Articles tagged with: Mining

NPV and Sustainable Mining – Friends or Foes

I recently wrote a blog about the term “sustainable mining” and the different perspectives to it. Does sustainable mining mean having a long term sustainable mining industry or does it mean providing sustainable benefits to local communities? There are two ways you can look at it. If interested, the link to that blog is here.
It’s no surprise that the mining industry wants to promote more sustainable mining practices. It’s the right thing to do. However, in my experience, sometimes NPV analysis can be at conflict with sustainable mining practices. That opinion is from my engineering perspective.  Those working in the CSR field may have a different view on it.

Majors, mid-tiers, juniors see things differently

There are essentially three different types of mining companies; majors; mid-tiers, and junior miners. They have different financial constraints imposed upon them and these constraints will impact on their decision making.
In general to get financing and investor interest, development projects must demonstrate a high NPV, high IRR, and short payback period. This requirement tends to apply more to the small and mid tiered companies than to the major companies.  The majors normally have different access to financing.
A characteristic of NPV analysis and cashflow discounting is the penalizing of higher upfront costs whilst reducing the economic impacts of longer term deferred costs. This feature, combined with the need to manage NPV, will influence design decisions and operating philosophies.  Ultimately this will impact on the rate of adopting of sustainable mining practices.
Mining companies often have two masters they must try to satisfy. One master is the project investor(s) that wants their investment returns quickly and with limited risk. The second master is the local stakeholder that wants a safe project with long lasting benefits to the community.  NPV analysis often requires trading-off the needs of one master over that of the other. This trade-off is neither right nor wrong; it is simply a reality.
Major miners now seem to have a third master; i.e large pension funds. These funds are now demanding for more sustainable mining practices (mainly tailings related) and mining companies are trying to comply. Smaller mining companies thus far don’t have this third master to satisfy, although that may come soon. Hence smaller miners are apt to follow a somewhat different path with regards to sustainable mining implementation. NPV plays a significant role in their decision making.

NPV…friend or foe

executive meetingThere are several scenarios where NPV analysis decision making may conflict with the objectives of sustainable mining. Here are a few examples.
1. Minimizing capital expenditures at the expense of operating costs. The likelihood of success in creating a long life sustainable mine will improve by having low metal cash costs. Naturally there will be a benefit in having low operating costs. However sometimes achieving low operating costs will require higher capital investments. For example, this could involve using large capacity material handling mining systems (IPCC) to lower unit costs.
NPV analysis will tend penalize these large investments by discounting the future operating cost savings. Being in the lowest cost quartile is good thing; being in the highest cost quartile isn’t.  Higher operating costs can hurt the long term sustainability of an operation, especially during downturns in commodity prices.
2. Tailings disposal method trade-offs are affected by NPV analysis. Currently there is an industry push towards safer and sustainable tailings storage methods, like paste or dry stack. However the upfront processing and materials handling capex can be significant. Hence less desirable conventional style tailings disposal may often be the winners in tailings trade-off studies due to NPV.
3. Closure considerations incorporated in the early mine design stage are affected by NPV analysis. A large cost component of mine closure is related to waste rock and tailings reclamation. However since final closure costs are  deferred, they might be given less consideration in the initial design. In many studies, high closure costs can be deemed insignificant in the project NPV due to discounting. Eventually these high costs will need to be incurred.  Unfortunately they might have been mitigated by wise decision making earlier in the project life.
4. Low grade ore stockpiling can help to increase early revenue and profit, thereby improving the project NPV and payback. Stockpiling of low grade and prioritization of high grade means that lower grade ore will be processed in the later stages of the project life.  Who hasn’t been happy to develop a mine schedule with the grade profile shown on the right?
If low grade years are coupled with a dip in metal price cycles, the mine could become economically unsustainable.  Shutting down a mine and putting it on “care and maintenance” is short term in intention but often long term in duration (over 30 years in some cases).
Mark Bristow of Barrick briefly discussed the issue of high grading in this interview.
5. Low strip ratios in the early stages of a project are often a feature of the ore body itself. However mine plans can also be designed to defer high strip ratios into the future via the use of proper pit phasing. This is another way to defer operating costs into the future. The NPV will see the benefit, long term sustainability may not.
6. Project life selection based on NPV analysis may not show significant economic difference between a 15 year project and one with a life of 25 years. Project decisions could then favor a short life project. This could relate to smaller pit pushbacks, smaller tailings ponds, smaller waste dumps, and easier permitting.  Possibly the local community would prefer a long life project that provides more sustainable jobs and business opportunities. NPV may see it differently.
7. Accelerated depreciation, tax and royalty holidays are types of economic factors that will improve NPV and early payback. They are one tool governments use to promote economic activity. These tax holidays will greatly enhance the NPV when combined with high grading and waste stripping deferral.
Unfortunately reality hits once the tax holiday is over and suddenly taxes or royalties become payable. At the same time head grades may be decreasing and strip ratios increasing. Future cashflows may carry an additional economic burden, which may conflict with the goal of a sustainable mine.

Conclusion

NPV is one of the standard metrics used to make project decisions. The deferral of upfront costs in lieu of future costs is favorable for cashflow and investor returns. Similarly, increasing early revenue at the expense of future revenue does the same.   Both approaches will help satisfy the financing concerns. However they may not be advantageous for creating long term sustainable projects.
Riskier projects will warrant higher discount rates.  This can magnify the importance of early cashflows even more and future cashflows become even less important.
It will be interesting to see how we (the mining industry) respond as industry leaders make greater commitments to sustainable mining. Both majors and juniors will equally need to work on keeping those commitments.  Will NPV analysis help or hurt?

 

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Sustainable Mining – What Is It Really?

