Engineering the Future of Mining

About the episode

As the world shifts towards renewable energy production, experts predict that mining will play a critical role in the extraction of minerals necessary for technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle batteries.

Head of UNSW School of Minerals Energy Resources Engineering, Professor Ismet Canbulat, and Executive General Manager of Mining Excellence with Centennial Energy Company, Rae O'Brien, joins STEM journalist, Neil Martin, to discuss the role of mining as the world transitions to a greener future.

 

UNSW Sydney
Professor Ismet Canbulat

Professor Ismet Canbulat is Head of School and Chair of Rock Mechanics at the School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering, UNSW Sydney. He has over 30 years of experience in mining research, consultancy, management, on-site and academia.

Ismet is a Fellow of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and Institute of Engineers Australia; a member of the International Society for Rock Mechanics, Australian Geomechanics Society and Society of Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration.

Ismet is an author and co-author of over 150 publications and over 200 consulting reports submitted to over 50 mines in Australia, South Africa, Turkiye and New Zealand.

 

UNSW Sydney
Rae O'Brien

Recently taking up the role of Executive General Manager of Mining Excellence with Centennial, Rae has 25+ years Mining Experience, including many years within site and corporate operational management, technical, business planning, risk and strategy functions. 

Her career has been focused on holistic management, understanding and integrating disparate functions within an operation or company - addressing key operational and technical risks, understanding key value drivers for business decisions, as well as organisational culture. She has also designed and implemented many company-wide processes, standards & practises for technical and other functions across underground and opencut operations alike. 

Rae has a passion for advancing the knowledge boundaries in Mining Engineering and earth sciences - recently appointed Chairperson of the ACRL Board, having been an active committee member for several years. Her other recent roles for various companies include Mining Advisor to CEO, (Mine Site) General Manager, Director of Roadway Development, Group Manager of Technical Services.

 

  • Voiceover:

    Welcome to UNSW engineering the future podcast, a series where we'll speak to academics and industry leaders who are embracing cutting edge ideas and pushing the boundaries of what is truly possible. In this episode, we'll take a deep dive into exciting developments in the mining industry, and discuss what impacts we can expect on society as a whole. Over the next two decades. We'll hear from leading experts in the field, Professor Ismet, Jumblatt and re O'Brien as they explain how new technologies will help bring about the required sixfold increase in the extraction of critical minerals that are needed to produce the likes of solar panels and electric vehicles. They'll also reveal the reasons why mining won't just be confined to Earth in the future, but will also be happening out in space as we attempt to colonise the Moon and Mars. So join us as we discover how world changing action starts with fearless thinking in engineering the future of mining.

    Neil Martin:

    Hello and welcome to Engineering the Future of Mining. My name is Neil Martin and I'm a journalist and STEM communicator working in the Faculty of Engineering at UNSW. Joining me today to discuss how mining will change the world in the next 20 years is Professor Ismet Canbulat, who is a mining engineer with over 30 years experience in research, consultancy, and management, and is now the head of School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering at UNSW. Welcome, Ismet.

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Thank you, Neil. Thanks for the opportunity and look forward to our discussion with yourself and Rae.

    Neil Martin:

    Yes. And also with us is Rae O'Brien, Executive General Manager of Mining Excellence with Centennial Energy Company. Rae is chair of the ACARP board, a mining industry research organisation, and has more than 25 years mining experience, including many years within site and corporate operational management, as well as roles in business planning, risk, and strategy functions. Hello, Rae.

    Rae O'Brien:

    Hi, Neil. Hi, Ismet. Great to be here.

    Neil Martin:

    I might start by acknowledging that in recent years, mining has faced criticism for its negative environmental impact and social consequences. But as the world shifts towards renewable energy production, many experts are saying that mining is almost certain to play a critical role in the extraction of minerals necessary for technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric vehicle batteries, making it a crucial component of the transition to a greener future. 

