This article was originally published in the Sudbury Star on March 5, 2004
The total contribution to the Canadian economy from metals and industrial minerals is approximately $18 to $20 billion annually. Most of this activity takes place in northern and rural areas of the country. Mining is one of the most technology dependant sectors of the Canadian economy relying on innovation and automation to keep costs down, improve productivity and over the past twenty five years significantly reduce pollution.
Sudbury is a world leader in a wide variety of mining research activities including mine automation and telerobotics. Laurentian University has a federally funded Canada Research Chair in Robotics and Mine Automation headed by Dr. Greg Baiden. He has been described as the “Bill Gates of the mining sector” for his development of this leading-edge technology that is revolutionizing the way minerals are extracted from the ground.
Surprisingly, Canada does not have a major National Research Council (NRC) funded facility dedicated to the mining sector. For an industry that has encouraged the exploration and settlement of vast areas of the North, created enormous amounts of wealth, and established the country as a world leader in a wide variety of mining endeavors, this is incredibly short-sighted.
Australia, a major mineral producer with a population of only 19 million, has two world- class research institutes dedicated to mining innovation. The Cooperative Research Centre for Mining Technology and Equipment (CMTE) has established itself as Australia’s leading research organization for the development of new technologies for mining. The Centre’s long-term strategic goal is to develop a range of new productivity enhancing technologies to the Australian mining sector.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) is one of the world’s largest and most dynamic research organizations that perform research and development over a broad range of areas that include mining, metals, manufacturing sciences and minerals. The Australians are aggressively competing with Canada to become the most prominent global exporter of mining expertise.
Historically, the mining sector has always relied on technical innovations to help solve the many challenges associated with digging deep holes in the ground and allowing workers to safely and economically extract the valuable ores hidden beneath.
In the mid 16th century the Saxon district of south-eastern Germany and the adjacent border areas became one of the richest regions of Europe due to mining. They exported not only their metal production but also their mining and metallurgical expertise to many countries.
The establishment of the Freiberg Mining Academy in 1765, one of the world’s first technical universities, confirmed Germany’s lead in this crucial industry. Freiberg was the major center of silver mining during the middle-ages.
The first two original versions of the steam engine were developed to help pump water out of the coal mines of England. The resulting technology transfer of that mining innovation transformed the British economy. There is no exaggeration in stating that the invention of the steam engine in 18th century Britain started the industrial revolution and the modern age.
The development of telerobotic and mine automation technology in Sudbury has created an enormous amount of global interest including visitors from NASA, the American military, the national engineering academies of Sweden, U.S.A., China and private companies that are leaders in their field.
Sudbury is on the forefront of the next technological revolution in the mining sector comparable to the high-tech lead this country had with the Avro Arrow jet fighter in the 1950s. However, without a major research facility much of this innovation will not be fully commercialized.
An institute for mining research and innovation would build on the cluster of regional expertise and world-class research capacity found in the mines, post-secondary institutions, and research centres across the Sudbury Basin.
It would develop and commercialize technologies to improve the competitiveness of Canada’s mining industry and create new wealth, industries and high paying jobs through the export of this newly developed expertise.
Research and implementing advanced robotic technologies automation would lead to broader applications such as high capacity telecommunications and positioning systems, innovative software systems and robotic machine design, just to name a few.
In addition, a major facility would rapidly make Sudbury a magnet for capital and entrepreneurs from around the world, further cementing the community’s reputation as an international centre of mining excellence – the Silicon Valley of the mining sector.
The federal government’s recent Speech from the Throne stated, “The 21st century economy promises opportunity for all parts of Canada. The objective of the Government is to ensure that every region of the country has the opportunity to move forward, socially and economically…The Government will place increased emphasis on opportunities to add greater value to natural resources through application of advanced technology and know-how…”
The National Research Council has already established other regional research facilities that build on local resource expertise. The Aluminium Technology Centre in Ville Saguenay, Quebec, provides technical support and expertise required to develop value-added aluminium based products and services, while the Institute of Ocean Technology in St. John’s, Newfoundland supplies innovative solutions and technical expertise in support of Canadian ocean technology industries.
For over one hundred years, the incredibly rich ore deposits of the Sudbury Igneous Complex has contributed a disproportionate amount of wealth into the national economy and helped sustain the high standard of living all Canadians enjoy.
The total value of historic mineral production and present reserves from the Basin exceeds $320 billion. After the Alberta tar sands, the Sudbury Basin is the second most important natural resource in the country and many geologists feel the region will still be producing nickel, copper and a host of other metals for another century.
In addition, Sudbury has always been a loyal federal Liberal riding. The hard rock mines of this community have never been subsidized by billions of federal dollars to keep them open, like the uneconomical coal mines of Cape Breton. Northern Ontario is the only major region of the country that doesn’t have a significant federally funded research facility.
Politics is all about the choices we make with the finite amount of tax dollars we send to Ottawa. As we have recently seen in the media, billions have been wasted on an ineffective gun registry and sponsorship scandals in Quebec. The federal government must start making better choices for the future of the next generation.
A strategic $100 million investment in leading-edge telerobotic and mine automation technology would be a better choice in using our hard-earned tax dollars. This investment in research capacity would make an enormous contribution to the regional economy. In addition, this investment would also create untold billions in future innovations and global export potential for the entire country.
With Paul Martin’s commitment to enhanced technological innovation and development in the regions, it’s time the federal government establish a world class “Institute for Mining Research and Innovation” in this community – a fitting legacy to a Prime Minister committed to the global challenges of building a 21st century economy.