Québec’s mining service industry is at the forefront of the evolution towards the modern mine

BY Ben Cherrington

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Innovative Mining Solutions

February 27, 2019

Image courtesy of DGSC

Volatile commodity prices and a seven-year downturn forced the mining industry to become resourceful and think outside the box to achieve competitive cost structures, optimize processes and enhance security. Traditional methods become obsolete when they no longer guarantee profit, and the necessity to embrace change has fostered a robust, innovative ecosystem of small and medium-sized enterprises, multinationals and research organisations that are creating and developing technologies that are already transforming global mining operations. Québec is at the forefront of this charge, from its world-renowned artificial intelligence (AI) research hub in Montréal to a mature service sector in Val-d’Or that constantly adapts to the evolving market.

Spearheading the development of mining innovation in Québec is COREM, the largest organization in Canada totally devoted to mineral processing research and development (R&D), with six fields of expertise – comminution, physical separation, flotation, extractive metallurgy/ hydrometallurgy, pelletizing/thermal processes, and mineralogy. Based in Québec City, COREM’s facilities include 10,000 square m of offices, labs and pilot plants. A C$16 million project to build a new hydrometallurgy platform, install new equipment and modernize COREM’s buildings is due to be completed by the summer of 2019. Asked about the challenges that the industry must address, COREM’s president and CEO, Francis Fournier, highlighted energy consumption, water use, tailings and environmental issues, and suggested that a value chain-approach is required to maximize the benefits of innovation: “The work done in extraction has an impact on mineral processing as well as on tailings and environment. We cannot continue to develop innovation with a silo approach,” he responded.

This sentiment was echoed by Gianni Bartolacci, director at COREM: “The innovation ecosystem in Canada is fragmented and needs to work together and collaborate in order to fast-track the deployment of the innovation that will bring more value to the industry.”

Réjean Girard, president of IOS Services Géoscientifiques, the independent consulting group servicing Québec’s mining industry for 27 years, sees innovation as a necessity rather than a choice: “We are moving into a time when technology will revolutionize the mining industry. Machines will replace both manual as well as intellectual labor. The industry has no choice other than to adapt and must prepare for the looming technological changes,” he reflected.

 

THE TOOLS AND SOFTWARE DEFINING THE MARCH TOWARDS THE DIGITAL MINE

In 2008, Montréal-based Newtrax Technologies decided to focus 100% of its attention on the digitalization of underground metal mines, with the vision of becoming the global leader in wireless Internet of Things (IoT) and the preferred source of big data for AI, according to Alexandre Cervinka, Newtrax’ president and CEO. To produce this big data, Newtrax designs, builds and globally deploys purpose-built devices to monitor machines, people and the environment in which they operate underground. In the last three years, Newtrax has undergone dramatic growth, from 34 employees in 2016 to 128 today.

Newtrax’ solutions help companies reduce overhead costs and enhance safety. One example is Agnico Eagle’s Goldex mine, which reported significant cost reductions on its tire expenditure and fuel consumption by implementing the Newtrax MET (Mobile Equipment Telemetry) system. Another major to have worked with Newtrax is Goldcorp at its Éléonore mine. After being recognized as the safest mine in Canada in 2016, Goldcorp mandated that its 660 workers wear fully integrated Newtrax-Enabled Personal Safety Devices.

Elaborating on Newtrax’ partnership with the Institute for Data Valorisation (IVADO), whose scientific director Yoshua Bengio is one of the three founders of deep learning, Cervinka explained: “There are three important pillars to deliver value with AI – application knowledge, quality of data, and application of algorithms. In collaboration with IVADO, we have established machine learning pilot projects to test the quality of our datasets to understand if there are any gaps in the way we capture, consolidate and contextualize data.”

Another innovation-focused technology company to have experienced substantial growth in recent years is Maptek, which opened offices in Montréal and Vancouver in 2017, enhancing its international footprint to 14 offices in nine countries. The company attained 37 new mining clients in North America alone in 2018. Speaking of the importance of the Canadian market in a global context, Rob Hardman, GM of Maptek North America, noted: “The Canadian mining industry transcends its own borders. The mines and projects in Canada have a very positive effect on the national economy as well as local communities, and decisions taken daily in headquarters across the country have a significant impact on the global mining industry.”

Maptek’s range of solutions includes BlastLogic, an all-in-one data-management solution that assists with blast implementation decisions; Evolution 5.1 scheduling software, which optimizes net present value using grade cut-off techniques; and PointStudio 8, the latest update of Maptek’s I-Site Studio software, a new-generation 3D platform for modelling, analysis and reporting.

The theme of success in the mining software space continues with Promine, a software company that provides geology and engineering-related tools to exploration and development projects as well as engineering companies and producing mines. Promine had a 20% increase in sales in 2018 and, with a multi-lingual team, intends to penetrate the Latin American market. Highlighting the adaptability of Promine’s service offering as a cost-effective subscription package, Yvan Dionne, founder and president, said: “If a client needs access to a certain function for their system that they have not signed up for, we can unlock this for them within a matter of minutes.”