     

    Neil Martin:

    Rae, if you were to look into the future, what do you see for the industry?

    Rae O'Brien:

    So I guess if I recap on what you said before about the forces shaping the future for mining, so as mentioned, one of the biggest ones, the geopolitical and market forces are at play and this transition to a low carbon or a net zero carbon economy is driving a huge demand for electrification minerals. So I've heard numerous accounts of numbers, but essentially, the latest one is we need to mine in the order of six times the amount we're currently mining in terms of those electrification minerals. If we're going to hit this net zero target to build all of the infrastructure we require.

    And I guess the other thing that we're likely to see because of a number of those drivers is expansions of current operations. So our resource spaces for minerals like copper and others are a lot of the high grade minerals have been mined already and the easy accessible minerals. So we're likely to expand into lower grade and more complex geology and we're probably likely to see remining of old mining waste or what was deemed as waste before.

    As the processing technology gets better, we'll be able to remine a lot of that old waste and extract more mineral out of it. I do think there's a lot of remote sensing technology we already have that we're not using to the degree that we could be.

    Neil Martin:

    So if I go back to where you said the increase of minerals which were essential in clean energy production, Ismet, what are some of those actual minerals and what are the challenges? You talk about a sixfold increase that we need to produce those minerals. What kind of challenges does that bring?

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Well, there will be a lot of challenges, particularly around what Rae talked about, is the increased production. Increased production means we will have to do more selective mining with much less waste and then much faster and much more productive than what we have right now. So that increase is not going to happen overnight. Amount of critical minerals that we will have to mine, there are lots of them. By the way, critical minerals is defined by minerals that are used in renewable energy sector and other supporting sectors to renewable energy. But what is included in critical minerals vary depending on the country. So Australia has got its own list of critical minerals and elsewhere. But the important thing is to me, is that, how is that sixfold increase going to happen? And that can only happen with increase productivity, increase resource recovery, and then increase investment into mining operations. And obviously, that means there will be many more mines opening up in Australia and elsewhere to be able to provide those critical minerals into the market.

    Neil Martin:

    And what are the actual minerals that we're talking about here?

    Ismet Canbulat:

    When you look at a conventional car versus an electric car, International Energy Agency predicts that there will be five times more requirement for critical minerals. Those critical minerals include anything and everything from copper, lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt, graphite, chromium. There's a huge list of it. First of all, the electric cars will definitely need it. The cars that you see on the street today uses five times more critical minerals than the conventional cars that we used to drive and we still drive them. And when we look at the different energies, for example, offshore wind and onshore wind, solar, photovoltaics, they will require enormous amount of critical minerals.

    So when I look at the list, currently, coal and natural gas use really about 2,000 kilograms per megawatt energy generation critical minerals. But when we look at, for example offshore wind, it's 16,000 kilograms per megawatt energy. So that is eight times more critical minerals will be required to be able to sustain or achieve the net carbon zeros by 2050.

    Neil Martin:

    I might ask, Rae, if this is where the mining industry is headed 20 years into the future and there's more of those critical minerals being produced for cleaner, greener energy production, do you think that will change the perception that people have of mining?

    Rae O'Brien:

    I think it has to. I think people are starting to change even in the last six months have people realised that we need mining for this transition. We can't do it without it. And that also goes for the energy side of things. So a lot of these elements or a lot of these minerals occur in a very low grade. So rare Earth is called rare Earth because they're rare. They occur in parts per million, which means you've got to move millions of tonnes of just dirt just to get a kilogram of whatever it is.  So from an energy perspective, it's actually a really big challenge.  it can't happen without mining.