We hear a lot about the need for the mining industry to adopt sustainable mining practices. Is everyone certain what that actually means? Ask a group of people for their opinions on this and you’ll probably get a range of answers.   It appears to me that there are two general perspectives on the issue.
Perspective 1 tends to be more general in nature. It’s about how the mining industry as a whole must become sustainable to remain viable. In other words, can the mining industry continue to meet the current commodity demands and the needs of future generations?
Perspective 2 tends to be a bit more stakeholder focused. It relates to whether a mining project will provide long-term sustainable benefits to local stakeholders. Will the mining project be here and gone leaving little behind, or will it make a real (positive) difference? In other words, “what’s in it for us”?
There are still some other perspectives on what is sustainable mining. For example there are some suggestions that sustainable mining should have a wider scope. It should consider the entire life cycle of a commodity, including manufacturing and recycling. That’s a very broad vision for the industry to try to satisfy.

How might mining be sustainable?

The solutions proposed to foster sustainable mining depend on which perspective is considered.
With respect to the first perspective, the solutions are board brush. They generally revolve around using best practices in socially and environmentally sound ways. A sustainable mining framework is typically focused on reducing the environmental impacts of mining.
Strategies include measuring, monitoring, and continually improving environmental metrics. These metrics can include  minimizing land disturbance, pollution reduction, automation, electrification, renewable energy usage, as well as proper closure and reclamation of mined lands.
Unfortunately if the public hates the concept of mining, the drive towards sustainability will struggle. Trying to fight this, the industry is currently promoting itself by highlighting the ongoing need for its products. Unfortunately some have interpreted this to mean “We make a mess because everyone wants the output from that mess”. I’m not sure how effective and convincing that approach will be in the long run.

Focusing on localized benefits

If one views sustainable mining from the second perspective, i.e. “What’s in it for us”, then one will propose different solutions. Maximizing benefits for the local community requires specific and direct actions. Generalizations won’t work.  Stakeholder communities likely don’t care about the sustainability of the mining industry as a whole.
They want to know what this project can do for them. Will the local community thrive with development or will they be harmed? Are the economic benefits be short lived or generational in duration? Can the project lead to socio-economic growth opportunities that extend beyond the project lifetime? Will the economic benefits be realized locally or will the benefits be distributed regionally?
One suggestion made to me is that all mining operations be required to have long operating lives. This will develop more regional infrastructure and create longer business relationships. A mine life of ten years or less may be insufficient to teach local entrepreneurship.  It maybe too short to ensure the long term continuation of economic impacts. Mine life requirement is an interesting thought but likely difficult to enforce.
Nevertheless the industry needs to convince local communities about the benefits they will see from a well executed mining project. Ideally the fear of a mining project would be replaced by a desire for a mining project. Preferably your stakeholders should become your biggest promoters. Working to make individual mining projects less scary may eventually help sustain the entire industry.

What can the industry do?

We have all heard about the actions the industry is considering when working with local communities. Some of these actions might include:
  • Being transparent and cooperative through the entire development process.
  • Using best practices and not necessarily doing things the “cheapest” way.
  • Focusing on long life projects.
  • Helping communities with more local infrastructure improvements.
  • Promoting business entrepreneurship that will extend beyond the mine life.
  • Transferring of post-closure assets to local communities.
There are teams of smart people representing mining companies  working with the local communities. These sustainability teams will ultimately be the key players in making or breaking the sustainability of mining industry.  They will build and maintain the perception of the industry.
While geologists or engineers can develop new technology and operating practices, it will be the sustainability teams that will need to sell the concepts and build the community bridges.
The sustainability effort extends well beyond just developing new technical solutions. It also involves politics, socio-economics, personal relationships, global influences, hidden agendas. It can be a minefield to navigate.

Conclusion

As a first step, the mining industry needs to focus more on local stakeholders and communities. Remove the fear of a mining project and replace it with a desire for a mining project. Mining companies must avoid doing things in the least expensive ways. They must do things in ways that inspire confidence in the company and in the project.
The ultimate goal of sustainable mining will require changing the public’s attitude about mining. Perhaps this starts with the local grass roots communities rather than with global initiatives. As a speaker said at the recent Progressive Mine Forum in Toronto, the mining industry has lost trust with everyone. It is now up to the mining companies, ALL OF THEM, to re-establish it. Unfortunately just one bad apple can undo the positive work done by others.  The industry is not a monolith, so all you can do is at least make sure your own company inspires confidence in the way you are doing things.
As an aside, I have recently seen suggestions that discounted cashflow analysis (i.e. NPV analysis) and sustainable mining practices may be contradictory. There may be some truth to those comments, but I will leave that discussion for a future blog.  You can read that blog at this link.
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Green Energy Storage Using Abandoned Mines

The mining industry is always looking for ways to rehabilitate their abandoned operations so that there may be a public use for them. This could entail leaving behind recreational lakes, building golf courses, creating nature parks or using empty pits as public landfills. Another rehabilitation idea being studied is using old underground mines as a means of green energy storage.  If successful, we do have a lot of abandoned mines in all regions of the country.

Compressed air can store energy

I was at the 2019 Progressive Mine Forum in Toronto and a presentation was given on underground compressed air storage. The company was Hydrostor (https://www.hydrostor.ca/).  They were promoting their Advanced Compressed Air Energy Storage (A-CAES) system.
It is a technology that addresses the power grid need for power transmission deferral services. The A-CAES system can theoretically provide low-cost, long duration bulk energy storage (i.e. hundreds of MWs, 4-24+ hour duration).
The idea is to store off-peak or excess power from solar, wind, or other generating source.  Then the system can release this power back into the system during peaks or low generation capacity. Solar and wind power normally don’t work as well at night.

