Deep dive on mining innovation [Sudbury mining research]- by Denise Deveau (National Post – June 12, 2012)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

{ISSUE} Deep mining has been identified as one of few means to meet the unprecedented demand for base metals over the next 25 years, but the practice comes with risks

{SHIFT} Engineers, academics and mining companies are collaborating to develop new means of monitoring underground rock activity to make deep mining safer

The mining industry is looking deep for reasons that have everything to do with supply and demand. Despite a wealth of reserves on the planet, easy-to-access reserves in open-pit and shallow, underground mines are declining.

It’s the shift to deep mining that is drawing a team of the country’s best mining researchers and leading mining operations to the table in an Ontario-based project that members say could dramatically improve global mining activities.

The SUMIT (Smart Underground Mining and Integrated Technologies) for Deep Mining project was launched in 2010 under the auspices of the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI). The intent was to bring together stakeholders from the mining industry, academia and government to bring new information gathering and communication/processing technology together to create “smart mines.”

SUMIT’s main focus is to apply smart engineering principles to achieve “gamechanging” advances in deep mining (i.e. mines two kilometres or deeper). It’s a feat that demands innovative means for monitoring, fusing and processing data.

The initiative is none too soon for the sector, says Damien Duff, R&D program director for SUMIT in Sudbury, Ont. “Within the next 25 years, the world will need a huge amount of base metals to sustain itself. Over that period of time, in fact, demand for metals such as copper will outstrip demand throughout our entire history. As it stands today, we’re not finding a lot of new mines to replace the quantities we’re mining. We need to do things differently.”

That means more focus on deep mining. However, the investment of intelligence required to make deep mining a success story is huge, explains Peter Kaiser, vicepresident at CEMI, and chair for rock mechanics and ground control at Laurentian University in Sudbury, the lead university on the SUMIT project. “Investment has to happen in these projects because there are no lucrative surface ore bodies. At the same time, risks have to be reduced and the industry has to deal with the environmental constraints.”

Going deeper into the ground costs more. “You have to bring in specialized equipment and spend more on ground support to ensure stability,” says Mr. Kaiser, adding that deeper mines also require better understanding of how the rock will behave in response to tunnels.

The added complexity and expense can undermine investor confidence, especially given the fact that it costs up to $1-billion to establish a new mining operation. To that end the industry must generate ways to lower costs, optimize energy and reduce the environmental footprint associated with deep mining processes, Mr. Duff notes. “The question we need to ask ourselves today is how do we mine more efficiently, effectively and economically to sustain those mines in a manner that guarantees the safety of people and assets?”

That means getting useful, actionable data – and plenty of it.

What sets SUMIT apart on the datagathering aspect is its living laboratory concept. In this unique approach developed by Mr. Kaiser, active mine sites are used for data gathering so researchers can assess and measure the performance of experiments in an environment that is actually representative of a true mining operation.

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