    Ismet Canbulat:

    If I can also come in there, what I project what is going to happen in the future is because the need will increase exponentially if you want to achieve net carbon zero by 2050. And then, if we can't produce those critical minerals, those critical minerals will be bottleneck for the net carbon zero future. And if they become expensive, that means the energy will be very, very expensive as well. So we need to be able to produce them at a reasonable cost and obviously, sell them at a reasonable cost, so that they can get implemented in renewable energy technologies. But I suspect there will be changes in renewable energy technologies as well as we progress towards 2050 because as much as mining industry is changing, the renewable energy industry is also changing. They're looking at different batteries, using potassium rather than cobalt. And there are a lot of changes coming into battery technologies, renewable energy technologies, like UNSW is the leading institution in the world increasing the effectiveness of the solar panels.

    So that means there will be more and more energy produced from the solar panels for a given same size solar panel but it will come by time. But nevertheless, whichever way we look at, the mining industry will be required to support the renewable industries. And then I think I agree with Rae, the public's perception towards mining is changing. What we need to change is going into environmental friendly, sustainable mining practices, looking after the communities, that will basically bring people into believing that yes, we need mining and then we will need mining in the future going forward.

    Neil Martin:

    Do you feel that mining has been demonised recently over the past 10 or 20 years?

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Absolutely. Absolutely. As soon as we talked about mining. I mean, being at a university we are exposed to public and as soon as you talk to public about mining, first thing that they come to their mind is coal mining. But they don't realise the fact that mining is also necessary for renewable energy technologies. There will be some coming from the recycling as well. But the amount of recycling is getting less and less as we make the parts more and more smaller and more integrated into other parts as well. And recycling also uses currently lot of fossil fuels too. So that will change as well.

    Neil Martin:

    Maybe there's a public relations exercise there over the next 20 years as well, Rae.

    Rae O'Brien:

    Yeah, I mean, I've been mining for quite a while and the reason why I did do mining was because I have got an environmental conscience. I deliberately went into mining to try and do things right and do things well from the inside. You can make a lot bigger a difference from the inside than you can throwing stones. But I accept there's not a lot of real knowledge. If it's not grown, it's mined pretty much. Everything you use every day comes from mining in some way.

    Ismet Canbulat:

    If I can give an example there, look at the chemical industry. The chemical industry 20, 30 years ago was really dirty, it's a bad industry. Everybody wanted to stay away from the chemical plants. Everybody thought they were pumping all the worst chemicals into the river streams and all that. But look at it now, how it changed. So mining industry is changing and it will change and there's been so much improvements from being responsible mining operations compared to 20 years ago for example. So much like people like Rae coming into the mining industry like myself, I'm also very conscious of the environment and we are trying to change everything and make it as clean as we walking on the street.

    Neil Martin:

    So some of that might lead into my next question, which is about the new technologies that might exist in 20 years’ time for mining. And I think a few of these are already coming in. I've read that drones are being used in mining already. AI seems to be permeating every industry that exists. So I'm sure that there's an element of that that can be used. Robotics. Can you maybe talk about what you see for the technology of mining in 20 years’ time?

    Rae O'Brien:

    The particular project I'm thinking of is called rock vision. So what it was, they put some geophones, so they're just listening for sonic noise through rocks, and they placed it in a panel that was being mined and the purpose of that project was to get the geophones to listen for microseismic breaks happening in the strata above. That particular mine had a periodic waiting problem where they couldn't predict. So basically, the rock above them would break periodically and really weight up their equipment and they'd had some big problems in the past. And the project proved successful. The geophones could easily help predict when they were going to see increased cracking above them. And that never went any further because it was just too hard, too cumbersome to try and put in place. But now, you could do the same thing probably even with fibre optics.

    Fibre optics can be a very, very powerful tool. You can pick up all sorts of waves through fibre optics and easy to install. And from a processing power point of view, you can't even compare.

    Neil Martin:

    So it's making that process just massively more efficient. Is that right?