 

Flood the mine

The system uses excess electricity to run a compressor, producing heated compressed air. Initially heat is extracted from the air and retained inside a thermal store.  This preserves the heat energy for later use. Next the compressed air is stored in the underground mine, keeping a constant pressure.
While charging, the compressed air displaces water out of the mine, up a water column to a surface reservoir.
On discharge, water flows back down forcing air to the surface where it is re-heated using the stored heat and expanded to generate electricity.
Imagine an underground mine beneath an open pit, and seeing the open pit water level rise and fall daily as the compressed air is recharged underground and then released.
Hydrostor is currently building a $33 million 5-MW project in Australia at the Angas Zinc Mine site. I asked Hydrostor if they had any white papers describing the economics for a typical abandoned mine we might see here in Canada. Unfortunately they don’t have such a case study available.
Update: A Canadian example recnetly came to light; “How an old Goderich salt mine could one day save you money on your hydro bill“.
No doubt there would be capex and opex costs to build and operate the plant, but these would hopefully be offset by the power generation. It just not clear over what time horizon this payback would occur. Many abandoned underground mines are already in place; they are just waiting to be exploited.

Permitting is still an issue

Converting an abandoned mine into a power storage facility will still have its challenges. Cost and economic uncertainty are part of that.  In addition, permitting such a facility will still require some environmental study.
At Hydrostor’s proposed Australian operation, a fairly extensive environmental impacts assessment still had to be completed (see the link here).
Noise, vibration, air quality, ecology, traffic, surface water, groundwater impacts, visual impacts, employment, and indigenous consultations are aspects that would need to be addressed. However, given that this would be a green energy application, one might be able to get all stakeholders on board quickly.

Conclusion

We hear about sustainable mining and the desire to extend the positive social and economic impacts of a mining project. Energy storage is one way to extend the mine life into perpetuity by creating a localized power grid. Simply use wind or solar to recharge the system and then generate power over night.
If anyone is aware of a situation where something similar has been done, let me know and I will share it. Perhaps one day Hydrostor will provide a detailed economic study for a typical Canadian mine so that mining companies can see the economic potential.
Note: You can sign up for the KJK mailing list to get notified when new blogs are posted.For those interested in reading other mining blogs, check out the Feedspot website at the link below. They have over 50 blog sites you check out. https://blog.feedspot.com/mining_blogs/
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43-101 Reports – What Sections Are Missing?

Recently as part of a due diligence I was reviewing a couple of 43-101 technical reports and something jumped out at me. There were pages and pages of statistical plots. The plots included QA/QC and check assay diagrams, variograms, box plots, swath plots, and contact plots. There was no lack of statistical information. However, as a mining engineer, there was something missing that was of interest to me. Good geological sections were missing.
Its seems that most technical reports focus heavily on describing the mathematical aspects of the resource, but spend less time describing the physical aspects of the geology and the mineability.

Who is the audience

It’s always open to debate who these 43-101 technical reports are intended for. Generally we can assume correctly that they are not being written mainly for geologists. However if they are intended for a wider audience of future investors, shareholders, engineers, and C-suite management, then (in my view) greater focus needs to be put on the physical orebody description.
Understanding the nature of the orebody brings greater understanding of the entire project.

Everyone likes geology

Whenever I listen to investor conference calls, many of the analyst’s questions relate to the resource and the mining operation. Essentially the participants want to know if this will be an “easy” mine or a “hard” mine.
One simple way to explain this is with good geological sections. They help everyone understand any potential issues; i.e. a picture is worth a thousand words. Good cross-sections will describe the following aspects.
  • The complexity (or simplicity) of the ore zones,
  • The width of the ore zones,
  • The vertical extent of geological information,
  • The drill spacing and drilling density,
  • The spatial distribution of assay information,
  • The grade distribution laterally and vertically,
  • The waste distribution throughout the mine,
  • The mining block size in relation of the ore zone dimensions
One can learn a lot just by looking at well presented cross-sections.  The nice thing is that they are generally understood by non-technical people.

Suggestions

I would like to suggest that every technical report includes more focus on the operational aspects of the orebody.
My recommendation is that the following information becomes standard in all technical reports.
  1. At least three to five cross sections through the deposit. Don’t just present a best case typical cross-section.
  2. At least one or two longitudinal sections.
  3. At least three level or bench plans, showing the drill hole pierce points.
Each cross section/bench plan should consist of two parts.
Part 1 shows the drill holes with color coded grade intercepts, ore zone wireframes, and lithology or rock types.
Part 2 should be a block model cross section showing the wireframes, drill holes, and color coded block model grades using the ore/waste cutoff grade as one of the clearly defined grade bins.
It doesn’t really matter if the cross- sections are included in Section 14 or Section 16 of the Technical Report. However if they are included in Section 16 then one should overlay the pit design and/or underground stope shapes onto the sections.
I also recommend NOT incorporating these cross-sections in the appendices since they are too important to be hidden away. They should be described in the main report itself.

Conclusion

Improving the quality of information presented to investors is one key way of maintaining trust with investors. Accordingly we should look to improve the description of the mineable ore body for everyone. In many cases it is the key to the entire project.
I am not suggesting that one needs to remove the statistical plots since they do have their purpose and audience. I am simply suggesting that we should not forget about everyone else try to figured out the viability of the project.
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Mineral Processing – Can We Keep It Dry?

It’s common to see mining conferences present their moderated panels discussing “disruption” and Mining 2.0.   The mining industry is always looking for new technologies to improve the way it operates. Disruptive technologies however require making big changes, not tweaks.  True disruption is more than just automating haulage equipment or having new ways to visualize ore bodies in 3D.
Insitu leaching is a game changing technology that will eventually make a big difference.  Read a previous blog at “Is Insitu Leaching the “Green Mining” Future”.  Development of this technology will negate the need to physically mine, process, and dispose of rock.  Now that’s disruptive.
However, if we must continue to mine and process rock, then what else might be a disruptive technology ?

Is dry processing a green technique

Process water supply, water storage and treatment, and safe disposal of fine solids (i.e. tailings) are major concerns at most mining projects.
Recently I read an article titled “Water in Mining: Every Drop Counts”.
That discussion revolved around water use efficiency, minimizing water losses, and closed loop processing.   However another area for consideration is whether a future technology solution might be dry processing.

