in Abidjan; this will be a vehicle for investing in host communities. In Burkina Faso, Russian mining company Nordgold has invested in the development of a community forest in the province of Outbritenga.

Energy & electrification

Most mining companies have officially set internal carbon targets. Trevali (TSX: TV) is working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 25% between 2018 to 2025. Endeavour wants to become net-zero by 2050. In 2021, Resolute Mining (ASX: RSG) determined a target of 30% GHG emissions by 2025 against 2015 levels. Because energy consumption is one of the main GHG sources, these producers have first checked their energy supply. This year, Resolute installed a large off-grid hybrid power plant at its highly automated Syama mine in Mali, a process commissioned by Aggreko. The plant will use a combination of thermal, solar and battery stored energy. While producers are in the process of shifting, gradually, to alternative power sources, juniors are taking the opportunity to set the foundations for non-diesel operations. Montage Gold (TSXV: MAU) has chosen an LNG-solar hybrid plant for its Koné project in Ivory Coast, whereas Cora Gold (LON: CORA) will power its accommodation camps for Sanankoro with solar hybrid electricity.

Sustainability is only one of the reasons why hybrid combinations of solar, LNG and batteries are chosen. In fact, the replacement of diesel generators with greener alternatives is both cheaper (Resolute will be saving about 40% of energy costs at Syama) and more practical (Syama, Sanankoro nor Koné being connected to the main power grids). The same is true for many mines in the region. “The West African energy landscape has drastically changed over the last six years as natural gas was discovered offshore Ghana and Ivory Coast. LNG pipelines are currently being tracked from Ghana into Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, so I expect this will become a very popular energy alternative,” said Hugh Stuart, the CEO of Montage Gold.

Genser Energy, a Washington-headquartered electricity and LNG supplier with a West African focus, has recently worked with Orezone (TSXV: ORE) to supply clean LNG-and-solar hybrid power at the Bomboré project. Bomboré will be the first mine in Burkina Faso to use LNG, but it will certainly not be the last one, as Genser entered an agreement with the Burkinabe government to supply LNG to the national grid.

Genser is expanding its services from Ghana into the Sahelian countries with an offer of both renewables and tracked LNG from Ghana: “We want to provide countries like Burkina Faso the opportunity to reduce energy generation costs and cut back on their carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions. Having gold mines as foundational customers in LNG infrastructure also enables the country to industrialize. For instance, rather than building a straight-line gas network in Ghana, we routed the pipeline so that different industries and mining sites can utilize the line today or in 10 years,” said its CEO and founder Baafour Asiamah-Adjei.

Ghana’s energy scene is quite different from the rest of the region as Ghana produces an energy surplus that it exports to other countries. Yet, there are still gaps in its supply. Officially, 84% of the Ghanaian population has access to electricity, but the supply is often of low quality and unreliable, with low voltages that do not support large-scale appliances. Also, the 84% electrification rate does not include informal dwellings and new buildings. By 2024, Ghana aims to provide 100% of its population with access to electricity. Behind the posted high electricity supply, the country still has what Asiamah calls “suppressed demand:” “Ghana’s energy surplus is only apparent, and the huge growth opportunities for both the grid and for private enterprises are immense when we think high-quality and long-term.”

With a mission to “electrify African countries,” electric cable supplier Nexans Kabelmetal finds a good opportunity in Ghana’s expansionary demand for both conventional cables, but also for solar DC cables.

The company is the first local producer of DC solar cables in Ghana, an investment it has made with the future in mind: “Preparing to meet that future demand, we decided to develop the DC solar cables locally, even though sales for these products are relatively low at this moment. We are nevertheless optimistic that solar power will be growing in the country because this is a cheap energy source and there is mounting pressure from both the international community and the private sector,” said Eric Waldner, CEO of Nexans Kabelmetal Ghana.

The switch from fossil fuel sources to battery stored energy also includes mining equipment and vehicle suppliers. Large OEMs like Epiroc are committed to having all of the equipment portfolio battery-powered by 2030. “Electrification is already a game-changer in the industry. We want to align our operational culture with that of our clients and to drive change,” said Anders Berglund, regional general manager at Epiroc West Africa, but not without cautioning that it is difficult to predict the rate of change, and that electric vehicles will likely co-exist with diesel-fueled machines.

It is reasonable to ask whether West Africa is ready for a big electrification transition or is this a superfluous trend in a region where some countries still have an unstable power supply or rely on coal to produce energy. Battery-powered machines and vehicles would only make sense if the source of energy is clean, argues Stephen Smithyman, the CEO of Kanu Equipment, the continent’s leading dealer for Liebherr and Bell equipment: “Realistically, Africa is not at a stage where it can adopt electric equipment. The general power sources would have to be revisited if we are to strive towards a holistic green economy.”

Alternative fuels, recycling, and waste management

While mass electrification remains tied to the greenification of power sources, West African mining service providers bring other innovative solutions to help alternate from fossil fuels and to recycle waste materials, though these efforts lack the policy support to warrant broad-based application. They do not, however, lack the industry’s receptivity.