    Rae O'Brien:

    Yeah, and the other thing that I think I mentioned before, we have a lot of automated, a lot of machine sensing. So a lot of machine telemetry that we don't really use. So I'm talking about underground probably more so that in a long wall situation for example, every bit of equipment there has got telemetry on it and you could be using that information coupled with the rock visioning in front of you, to be reading what the rock's doing around you. That's not happening, and we've got it all there. We're just not using it yet. I guess and then from a scanning point of view, you mentioned drones but we should be, and we are, starting to use scanning a lot more. So drones allow you to go in an open cut, go and look at the high wall from angles that you wouldn't have been able to do before.

    Drones have been widespread take up for drones to manage blasting. So filming of blast is actually now a requirement. And drones allow you to do that very, very safely because no one needs to be there and from different angles and it's just really, really powerful. And drones, it's really the vehicle to carry the scanning tool or whatever that you're using it for. That's what makes them so powerful. Drones are being used a lot for surveying in particular. It allows you, again, access to go and see from different angles, And then the processing power we've got now allows you to process that information very, very quickly. So I think so rock visioning, so remote sensing, machine guidance and scanning and processing.

    Neil Martin:

    Any other new technologies, Ismet, that you can foresee in 20 years’ time will be common?

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Yeah, Neil, I totally agree with Rae what she said about new technologies, but there will be more such as satellite monitoring has always been in the mining industry for the last 10 years or so. I remember myself using satellite monitoring, but it wasn't frequent enough to be able to monitor certain things. But I think as we put more and more satellites into the space, we will be able to do more satellite monitoring. We will be able to see everything from the space as what mining operation is doing and particularly for looking at the environmental impacts, we will be able to do that. And plus, I think there will be a lot of equipment for monitoring. But where the power is going to come in is going to be 3D visualisation integrated with artificial intelligence. Right?

    So machine learning algorithm working in the background. And try to eliminate people’s decision making through using those technologies. Everything and anything that we develop, it will need visualisation and I think we are moving away from sitting in front of the computers and we will be sitting in front of the 3D, I don't know, hologram tables, one we have at the university here at our school, and virtual reality, and other technologies, to be able to automate, to be able to make things way more visible. Currently, we collect a lot of information. So when we go to the mine site, there's enormous amount of information that is collected but not used because we don't know how to use them. But now, with the visualisation and integrated artificial intelligence in the visualisation, we'll make it so useful, so helpful for the operations to increase their effectiveness.

    Neil Martin:

    And I guess the knock on effect of that as well is that the skillsets that people will need are going to change.

    Rae O'Brien:

    Absolutely.

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Absolutely. Skillsets and that's what we trying to train our engineers here at our school and at UNSW very, very early so they get exposed to these technologies because that's what they will be using in the very near future. So they learn how to do visualisation, they know how to integrate data coming from sensors that Rae talked about, and putting it into a visualisation software and then making it visible. The power of visualisation is enormous. So once you see things happening, that gives you superpowers to be able to make a quality decision. Whether it's safety, whether it's environment, whether it's productivity, anything and everything. But all of those technologies will come in together and then they will be all compatible at some stage. I mean, currently, we are working on it and a lot of things are compatible, but nevertheless, in the near future, it is going to be like day-to-day operational technology that we will be using in the mines.

    Neil Martin:

    I see you nodding in agreement there, Rae.

    Rae O’Brien:

    Yeah, absolutely. So I guess that's one big aspect from a people and a skill point of view, but for all the reasons that we've mentioned before, that the resources that we are looking to mine going forward are going to be highly complex in terms of not just geology, not just grade, not just processing, but location and logistics like the carbon side of things. And getting more partnerships with local communities and the whole supply chain, the whole value chain is actually going to have to be more of a partnership between all of those parties so that everyone benefits from the exercise. And really, when you put all that together, what we actually need is really exceptional engineers. And it's not just across one specific skill. We need people who are able to be across that full suite of issues and challenges. So this is why we can't just write off mining. We actually need more exceptional mining engineers going forward, not less.