Dry processing is already being used

By dry processing, I am not referring to pre-concentration ore sorting or concentrate cleanup (X-ray sorting). I’m referring to metal recovery at the mineral liberation particle size.
In Brazil Vale has stated that it will spend large sums of money over the next few years to further study dry iron ore processing. By not using water in the process, no tailings are generated and there is no need for tailings dams.
Currently about 60% of Vale’s production is dry (this was a surprise to me) and their goal is to reach 70% in the next five years.   It would be nice to eventually get to 100% dry processing at all iron ore operations.   The link to the article is here “Vale exploring dry stacking/magnetic separation to eradicate tailings dams”.

Is dry grinding possible

Wet grinding is currently the most common method for particle size reduction and mineral liberation.  However research is being done on the future application of dry grinding.
The current studies indicate that dry grinding consumes higher energy and produces wider particle size distributions than with wet grinding. However it can also significantly decrease the rate of media consumption and liner wear.
Surface roughness, particle agglomeration, and surface oxidation are higher in dry grinding than wet grinding, which can affect flotation performance.
Better understanding and further research is required on the dry grind-float process. However any breakthroughs in this technology could advance the low water consumption agenda.
You can learn more about dry grinding at this link “A comparative study on the effects of dry and wet grinding on mineral flotation separation–a review”.

Electrostatic separation

Electrostatic separation is a dry processing technique in which a mixture of minerals may be separated according to their electrical conductivity. The potash industry has studied this technology for decades.
Potash minerals, which are not naturally conductive, are conditioned to induce the minerals to carry electrostatic charges of different magnitude and different polarity.
In Germany, researchers have developed a process for dry beneficiation of complex potash ores. Particle size, conditioning agents and relative humidity are used to separate ore.
This process consumes less energy than conventional wet separation, avoiding the need to dry out the beneficiated potash and the associated tailings disposal issue.
Further research is on-going.

 

Eddy current separators

The recovery of non-ferrous metals is the economic basis of every metal recycling system. There is worldwide use of eddy separators.
The non-ferrous metal separators are used when processing shredded scrap, demolition waste, municipal solid waste, packaging waste, ashes from waste incineration, aluminium salt slags, e-waste, and wood chips.
The non-ferrous metal separator facilitates the recovery of non-ferrous metals such as aluminium, copper, zinc or brass.
This technology might warrant further research in conjunction with dry grinding research to see if an entirely dry process plant is possible for base metals or precious metals.  Learn more at the Steinert website.

Conclusion

Given the contentious nature of water supply and slurried solids at many mining operations, industry research into dry processing might be money well spent.
Real disruptive technologies require making large step changes in the industry. In my opinion, insitu leaching and dry processing are two technologies that we will see more of over the next 20 years.
Ultimately the industry may be forced to move towards them due to environmental constraints.  Therefore let’s get ahead of the curve and continue researching them.

 

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Global Risks – Our Fears Are Evolving

Recently I wrote a blog about how the adoption of new technology in the mining industry will increase the risk of cyber crime. However this is just one of many risks the industry faces today.  This raises the question as to what are the main risks impacting all global businesses.  Luckily for us, the World Economic Forum undertakes an annual survey on exactly this subject.
Each year business leaders are queried about what they view as their major risks. The survey results are summarized in the Global Risk Report.
The 2019 report can be downloaded at this link. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Global_Risks_Report_2019.pdf.
The study rates risks according to the categories “likelihood” and “impact”. A risk could have a high likelihood of occurring but have a low economic impact. One might not lose sleep over these ones.
Another interesting feature in the report is seeing how the top risks change from year to year.  Some risks from 10 years ago are no longer viewed as key risks today.

2019 risk situation

In 2019 environmental related risks dominate the survey results. They account for 4 of the top 5 risks by “impact” and 3 of the top 5 by “likelihood”. Technology related concerns about data fraud and cyber-attacks were also viewed as highly likely (#4 and #5). See the image below for the top 5 risks in each category.
Although the Global Risk survey wasn’t specifically directed at the mining industry, all of the identified risks do pertain to mining.

 

10 year risk trend

It is also interesting to look at the detailed 10 year  table in the report to see how the risk perceptions have changed over the last decade.
None of the top five “Impact” risks from ten years ago are still in the top five now and only two from 2014 still exist. In the “likelihood” category, a similar situation exists.
It will be interesting to compare the 2024 list with 2019 list to see how risks will continue to evolve.

How about the mining industry

EY Global Mining & Metals also undertake a risk survey, focused on mining only. You can read their article at this link “The Top Risks Facing Mining and Metals”.  Their top 10 risks are listed below, many are different than those from the World Economic Forum ranks. You must read the EY article to fully understand the details around their risk items.
  1. License to operate (difficulty to acquire)
  2. Digital effectiveness (lack thereof)
  3. Maximizing portfolio returns (can this be done)
  4. Cyber security (increasing risk of attack)
  5. Rising costs (can costs be controlled)
  6. Energy mix (acceptable power sources)
  7. Future of workforce (lack of interest in the sector)
  8. Disruption (falling behind competitors)
  9. Fraud (increasing sophistication)
  10. New world commodities (versus reduced demand for some commodities)

Conclusion

My bottom line is that the Global Risk Report is something that we should all read. Download it and then compare with what your company sees as its greatest risks. The only way to mitigate your risks is to know what they are.  The only way to work with others is to know what their issues are.
Note: If you would like to get notified when new blogs are posted, then sign up on the KJK mailing list on the website.  Otherwise I post notices on LinkedIn, so follow me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenkuchling/.
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Google Earth – Share Your Project in 3D

Google Earth is a great tool and it’s free for everyone to use. No doubt that many of us in the mining industry already use it regularly.
Previously I had written an article about how Google Earth can be used to give your entire engineering team a virtual site visit. It’s cheaper than flying everyone to site. That blog is available at this link “Google Earth – Keep it On Hand”.

What else can Google Earth do for me?