Swedish vehicle manufacturer Scania has introduced in the transport sector alternative fuels like methanol and biofuels, which are enjoying a good reception in countries with inadequate energy supply. James Awumee, mining manager at Scania, also shared other ways through which the mining industry can reduce energy use: “Haulage represents about 40% of the overall energy consumption within the mining industry. We design engines and equipment with energy efficiency in mind. We also support customers to optimize their operations through specialist training to reduce their carbon footprint and costs: For example, the driving style contributes significantly to energy consumption patterns and properly-trained drivers can save up to 10% on fuels.”

Going deeper into the mining value chain, from mining vehicles, to vehicle tires, Canadian company Kal Tire offers “everything around the wheel” products and services – from tire management, repair and retreading, to tire and product supply. Because the production of tires is both energy and carbon-intensive, Kal Tire has come up with solutions to prolong the life of the tire, running the only off-the-road (OTR) retread plant in West Africa. The retreading of earthmoving tires is a remanufacturing process of a worn tread with a new one. The Canadian manufacturer has launched an accredited “Maple Program” through which it rewards customers that buy retreaded tires: “The customer receives maple leaves according to the percentage of their fleet that runs on retreads, recorded in an annual certificate that also showcases the total CO2 and oil savings made through retreading tires. Customers can then show evidence of their carbon-reducing initiatives in their Sustainability Reports,” said Darren Flint, VP UK and West Africa, Kal Tire’s Mining Tire Group.

“Africa presents great opportunities for clean energy as it is home to powerful running waters lending themselves to hydropower stations, but also abundant sunlight that can be captured for solar power. Once Africa unlocks its hydro and solar power potential, it could become a leader in clean energy generation, and consequentially, electrification.”

Stephen Smithyman, CEO, Kanu Equipment

But beyond that, West Africa has no end-of-life solutions for used tires. After the Chilean government imposed a recycling legislation on used tires, Kal Tire has built a recycling plant where worn-out mining tires are recycled through thermal conversion. “Such a directive is inexistent in West Africa, but we’d be pleased to work with the large mining companies in the region to advocate for the introduction of tire recycling legislation in Ghana,“ said Flint.

For a long time, the general sustainability approach has been focused on avoiding immediate issues. Water management company Veolia has noted that mining companies are increasingly more preoccupied with sustainability beyond their operations and are thinking more about the mine’s future rehabilitation as well as fixing past issues: “Many if not all mines in Ghana are facing issues with brine management, because the treatment installed in the past resulted in the large production of brines, concentrating the pollution rather than eliminating it for good,” explained Laurent Piat, the managing director of Veolia Ghana.

Veolia is looking at various long-term solutions to deal with this challenge. At AngloGold’s Obuasi mine the company is running a feasibility study of the water management process, conducting pilot tests to reduce the salts build up in the water system: “We are looking at the best ways to deconcentrate the brine produced by the reverse osmosis process to make sure that mining operations over the next 25 years will not be affected by saturated salts concentrations,“ said Piat.

Digitalization and automation

“The mining industry talks a lot about digitalization, machine learning, AI and so on, but the implementation is lagging. I believe this has to start top-down, with the CEOs buying into the benefits of digitalization not just for operational data but also for ESG data, ” said Viv Preston, director at data management company maxgeo.

maxgeo sells software and digital solutions for the mining markets in Australia, Africa and Canada. Over the past two decades, maxgeo has witnessed the mining industry grappling with digitalization by excessively focusing on the administrative role rather than the end user or consumer. Today, however, Preston thinks the world has come to a point where it can divide digitalization into “the last 20 years” and “the next 20 years,” the demand for data accessibility and data transparency growing exponentially during the pandemic. Preston’s colleague, EMEA manager Maryke Maree, said: “I would like to see a mining and exploration environment that is actually embracing that ‘mine of the future’ concept and that has gone completely digital.”

Across the value chain, digitalization and automation offer the mining industry more customized services with precise outcomes and trackable performance. The blasting industry has been among the first to advance these technologies, driven by a safety imperative. Innovations in blasting technologies follow two key trends, informs Bernard Kaninda, Africa regional director at Maxam: technologies that adapt to the geology of each rock and digital technologies to store blasting data on the cloud. Maxam’s X-Energy integrated energy application system combines both smart explosives tech (Smart Rioflex) and cloud tech (the Maxam Blast Center). The result is an interactive model where blasting can be tailored to the geology of the rock and the explosion adjusted to the density of the rock. The technology is now adopted by three West African operators.

Blasting companies are also moving a step further towards autonomous tools. Orica launched the FRAGTrack fragmentation measurement tool, which gives real-time analysis and insights on the outcome of the blasting process. The technology was already implemented at Newmont’s Akyem mine in Ghana last year where two FRAGTrack cameras were installed on two Liebherr 9400 face shovels. The cameras give spatial coordinates and timestamps which allows the client to accurately attribute the results to a specific blast. “Orica is envisioning an autonomous future: We are already using wireless detonators known as WebGen in Syama, Mali, and we are in engagement with Newmont’s Subika UG to run some trials in the coming few months. This application significantly reduces safety risks by removing people from the brows and rills, and enhances productivity significantly, especially in underground operations,” said Martin Addy, territory manager for explosives at Orica Ghana.

Though companies like Epiroc or Orica might have equipment ready for digitalization and automation, digital infrastructure lacunas, including a lack of qualified people and poor internet connection, are slowing adoption.

Images courtesy of Endeavour Mining, Genser and Firefinch