Economics, environment drive mining innovation

Industry conference shines light on advances in ore removal, waste-water treatment
DisrruptMining judges, left to right: Rob McEwen, chairman and CEO of McEwen Mining; David Harquail, president and CEO of Franco-Nevada Corp.; Bernadette Wightman, president of Cisco Canada; Robert Herjavec, CEO of Herjavec Group; and Todd White, chief operating officer of Goldcorp | Submitted

From technology that extracts lithium from oilfield brine to a radical new approach to underground mining, Canadian technology and engineering is offering Canada’s mining sector new ways to dig things out of the ground.

Some of the more cutting-edge ideas were showcased last week at the annual Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada conference in Toronto as part of the DisruptMining competition sponsored by Vancouver’s Goldcorp (TSX:G) and Integra Gold Corp. (TSX-V:ICG).

Some of the five finalists pitched ideas ranging from “biointelligence” that uses micro-organisms to target minerals in mine tailings to artificial intelligence approaches to exploration and extraction.

But it is the technology with the least sexy name – Cementation Canada’s injection hoisting system – that might hold the greatest potential for industry disruption because it would change the way underground mining is done in fundamental ways.

Cementation Canada is no clean-technology startup; it’s a well-established company that builds mines. It recently developed and patented an underground mining system that can lower costs by eliminating the need for underground mining trucks and allows for smaller tunnels and shafts.

The system uses a pipeline, rather than trucks, to move ore to the surface. The ore is crushed underground and flowed to the surface, doing away with the need for large mining trucks and expensive ventilating systems.

“We all looked at it and said, ‘Well, how is nobody doing this yet?’” said Integra Gold CEO Stephen de Jong.

The approach has been has been tried before, said Cementation Canada president Roy Slack. But only recently have new types of pumps – used with the pouring of concrete in highrise buildings – made more practical the type of approach Slack’s company has developed.

The key is Cementation Canada’s patented injection hoisting system, which allows crushed rock to be moved in a continuous flow, rather than in batches.

In a typical underground hard-rock mine operation, a company blasts rock and hauls it to the surface by truck, where it’s crushed and processed.

Not only are the trucks expensive – about $1 million each – but also most burn diesel, so the mines need expensive ventilation systems to remove exhaust fumes.

Cementation’s system uses a looped pipeline that sends down a liquid slurry base. Rock crushed below ground is introduced into the stream and continuously piped to the surface.

“The system we have now isn’t sending batches of rock up – it’s just constantly moving through the pipe,” Slack said.

He added that the company is ready to run the system in a demonstration project, which is why it entered the DistruptMining competition.

The competition is becoming a bit like Dragons’ Den for the mining sector, where some entrants might be interested more in the public exposure they get and the industry contacts they make than in the cash prizes.

“Things like DisruptMining, they generate some buzz,” Slack said. “And in an industry that’s traditionally conservative, things like this help to open some doors and help to get people more accepting of innovation. It’s a great vehicle to create some excitement around innovation in our industry.”

While some of the innovation is driven by economics, some is driven by environmental imperatives.

One B.C. invention driven by emerging markets is a process for extracting lithium from the brine left over from steam--assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) in Alberta’s oilsands.

The process uses a system originally developed by Vancouver’s David Bromley Engineering Ltd. to treat industrial waste water. Called nanoflotation, the system is being deployed in the oil and gas sector in China and Canada, including a $17 million project that will use the technology to treat water before it is used in SAGD operations in Alberta.

At least one Vancouver company is considering using the technology at the other end of the SAGD process: to extract the lithium from the brine that’s left over.

Bromley’s nanoflotation can extract a number of chemicals, minerals and contaminants from waste water. One of those elements just happens to be lithium, which has been soaring in value, thanks to the demand for the alkali metal used in rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles.

There are a limited number of highly productive lithium brine deposits, so a cost-effective way of extracting it from what is essentially a waste byproduct from the oil industry could have big environmental and economic upsides.

Vancouver junior exploration company MGX Minerals Inc. (CSE:XMG) recently signed a licensing agreement with PurLucid Treatment Solutions Inc., which is the licensing arm from Bromley’s nanoflotation technology, and has been buying up leases in Alberta to tap the brine reservoirs there.

Investment in approaches like SAGD and hydraulic fracturing is what led the U.S. to go from a net importer to a potential exporter of oil and gas. Some industry analysts are calling on the Canadian mining sector to similarly embrace innovation.

“What we really need in our industry is … to start seeing results from some of this innovation renaissance,” de Jong said. “If we can start showing new technologies and new ideas can increase our margins, make us safer, make us a more robust business, then I think you’ll start to see a lot of mining piling on the back of that. I don’t know if we’ve really seen that yet.” 

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