The Investor Relations (IR) department in a mining company can also take advantage of Google Earth’s capabilities. Typically the IR team are responsible for creating a myriad of PowerPoint investor presentations. Their slideshows will include graphics highlighting the project location, showing exploration drilling and planned site facilities for advanced projects. This is where Google Earth can be used to create a more interactive experience for investors.

Google Earth with 3D Buildings

Rather than relying only on PowerPoint, the technical team can create drillhole maps, 3D infrastructure layouts, open pit plans, 3D tailings dams, and import them into Google Earth.
By creating a KMZ file, one can share this information with investors, analysts, and stakeholders. This will provide an interactive opportunity to view the information themselves.
Viewers could fly around the site, zoom in and out as needed, examine things in 3D, and even measure distances. Viewers can even save the project in Google Earth and return back whenever curiosity dictates.
I have been a part of engineering teams where Google Earth has been used to share layout information. However I have not yet seen such information offered as a downloadable KMZ file to external parties. If you know of any companies that are currently doing this, please let me know (kjkltd@rogers.com) and I will share their link here.

There also is VRIFY

VRIFY is a new cloud based platform that provides 3D viewing capability. It provides a map based graphic tool to IR departments for sharing project information. VRIFY can also enhance collaboration among engineering teams by enabling a group to view a virtual project and sketch on the image in real time.

VRIFY desktop screenshot

VRIFY also allows more detailed information to be displayed in the form of hotspots within a project. Click on them to get more information on that topic (see image to the right).
Although I have only been given a demo of VRIFY, it appears to be a nice package that provides more functionality than Google Earth. Unfortunately VRIFY is not free for a company to use. The minimum subscription cost is about $10,000 (plus extras).
In June 2019 VRIFY made a deal with Kirkland Lake Gold whereby interested property vendors can submit their project to Kirkland Lake management for their review.
Here is the link (https://vrify.com/dealroom). In the proposed approach, the project information is submitted using the VRIFY platform. Essentially some of the same information presented in a PowerPoint is now provided in a more interactive fashion. Participating companies must first enter into a client service agreement with VRIFY. We will see how this idea works, since it does add a cost and new complexity for the property vendor.
There is another cloud based service called Reality Check, which offers virtual reality site visits.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that the trend in the mining industry is towards more open data sharing whether you’re connecting with the public or within your own engineering team. New and old cloud based platform tools can be used to do this. It just depends on your budget.
Note: If you would like to get notified when new blogs are posted, then sign up on the KJK mailing list on the website.  Otherwise I post notices on LinkedIn, so follow me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenkuchling/.
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Cyber Security – Coming to a Mine Near You

The mining industry is being told to take advantage of digitalization. As an example, here is a link to a recent article that discusses this “Can mining decode the opportunities of the future?”. The article says “To achieve sustainable improvements in productivity, mining companies will need to overcome a digital disconnect that has held them back”.
I fully agreement with this sentiment, although there are some cautions when adopting new technology.

Not everything is positive

The mining industry will see positive impacts from digitalization.  Unfortunately more reliance on technology also brings with it significant risks.  These risks are related to cyber security.
I recently attended a CIM presentation here in Toronto that focused on cyber security, specifically related to the mining industry. The potential negative impacts to a company can be significant.
Some mining companies already have experienced these negative impacts, albeit in some cases it may not be well publicized. I will highlight some examples later in this blog.
(By the way, I appreciate that the CIM presenter gave me access to the information in his presentation).

Attackers and threats

There are several ways that mining companies can be attacked via technology channels. The attackers could be foreign governments, anti-mining groups, disgruntled employees, or just your average everyday miscreant. There are several avenues as described below.
  • Hack-tivsm: Where a company website may be defaced and blocked as part of a campaign against the opening of a new operation.
  • Data Breaches: Security breaches on websites resulting in leaked sensitive data including personal identification, credentials, and investor information.
  • Industrial Control Attack: Amending software code on major equipment resulting in shutdown or damage.
  • Business Interruption: Attacking systems so the company must be temporarily disconnected from the internet and forcing replacement of all hard drives and servers.
  • Dependent Business Interruption: Overwhelming servers in order to degrade cloud services and websites.

Examples

The following are some examples of how different attack approaches have been used with success.
  • April 2016 – a Canadian gold-mining firm suffered a major data breach when hackers leaked 14.8 GBs of data containing employee personal information and financial data.
  • May 2015 – a Canadian gold mining company was hacked resulting in 100GBs+ worth of stolen data being released.
  • May 2013 – a large platinum producer experienced a security breach on their website resulting in leaked sensitive data online including personal data, credentials, and investor information.
  • February 2015 – A junior mining company was the victim of a cyber scam that resulted in the company paying a $10M deposit into an unknown bank account intended for a sub-contractor.
  • November 2011 – In an attempt to gain information on bid information about a potential corporate takeover, hackers attacked the secure networks of several law firms and computers of the Government of Canada’s Finance Department and Treasury Board.
  • August 2008 – Hackers were able to gain access to the operational controls of a pipeline where they were able to increase the pressure in the pipeline without setting off alarms resulting in an explosion. Beyond damaging the pipeline, the attack cost millions of dollars and also caused thousands of barrels of oil to spill close to a water aquifer.
  • 2014 – A steel mill was the victim of a phishing attack which allowed attackers to gain access to their office network causing outages of production networks and production machines. The outages ultimately resulted in a blast furnace not being properly shut down causing significant damage to the plant.
  • 2003 – Cyber attackers were able to gain access to the SCADA network of an oil tanker resulting in an 8 hour shutdown.
  • August 2012 – A large state-owned oil and gas supplier, experienced an attack intended to halt their supply of crude oil and gas which resulted in more than 30,000 hard drives and 2,000 servers being destroyed ultimately forcing I.T. systems to be disconnected from the internet for two weeks.
  • 2014 – Malware was used to gain access to a Ukrainian regional electricity distribution company to gain remote access to SCADA systems and remotely switch substations off, leaving 225,000 without electricity for three hours.
How many similar incidents have occurred, being unreported or not as publicly visible as these?  Recently Air Canada had a major computer outage.  Was that a squirrel chewing through a wire or a full-on cyber attack?

