Ontario - A Progressive Tech Center: From pickaxes to pixels, how innovation is reshaping the future of mining

Ontario - A Progressive Tech Center

May 07, 2024

 

Image courtesy of Epiroc

Across North America, there is a malaise threatening the mining industry: Its public perception. For Ontario, the long-term impacts could be nothing short of life-threatening. The present situation paints a dire picture: Visiting the classrooms of Ontario high schools, Marla Tremblay, executive director at MineConnect, found that for students mining means “putting on overalls and working in a dirty environment for long hours.” 

Mining companies are looking to advances in technology for the solution to this problem. Ontario is home to over 1,400 mining supply and service companies, many of which are technology focused. Surveying the technology landscape during 2022, Canada’s national statistical agency found that 30.9% of mining businesses adopt advanced technologies, the highest adoption rate of any industry in Canada. These technologies are advancing rapidly: “If you look at technology from the last 50 years, we are not 50 years ahead of the linear curve, we are thousands of years ahead,” said Kevin Dagenais, CEO of Cascadia Scientific.

In 2021, Canada’s Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) launched a C$112.4 million initiative, dubbed the Mining Innovation Commercialization Accelerator (MICA) Network, to accelerate the development and commercialization of innovative mining technologies. Supporting the project, the Government of Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund invested C$40 million, and BHP, Vale, Glencore and Teck are all members. MICA has invested over C$28 million in mining innovation technologies across Canada in the two years since its founding. Having secured an additional C$30 million for the MICA in 2023, CEMI’s president and CEO, Doug Morrison shared how the MICA’s contributions to Ontario’s mining technology start-ups extend beyond just financial support: “The strategic strength of the network lies in its ability to combine the solutions provided by [its] solution providers, offering tailored answers to specific challenges. This adaptability is essential given the varied locations and climates of mining operations globally.”

Technology and innovation can address diverse challenges that face Ontario’s mining sector. “Deposits are getting deeper, meaning higher processing costs due to harder and lower-grade ore, while global demand is at an all-time high, creating tension that puts pressure on the assets that perform the mining work,” said Ash Agarwal, president and CEO of Symboticware, that developed 4-Sight-ai, the industry's first vertically integrated IoT and AI platform allowing companies to monitor asset health and reduce fuel use and carbon emissions. 

Underground electrification
In light of the green energy transition, the electrification of diesel-powered mining equipment and trucks provides the greatest avenue for innovation. Agnico Eagle’s Macassa mine in Kirkland Lake was the first to introduce battery electric vehicles into operations and commissioned the world’s first 50 t battery electric truck in 2020. Newmont’s Borden mine in Chapleau was the first all-electric underground mine in Canada. “We have noticed an uptick in mining companies asking us to assess the tradeoffs between BEVs, diesel vehicles, or mixed fleets,” said Morné Beukes, director of operations at BBE Canada. 

Despite these efforts, the electrification of mining equipment is not widespread. Currently, only 0.5% of mining equipment is fully electric, according to McKinsey & Company. Agarwal explained: “By 2030, not much will happen from an electric fleet conversion perspective. For example, large, publicly traded mining companies will only see a 5% impact on their electrification projects by 2030.”

For Ontario’s underground miners, it is not just carbon emissions reductions that are driving electrification, but also health and safety. In 2023, Ontario regulators updated the laws around diesel exposure limits in underground workplaces by reducing the maximum allowable level of exposure to diesel particulate matter (DPM). For Accutron Instruments, a Sudbury headquartered manufacturer that pioneered ultrasonic airflow monitoring, this change in the law could represent an opportunity: “This move brings Ontario in alignment with other jurisdictions that have similar or even more stringent requirements. We recognize that such regulatory changes will necessitate enhanced ventilation systems to ensure compliance. The demand for our products and services, particularly those addressing real-time monitoring of DPM levels, is expected to rise as mine operators strive to meet and exceed these new standards,” said Chad Methe, general manager, Accutron Instruments.

Of course, eliminating diesel engines and electrifying underground fleets is an alternative, albeit potentially more expensive way, of adhering to the new regulations. However, EVs are not a silver bullet. Despite providing opportunities to reduce mine ventilation demands and providing environmental benefits, EV failure in an underground mine could be catastrophic from a health and safety perspective. EVs on the surface have shown that they pose significant health risks if they catch fire, which could be even more pronounced in the confined space of an underground mine. “The risk-to-reward ratio for underground battery use is uncertain,” said Jaha Sohail, COO, Maestro Digital Mine.

Cascadia Scientific CEO Kevin Dagenais developed: “No available technology will replace diesel-powered haulage equipment in the near term. For large and ultra-class haul trucks, we are probably a decade away from a fully deployable electric solution. Our tools offer a lens for companies to evaluate alternatives for immediate incremental decarbonization.”

Cascadia Scientific’s tool, SmartRView, resulted in average fuel savings of 15%, equivalent to 2,738 t CO2e at New Gold’s Rainy River operation. 

The switch from diesel-powered to electric requires a reliable and robust electrical infrastructure, especially in remote mining operations where the existing electrical grid may not support the increased electricity demand. This will likely be the case in Newmont’s fly-in, fly-out Musselwhite mine, for example. The Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, responsible for 14% of electricity generation in Ontario in 2022, is set to shut down in 2025 or 2026, adding to the challenge of meeting demand. Luckily, a solution is on the horizon: “Moving to renewable sources of electricity is becoming increasingly feasible, even in off-grid environments, as the cost of battery packs is projected to decline 50% from 2017 to 2030,” according to McKinsey & Company. 