Montréal is home to numerous French technology companies looking for a North American base – a natural fit due to language, proximity to Europe, and culture. CORALIS, specialists in production planning and monitoring software for the mining industry, has been operating in France for 30 years, and has responded to increasing demand from the North American market by recently opening a Montréal office. Guy Donatini, co-founder and president, is counting on CORALIS’ newly developed cloud software to boost business development: “This technology offers our customers better access to our software and their data, and an even more efficient technical customer service…with its monthly payments, the miner’s cash flow is improved.”

Since its foundation in 1991, Effigis has been pushing the boundaries of innovation, by conducting earth observation (EO) with satellite technology, and is now offering a range of products and solutions that include high-precision mapping from EO data, specialized monitoring tools for electromagnetic leakage, and geospatial data collection. Effigis’ EO division works with geospatial data collection, which surveys underground infrastructure, and has provided information to clients such as Osisko, Azimut, and Glencore. Michel Rheault, vice president of geology at Effigis, characterized the company’s involvement in mineral discovery: “We first help clients understand the geology of the area they operate in by providing more accurate mineral information and faulting architecture of a mining property, for instance. Effigis steers its customers in the right direction – saving them valuable time and money,” he explained.

Instrumentation GDD has been operating since 1977, developing and manufacturing a wide range of electromagnetic and inducedpolarization geophysical instruments, including a recently developed tool for detecting conductors that can reach a depth of 3 m and can read up to 10 times per second, at up to 70 km per hour. Pierre Gaucher, GDD’s president, provided some context: “To put this in perspective, a human being can only see 2% of the ground with his or her eyes. GDD’s tool, the Beep Mat, makes it possible to scan 40%,” he specified.

 

SECURITY: THE EVOLVING THREATS THAT MUST BE ADDRESSED

As software continues to evolve and operations become increasingly reliant on technology, the issue of cybersecurity has become more vital, particularly for heavy industries that have high-risk data that affects global markets and thousands of people. However, the mining industry is still far behind when it comes to cybersecurity, according to Claude Sarrazin, president and CEO of SIRCO, the Montréal-based private investigation firm offering undercover services, computer forensics, and cybersecurity. In a staggering 96% of cases, SIRCO is able to break into its clients’ systems when performing penetration testing, which illustrates the pertinent need to tighten security.

Security threats have been present long before the digital era, and SIRCO has conducted 21 training sessions related to narcotics over the last three months for companies in the mining sector alone, as more frequent testing for cannabis has seen positive results for other drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine. In SIRCO’s 27 years of experience, it has identified that around 10% of employees are problematic – deliberately breaking or vandalizing equipment, stealing company resources, or benefitting from corruption. “This 10% represents most of a company’s legal fees and insurance costs, and can have a huge effect on profit margin and even the culture within an organization,” said Sarrazin. “Security issues, whether internal or external, do not go away. You need to address them, and although they are not always high on the list of companies’ priorities, it is vital that you stay on top of them before they turn into a major issue,” he concluded.

 

ENVIROMENTAL REGULATIONS DRIVING GROWTH FOR GREEN-TECHNOLOGIES

The global drive away from higher carbon fossil fuels towards green-energy solutions transcends industries and, in a mining context, has seen companies increasingly concerned about the environmental and economic costs of diesel fuel use, especially with government-imposed carbon-reduction legislation on the horizon.

Distributed Gas Solutions Canada (DGSC) is hoping to change this, and offers turnkey liquefied natural gas (LNG) and compressed natural gas (CNG) supply solutions for industrial and transportation end-users in Canada that are not served by pipeline infrastructure. DGSC was established in 2017 in a partnership created by three company partners: Hydromega Services, the Montréal-based renewable energy power producer; Galileo Advanced Solutions, the U.S.-based commodity supply chain arm of manufacturer Galileo Technologies; and Québec City-based Groupe Desgagnés, a marine transportation service company.

In November 2018, diesel fuel rack pricing was approximately C$21.50/GJ in Montréal, whereas natural gas was approximately C$5.50/GJ. In addition to the considerable cost benefits, Andrew Wilkins, DGSC’s VP of business development, expanded on the environmental benefits that LNG offers: “CO2 reductions of up to 25%-35% and nitrous oxides (NOX) reductions of over 70% can be achieved. There is a virtual elimination of particulate matter (PM) and sulfur oxides (SOX), which are air pollutants that cause smog and human health problems.”

Another company promoting environmentally responsible practices is Avjet, which offers biodegradable lubricants, mostly used in a mining context as hydraulic oil/fluid and drilling oil/fluid, as well as rod grease and anti-seize. André Martineau, from Avjet’s lubricants division, believes that every mine should use biodegradable lubricants, as mineral-based lubricants can contaminate soil and cause long-term environmental damage if they are not decontaminated. “Biodegradable lubricants turn into CO2 and water within 15 to 30 days with the help of microorganisms in the soil along with air and water, and are not harmful to the environment at all,” affirmed Martineau.

Water management has become paramount in the global mining industry, as companies look to protect the environment from degradation while at the same time reducing fresh-water costs. H2Flow acts as an integrator and represents 50 companies, providing water-treatment solutions that comply with the new Metal and Diamond Mining Effluent Regulations (MDMER) that came into effect in June 2018. Eric Lannegrace, H2Flow’s mining market manager, went into further detail about the updated MDMER: “The amendments establish more stringent limits for existing metal mines on arsenic, cyanide, and lead as well as add new limits for unionized ammonia.”

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