Ask yourself if you are ready

As your mining company continues to move into the digital world, you must ask:
  1. If an attacker were to disable your business application or a production facility, how long would it take to recover? How much would it cost you? How would you even measure the cost?
  2. How do you ensure your third party vendors’ security standards are appropriate? What would you do if a key supplier or key customer had a data breach that impacted you or hinder their deliveries? How do you mitigate your exposure to such events?
  3. What type and how much sensitive information are you responsible for? If you learned today that your network was compromised, what is your response plan?  Who would you call to investigate a data breach? What law firm would you use and do they have breach response experts?
A cyber attack can impact on operations, public perception, legal liability, and corporate trust.  This can mirror the legal impact of a tailings dam failure.  So are there any mitigations?

Cyber insurance is available

Companies can now consider the growing cyber insurance industry. Traditional insurance indemnifies property, casualty, crime, errors & omissions, and kidnap & ransom events. Cyber insurance adds additional coverage for breaches related to data confidentiality, operations technology malfunctions, network outages, disruption of 3rd parties, deletion or corruption of data, encryption of data, cyber fraud and theft.
While nobody wants to add another cost burden on their business, the gains from digitalization don’t come without pains.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that there is no stopping the digitalization of the mining industry. It is here whether anybody likes it or not. At the same time, there is likely no stopping the growth of cyber crime.
Likely we will hear more hacking stories as miners adopt more of the new technology.
The first line of defense are your security policies and procedures.  Bring in an expert for a security audit. As an option, you can contact cyber insurance brokers that have the expertise to help.
 Its great to see an executive at the head office operating a scooptram at their underground mine.  Its not so great to see some kid in a basement operating that same scooptram (and setting production records).
Open your doors to technology but at the same time keep them locked.
Note: If you would like to get notified when new blogs are posted, then sign up on the KJK mailing list on the website.  Otherwise I post notices on LinkedIn, so follow me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenkuchling/.
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Flawed Projects – No Such Thing as Perfection

Recently I read a post on LinkedIn where somebody was asking what key metrics companies are looking for in order to develop (or provide financing to) a new mining project. It’s more than just a project having a good NPV or IRR.  They are also looking at how difficult it is to achieve the targeted NPV.
Mining companies are always on the hunt for new projects to grow their cashflows. They would all like to find the “perfect” project; one with ideal conditions and great attributes. However those perfect projects likely don’t exist anymore, if they ever even did.
Consequently companies must be willing to accept some potential flaws (or risks) in their go-forward projects. The question is what flaws are they willing to accept and how far away from the ideal situation are they willing to go.

What makes a perfect project?

If one could envision a perfect mining project, what might it look like?   Here are some attributes that one would want to see (in random order). If a project had 100% of these, it would be a fantastic project.
    • A high grade ore orebody
    • A large reserve and long mine life to ride out commodity price cycles
    • Low operating cost
    • Low cash cost, in the bottom quartile of costs
    • Well defined ore zones, allowing simple mining with low dilution
    • A geotechnically competent rock mass
    • Clean and straightforward metallurgy
    • Consistent and straightforward permitting regulations
    • A stable government and stable fiscal regime
    • Safe security conditions for site personnel
    • High NPV and high IRR
    • No acid runoff issues from waste products
    • Stable tailings disposal conditions
    • Readily available local workforce / local power supply / good water supply
    • Favorable local community and stakeholder support
Other readers may have more attributes that they would like to see if asked to theorize “What constitutes a perfect mining project?”

Take off the promoter hat

backhoe on soft claysNow take an honest look at some recent (or past) projects that you have been involved with. How many of the perfect attributes listed above would be represented? It would be surprising to see them all checked off. Unfortunately that means certain flaws (risks) must be accepted when developing a project.
Each company (or financier) will have their vision as to which attributes are “must have” and which ones are “nice to have”.

But we have risk tools

There are many risk tools available to help in evaluating the potential flaws in a project. Unfortunately these tools don’t make the decisions for management.
Risk based Monte Carlo analysis requires management to pre-define the magnitude of the risks and then decide upon what probability of success is acceptable. Real option analysis or decision trees or Kepner-Tregoe are examples of other tools that can help in the decision making process.
Ultimately risk is risky.  Management must make the go/no-go decision regardless of how many probabilistic histograms and tables they have generated. A 90% chance of success still means there is a 10% chance of failure. The probability of failure may be low, but it is not zero.
It would be interesting to examine recent failed projects to define the cause(s) of failure. One could then see if the cause was something that was pre-determined as a risk, either as a small risk or a large risk. Perhaps the cause was something that management felt could be mitigated or perhaps it was something viewed as highly unlikely. No doubt that successful projects also had risks, which were either mitigated or which (luckily) never occurred.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that management understandably have a difficult task in making go/no-go decisions. Financial institutions have similar dilemmas when deciding on whether or not to finance a project.
In my career I have sat in on such management discussions and it’s never been a simple process, mainly because no project is perfect. Management know all the flaws (at least they think they do) and thus have to decide whether to push forward knowing the flaws exist.
I fully expect that future mining project risk will increase due to the complexity of project designs and broadening of stakeholder dynamics. Hence decision making in the mining industry isn’t going to get any easier regardless of the decision tools being used.  Look at your own situation, are your projects getting easier or harder?
Perhaps this is one reason we are seeing the flight of investment capital from mining into software/cannabis businesses. The risk/reward profile may be viewed more favorably in these investments.
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Is Insitu Leaching the “Green Mining” Future

It is no surprise to anyone that permitting new open pit mines in today’s environment is getting more difficult and even impossible in some areas.   Underground mines also have their challenges, permitting as well as requiring relatively high grades to be economic.
So where might our future metal supplies come from?  What are the options?