Ontario is due to see the opening of a few new precious metal mines in 2024, and likely many more critical mineral mines in the coming years. In such cases, there is an opportunity for mine operators to electrify from day zero, rather than going through the often difficult and expensive process of replacing or retrofitting existing diesel machinery. “We have significant greenfield projects in the pipeline, incorporating battery equipment. These projects, when initiated, contribute substantially to the adoption of electrification,” shared Charlie Ekberg, general manager, Epiroc Canada.

This trend extends beyond electrification and into automation: “Greenfield projects embrace our technology, especially for reliability, incorporating it from the start. Brownfield transitions pose more significant roadblocks as there are challenges to integrating new technology into existing processes,” said Greg Houston, president and CEO of Lakeside Process Controls, a provider of process automation solutions to the local mining sector.

As EV technology advances at breakneck speed, Ontario’s miners will have to think carefully about their adoption strategies and how they navigate the ever-growing list of electrification solutions available. “The ongoing evolution of battery chemistry adds another layer of complexity to the decision-making process. The rapid pace of change in this domain makes it challenging for end-users to predict the trajectory of BEV technology accurately. Simultaneously, many traditional mining entities find themselves in a position where they lack the capacity to conduct in-depth evaluations,” said Jean-Guy Coulombe, vice president - North America, Normet Canada.

TECH-nically not laborious
Canada’s mining industry is expected to experience shortages of around 80,000 to 120,000 workers by 2030, according to the Mining Industry Human Resource Council’s 2020 Canadian Mining Labor Market 10-year Outlook. Firms are turning to technology as a solution. “The shortage of skilled labor is a critical driver of our investment in technology, particularly autonomous machinery. These machines offer distinct advantages, such as increased productivity as they can operate continuously between shifts and tackle high-risk tasks,” remarked Paul Healy, president Americas at Redpath Mining. “If people are not available, we can use a machine.”

DSI Underground Canada is approaching the problem from another angle, reducing the number of required staff to begin with. “We are developing virtual reality training programs…. These 3D training programs help mines leverage technology for training purposes, reducing the need for on-site training personnel,” said Paul Stephenson, regional CEO of North America.

Jannatec Technologies, a Sudbury-based radio communications company, is innovating to make mining more attractive to young talent. Originally, Jannatec developed SmartView, a modular underground wireless communication system, to enhance safety in mines. Now Jannatec is expanding into the mobile segment of the IoT space, as it provides an extra level of comfort, especially for new talent. “Clients increasingly want access to the same amenities available in a car or in their home, which we aim to realize in the future,” said Rey Boucher their president.
Leveraging technology to make mining safer and more comfortable is a surefire way of increasing its appeal to the young generation. This is especially true after the Covid pandemic when many people grew accustomed to working from the comfort of their own homes. Companies like Seequent, which offers earth modeling and geo-data management software to Ontario’s mining industry, provide solutions that reduce the travel requirements for mining professionals. “The need to adapt to cloud strategies and remote work became prominent due to the pandemic. In response, we have developed our EVO cloud strategy, which will be a cornerstone for new cloud-enabled applications,” said Rob Ferguson, segment director, exploration and resource management, at Seequent. 

Sudbury, the mining tech Mecca
Executives from Timmins, Thunder Bay and the glass towers of Toronto all agree that Sudbury is the center of mining tech innovation. This comes with reason; the greater Sudbury area hosts nine operating mines, two mills, two smelters, and a nickel refinery. It also houses 300 mining supply and service firms, including 157 of MineConnect’s 260 members. Across North America, no mining tech hub looks more promising. “Sudbury is even surpassing places like Colorado, Nevada and Toronto when it comes to mining technology,” said Raffi Jabrayan, vice president of business development at Exyn Technologies. 

There is currently ample funding available for mining technology innovation, including the Sudbury Catalyst Fund, a C$5 million venture capital fund accelerating the growth of tech start-ups in Sudbury. NORCAT, headquartered in Sudbury, is the only innovation center in the world that has an operating mine designed to enable start-ups, SMEs, and international companies to develop, test, and demonstrate emerging technologies that are poised to transform the global mining industry. Following its success, in 2022 NORCAT is due to host its Mining Transformed technology exhibition in its Underground Centre in May 2024, but this time, the Underground Centre will have some new additions: “In 2023, we welcomed the launch of the Rogers Technology Centre of Excellence at the Underground Centre, providing a place for Rogers to demonstrate the capabilities of 5G communications infrastructure to support underground mining operations. The collaborative exchange between Rogers and various use case technologies leveraging the 5G backbone has further contributed to the overall vibrancy of our unique ecosystem,” shared Don Duval, CEO, NORCAT.

Looking to the future, the greater Sudbury area has six post-secondary education institutions training the next generation of miners, while endeavoring to refresh the perception of mining in classrooms: “The Goodman School of Mines created and hosted a mine opportunity challenge for high school students to get them excited about mining,” said Tremblay.

As new technologies emerge, the aging mining workforce will find it increasingly difficult to keep up to date with the most recent advancements, as their educations were centered around technologies that did not yet exist. “Canadian graduates with degrees in data science, ML, or AI typically want to work in glass towers and live in cities,” explained Kevin Dagenais, CEO, Cascadia Scientific. 

Statistics Canada’s most recent Survey of Innovation and Business Strategy showed that Ontario’s mining industry adopted advanced clean technologies at higher rates than industries such as utilities and manufacturing. With so much innovation and research coming out of the town, Sudbury and its environs are likely to continue to attract large international companies from around the world such as Foraco, the third-largest global drilling company based on the number of drill rigs catering to the mining and water industries. “The Sudbury Basin, near our main office in North Bay, acts as an excellent testing and training ground for our crews engaged in intricate projects for Glencore and Vale throughout the year,” said Tim Bremner, CEO, Foraco International.
 

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