Mark Henderson is editor of Research Money.
“We are attempting to establish a centre of excellence that can compete in the R&D space and collaborate with centres in Brazil and Chile … Our mandate is to establish R&D and innovation excellence in Ontario and Canada by bringing industry money together with people doing research and who can commercialize the work.” – CEMI President and CEO Dr. Peter Kaiser
Boost to growing mining cluster
Sudbury’s quest to become a major centre of mining R&D received a significant boost with a decision by Rio Tinto to invest $10 million in a Centre for Underground Mine Construction (CUMC), the fifth and final centre in its global research network. The centre is part of Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future program as the British-Australian mining giant banks on innovation to transition from open pit to underground mining by developing deeper underground mines to meet soaring demand for minerals.
To be based at the Centre of Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), located at Sudbury’s Laurentian Univ, the Rio Tinto centre marks the first time a foreign-based multinational has committed to funding mining R&D through CEMI.
The decision may signal a reversal in Canada’s flagging reputation as an innovative mining nation — a status that has been threatened by a rash of foreign takeovers of some of Canada’s biggest mining enterprises. For instance, the former Falconbridge was acquired by Xstrata based in Zug Switzerland, while Inco was absorbed by Vale Ltd, based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Rio Tinto’s CUMC will be set up as a division of CEMI with a steering committee to direct R&D initiatives.
“The Rio Tinto investment is a breakthrough in various ways. Other companies we deal with are local and Ontario-based but this is a major buy-in from one of the top three in mining globally,” says CEMI president and CEO, Dr Peter Kaiser. “This changes how we do business, making us more focused on specific results … Bigger mining houses realize they need the buy-in of people to work on their problems, attract the best people around the world. I expect other companies will mimic this and accelerate research and innovation in the mining sector.”
CEMI was launched in 2006 with $10 million in funding from the Ontario government, augmented by investments from $5 million from Inco/Vale and $5 million from Xstrata to help establish the centre. The federal government subsequently invested $4.25 million in CEMI — matched by industry — as part of its economic stimulus package. The funding supports ventilation-on-demand and energy reduction technologies.
In conjunction with industry, CEMI scopes out projects and puts largely academic research teams together to deliver so-called step-change research initiatives in the areas of deep mining, mineral exploration, integrated mine engineering and environmental sustainability.
Kaiser says the recent rash of foreign takeovers of some of Canada’s biggest mining firms has put a dent in Canadian mining R&D, which typically follows head office, prompting a re-thinking of how Canada can innovate through R&D within a greatly altered sector.
“We want to develop highly qualified personnel training and increase research capacity at universities to put Ontario and Canada back on the map of mining innovation,” says Kaiser. “We are attempting to establish a centre of excellence that can compete in the R&D space and collaborate with centres in Brazil and Chile and attract some of those R&D dollars back to Canada. We’re a research broker … Our mandate is to establish R&D and innovation excellence in Ontario and Canada by bringing industry money together with people doing research and who can commercialize the work.”
Rio Tinto is partnering with CEMI to accelerate its transition to fully mechanized excavation that includes shaft and tunnel boring systems and support systems required for rapid mine construction. Researchers will work within a global network utilizing test sites to prototype new mechanized systems for ground and machine performance. The first of three full-scale performance verification trials is scheduled for 2010 at Rio’s copper and gold mine in New South Wales.
Under the agreement, CEMI will conduct R&D in the following areas:
* Develop and design support methods for excavation systems;
* Establish reliable predictions of rock behaviour to ensure proper selection and utilization of construction technologies;
* Performance of mechanical excavation-based systems from equipment and management perspectives; and,
* Pillar design and underground excavation stability such as rock fracture modeling.
Laurentian consolidates mining programs
The expansion of CEMI and Rio Tinto’s investment is good news for mining research and education at Laurentian Univ, which is consolidating its mining-related undergraduate and graduate teaching programs into a single entity for launch in September, 2011. The new School of Mining plans to offer professional education with MBA-style degrees in mining as part of a plan to become Canada’s key post-secondary institution for mining research and education.
Mining is one of Laurentian’s four research priorities and the intention is to build up mining on par with the current world leaders — Western Australian School of Mines and Colorado School of Mines. A wave of retirements is about to hit the mining sector, creating demand for between 4,600 and 9,200 people, according to a 2008 report from the Mining Industry Human Resources Council. Laurentian is one of three universities offering mining engineering degrees along with the Univ of Toronto and Queen’s Univ. But the output from those institutions falls far short of projected industry needs.
“The school will cover the whole mining cycle from aboriginal consultation and grassroots exploration to mine design, mine operation and mineral processing to mine closure, environmental restoration and environmental monitoring,” says Dr Michael Lesher, head of Laurentian’s Mineral Exploration Research Centre and newly appointed director of mining tasked with developing the new school. “We already do most of these things but we want to expand it and fill in the gaps. Laurentian has established a lot of new research centres in recent years and the next step is to feed the research back into the education program.”
Mining strategist and communications professional Stan Sudol (www.republicofmining.com) views Rio Tinto’s investment as an “exceptional vote of confidence in the mining expertise and research capabilities in the Sudbury Basin”. He argues that consolidation of academic and government mining research expertise in the Sudbury region could synergize geoscience in the country to capitalize on a “commodity super cycle”.
Sudol says serious consideration should be given to transferring federal and provincial mining research facilities to Sudbury, such as the federal Canada Centre for Mineral and Energy Technology (CANMET).
“Focusing strategic investments in Sudbury would make it easier for industry to invest in one central place and get the biggest bang for the buck,” says Sudol. “There’s at least 100 years of mining left in Sudbury and Rio’s investment in CEMI is creating synergy and excitement for hard rock mining education.”