Insitu leaching may be the answer

I recently came across an insitu leaching website, called BIOMore.  This was an initiative sponsored by the EU that looked at insitu leaching technology for metal recovery.    Environmental issues associated with mining in Europe, particularly open pit mining, raised concerns about how ore bodies in the EU might be developed in the future.
Insitu leaching technology was viewed as playing an important role.  This is due to its minimal surface disturbance, ability to operate at great depth, and its potential in urban and developed locations.  Sounds like a nice solution to have on hand.
The EU-funded BIOMOre research project was completed in 2018.  It was designed to develop a new technological framework for the insitu recovering of metals from deep deposits.  The process would rely on controlled stimulation of pre-existing fractures in combination with insitu bio-leaching.  The study mainly focused on the application of existing technologies.

Fracing will be an issue

Insitu leaching essentially relies on exposing mineralized surfaces to leach solutions.  This may require hydro-fracturing (fracing) to enhance insitu bio-leaching using bacteria and acid.   Fracing is currently banned in some European countries so this is going to be a potential issue.  From a leaching perspective, the trade-off would be between no fracing, reduced cost & lower metal recovery against higher cost & higher metal recovery with fracing.
If insitu leaching technology development is successful, it could help exploit European base metals from porphyry deposits (Cu, Au, Mo, Cu, REE, PGE, Re, Pb, Cu, Pt, Au) and other gold and uranium deposits.   Insitu leaching would avoid building a mine, mine infrastructure, and it generates almost no tailings nor waste dumps.  Leaching is expected to be cheaper than traditional mining and more acceptable to the public. Insitu leaching is being touted as “Green Mining”

What did they conclude

This study deliverables included comprehensive documentation, an economic evaluation, and risk analysis of a potential insitu bio-leaching operation.  The basis was a theoretical deposit, looking at different well field set-ups.
The study concluded that accessing potential deposits at depths of around 1000 m is economically feasible only if curved wells are used.  The most relevant operational parameters are sufficient permeability in the ore zone and an adequate contact surface between the ore and leaching solution.   The depth of the deposit is indirectly relevant, but more importantly the well installation cost per volume of deposit is critical.  Hence curved wells are optimal.
One interesting suggestion was combining an insitu leach operation with geothermal energy recovery.  This might result in additional project revenue stream with only a marginal cost increase.
It was suggested that insitu leach operations might be attractive in former mining regions where high grade deposits have been mined out yet nearby low grade deposits are well defined. Social license for insitu leaching may also be more accepting in these areas.
If you are interested in learning more about insitu leaching technology and the chemistry aspect, the BIOMore study deliverables are available for downloading at this site.
In the past, mining engineers like myself were told to learn the basics of crushing, grinding, and flotation to become more well rounded.  I may suggest that future mining engineers may need to learn the basics of directional drilling, hydro-fracing, and chemistry.  Sounds like petroleum engineering.

Some aspects are still uncertain

In practical terms, some things are still not clear to me. For example are how much effort and diligence must go into properly characterizing the permeability of a rock mass.  As well, how complex a task is it to metallurgically characterize the deposit spatially with regards to it being amenable to insitu leaching.  Not all ore types will behave the same and be amenable to leaching.
I am also curious about the ability to finance such projects, given the caution associated with any novel technology.  Many financiers prefer projects that rely on proven and conventional operating methods.
Notwithstanding those concerns, likely insitu leaching technology will continue to advance and show even more promise, and eventually gain greater acceptance.
While some innovators are looking at new ways to drill, blast, and move rock, the real innovators are looking at ways to recover metals without moving any rock at all.
For those interested, Excelsior Mining is looking to open a copper oxide insitu leaching operation in Arizona.  Here is video of how their technology will work.
Note: If you would like to get notified when new blogs are posted, then sign up on the KJK mailing list on the website.  Otherwise I post notices on LinkedIn, so follow me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenkuchling/.

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Blockchain vs Robotic Process Automation

I recently wrote a blog about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now being used by the exploration side of the mining industry. My curiosity was whether the application of AI is going to be real or is it just being used as a buzzword to help promote companies. You can read that blog at this link “AI vs The Geologists”.
With the topic of buzzwords in mind, I was curious about some of other technology advances we hear about. Coincidentally Canadian Mining Magazine (Winter 2019 issue) published two articles on upcoming technologies, the links are provided here; blockchain and robotic process automation. As with AI, I’m still curious about these two, mainly due to the limited number of applications thus far.

Blockchain for supply chain

With regards to blockchain, it seems to me the main benefits are being related to supply chains, whether for purchasing or selling activities. Some of the examples given are that one can verify where the cobalt in your phone was mined or where your engagement diamond is from. Oddly though, I don’t recall ever wanting to know where the metal in my phone is from.
Other example applications of blockchain are for inventory management, shipment number tracking, transport log tracking, and bill of lading management. The advantages are transaction speed, trust, and traceability.
Currently there are many ways shipping and receiving activities are being tracked. Hence I am a bit unclear as to where blockchain will provide a groundbreaking improvement. Can’t well designed cloud database achieve the same thing?
Blockchain reportedly has improved security in that copies of its tracking “ledgers” are simultaneously hosted on multiple servers and hence are hack-proof.
Is blockchain over-hyped?  Here’s an article that seems to think so “5 challenges to getting projects off the ground”.
Thus far in my career I have not yet had any direct experience with a real life application of blockchain. Therefore it is a bit difficult to say whether it is a great business innovation or a great business promotion. Perhaps some of you have had experience with actual blockchain applications in the mining industry. Please let me know and I will follow up. So far I am still on the fence.
On the other hand…

Robotic Process Automation

We have seen in manufacturing that robotics will eliminate repetitive type jobs. Will robotic process automation (rPA) be able to do the same by completing repetitive tasks for us?
The types of tasks being targeted for rPA are real time data analysis, daily- weekly-monthly reporting, tracking real time costs and progress schedules, or in other words, monitoring system wide process inputs and outputs.
Having access to real time data is important and it is a growing trend worldwide in all industries. In my view, mine site wide data integration is a key to the future of mining, especially when combined with AI, data mining, and data analysis. It is great to have the ability to instantly know exactly what is going on everywhere at a mine site. It is also great to know what went on in the previous hour, 24 hours, or 30 days.
Modern sensor technology is such that almost anything can be monitored now in real time. Will an action in one part of the operation trigger an impending impact in another part of the operation? For example can a large blast in the pit result in excess vibrations leading to tailings dam creep at the same time and is someone monitoring something this simultaneously? There are many action-reaction type events that occur in a mining operation, each with operational or cost impact. Only technology is able to instantly monitor all of these activities, assess their impacts, and provide quick decisions.
Collecting hoards of data from a site wide sensor network creates a dilemma in what to do with all the data collected. Smart cities are running into this issue. Who can sort through the data, decide what is important and what is noise, then summarize the data and report on it in real time? A human cannot deal with the amount of data being collected in such networks.
I have seen companies use fleet dispatch systems to collect gigabytes of data but then have difficulty in analyzing and making sense of it all. Sometimes the dispatch data is simply used to produce a month end production report. This is one example of where process automation may play a bigger role.
I don’t see repetitive process automation eliminating many jobs. Rather it may even increase the jobs needed to maintain and operate the virtual networks. Employment aside, I see the benefit of rPA is having a better understanding of the functioning organism called a mining operating. An operation is essentially an organism with lots of moving parts constantly making decisions requiring emotional intelligence.

Conclusion

Regarding the two technologies discussed in this blog, I personally feel robotic process automation will have far greater impact on mining industry future and its profitability.
For many years we have already seen some application of this technology (i.e. just in the mine or just in the plant). With improving sensors, increased computing power, AI, and cloud data storage, I feel that site wide integrated robotic process automation will lead the way.
However the clouds on the horizon may be the high cost of implementation, the risk of hacking (read https://kuchling.com/66-cyber-security-coming-to-a-mine-near-you), and the fact that different vendors may use different data protocols making system wide integration extremely difficult.
In my view blockchain has not yet made the case for itself. No doubt I need more education on blockchain but that will hopefully come naturally as some real life applications are introduced into our daily activities.  Read the Canadian Mining Magazine articles linked to above and see what you think the future holds for mining.
For those interested in remote tailings dam monitoring,here is an interesting CIM article “The internet of tailings“.
Note: If you would like to get notified when new blogs are posted, then sign up on the KJK mailing list on the website.  Otherwise I post notices on LinkedIn, so follow me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenkuchling/.
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Ore Dilution – An Underground Perspective

A few months ago I wrote a blog about different approaches that mining engineers are using to predict dilution in an open pit setting. You can read the blog at this link. Since that time I have been in touch with the author of a technical paper on dilution specifically related to underground operations. Given that my previous blog was from an open pit perspective, an underground discussion might be of interest and educational.
The underground paper is titled “Mining Dilution and Mineral Losses – An Underground Operator’s Perspective” by Paul Tim Whillans. You can download the paper at this link.

Here is the abstract

For the underground operator, dilution is often synonymous with over-break, which mining operations struggle to control. However, there are many additional factors impacting dilution which may surpass the importance of overbreak, and these also need to be considered when assessing a project. Among these, ore contour variability is an important component of both dilution and mineral losses which is often overlooked.  Mineral losses are often considered to be less important because it is considered that they will only have a small impact on net present value. This is not necessarily the case and in fact mineral losses may be much higher than indicated in mining studies due to aggregate factors and may have an important impact on shorter term economics.

My key takeaways

I am not going into detail on Paul’s paper, however some of my key takeaways are as follows. Download the paper to read the rationale behind these ideas.
  • Over-break is a component of dilution but may not be the major cause of it. Other aspects are in play.
  • While dilution may be calculated on a volumetric basis, the application of correct ore and waste densities is important. This applies less to gold deposits than base metal deposits, where ore and waste density differences can be greater.
  • Benchmarking dilution at your mine site with published data may not be useful. Nobody likes to report excessively high dilution for various reasons, hence the published dilution numbers may not be entirely truthful.
  • Ore loss factors are important but can be difficult to estimate. In open pit mining, ore losses are not typically given much consideration. However in underground mining they can have a great impact on the project life and economics.
  • Mining method sketches can play a key role in understanding underground dilution and ore losses, even in today’s software driven mining world.
  • Its possible that many mine operators are using cut-off grades that are too low in some situations.
  • High grading, an unacceptable practice in the past, is now viewed differently due to its positive impact on NPV. (Its seems Mark Bristow at Barrick may be putting a stop to this approach).
  • Inferred resources used in a PEA can often decrease significantly when upgraded to the measured and indicated classifications. If there is a likelihood of this happening, it should be factored into the PEA production tonnage.
  • CIM Best Practice Guidelines do not require underground ore exposure for feasibility studies. However exposing the ore faces can have a significant impact on one’s understanding of the variability of the ore contacts and the properties of minor faults.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that not everyone will necessarily agree with all the conclusions of Paul’s paper on underground dilution. However it does raise many issues for technical consideration on your project.
All of us in the industry want to avoid some of the well publicized disappointments seen on recent underground projects. Several have experienced difficulty in delivering the ore tonnes and grades that were predicted in the feasibility studies. No doubt it can be an anxious time for management when commissioning a new underground mine.
Note: previously I had shared another one of Paul’s technical papers in a blog called “Underground Feasibility Forecasts vs Actuals”. It also provides some interesting insights about underground mining projects.
If you need more information, Paul Whillans website is at http://www.whillansminestudies.com/.
Note: If you would like to get notified when new blogs are posted, then sign up on the KJK mailing list on the website.  Otherwise I post notices on LinkedIn, so follow me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenkuchling/.
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