    Neil Martin:

    Ismet, I might take you back to something you said before, which I agree with, that when you say the word mining, you think of coal. And obviously, we're trying to move away from that with regards to cleaner, greener energy. Do you think coal mining will have vanished in 20 years time? And if not, why not?

    Ismet Canbulat:

     I think coal mining will be with us for some time to come. I mean, let's think logically. There are developing countries and they have all the rights to be able to use the coal as their primary energy source and it will happen. Although it's changing, it will happen. But whether it's 20 years, 30 years, it will, at some stage, vanish. And we're going to have to rely on other energy sources to be able to do what we do with the energy. Particularly I'm talking about, not so much household energy, but I'm talking about industrial energy. Carbon footprint of mining operations will be the number one challenge. And big mining companies are really pushing very hard to be able to reduce their footprint. So coal mining, will stay with us for some time to come because of developing countries or reliance of developing countries on coal as their primary energy. In developed countries like Australia and the US and other countries, it may vanish earlier, but other parts of the world where they need energy and there is still billions of people without energy, they will need coal for some time to come.

    Neil Martin:

    So it sounds like, Rae, there's a little bit of a time lag there between developed nations and developing nations. Do you agree with that, that it would just take those developing nations some time to catch up?

    Rae O'Brien:

    Yes, absolutely. And there are thousands of high efficient, low emissions, coal-fired power stations being built across Asia and India at the moment. So I guess that just one point on that, the Australia's coal-fired power stations fleet, there's a lot of ageing coal-fired power stations, and many of them will close soon. So I want to talk first about thermal coal, then and about metallurgical coal, but from a thermal coal perspective, Australia's black thermal coal is nearly a third to half again more energy. So we've got higher energy content than other coals across the world. So particularly coals in India, Indonesia, a very, very low calorific value in comparison to Australian coal. So Australian coal, the Newcastle index is around 6,000 kilocalories per kilogram. Some of the Indonesian coals, Indian coals are around the 4,000. The higher the energy content of the coal, the lower the emissions are going to be. So we've got, for the same amount of tonnage, you get a lot more energy out of it. You could probably emit half the emissions out of a 6,000 plus kilocalorie coal than you would out of 4,000.

    Neil Martin:

    So Australian coal is going to be still in demand.

    Rae O'Brien:

    Exactly, exactly. So for that reason, but the other reason is this whole transition and I'm talking about energy coal still, Ismet mentioned it, for manufacturing of the infrastructure like solar cells and steel and anything that needs intense heat. You're going to need that big base load power stations and whether that be coal or gas or nuclear, you need that level of energy, for the silica for solar cells like for steel and any other alloys or metals, you need intense heat. So there's going to be a huge amount. We haven't mentioned that I've heard lots of different numbers about the amount of energy we're going to need to get to that point as well. It's a big number. We're probably going to need more coal-fired power stations than what people think.

    And for that reason, we need to have some form of carbon capture and sequestration or storage. There needs to be a lot of focus on that side of things for the transition. But on metallurgical coals. Coal's not just used for making energy, coal's used for a raft of things, it makes a lot of chemicals and the like, but one of the other bigger uses is for steel making. So a big portion of that is for energy in the steel making process. But the other point is steel is an iron carbon alloy, so you actually need carbon in the steel. So for a fair while, I think you're going to need metallurgical coal until all these other technologies come up to speed.

    But yeah, I just wanted to make that point. Not all coal is for power generation. I think in China for example, they don't have much oil or any oil. A lot of their chemicals, the petrochemicals come from coal. So there's a lot of things they make out of coal that are not power and it's not steel.

    Neil Martin:

    We're talking here so far about things that we mine out of the ground on Earth. In 20 years’ time, can you see mining happening away from Earth on Mars or on the moon? And if so, what does that look like?

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Well, it's a good question, Neil, but the question is not if, it’s when. I'm not an expert in this field. I mean, we have experts in the school, and UNSW as well, obviously, but the current target is not really the minerals. Current target is just water. We need to be able to find the water somewhere in space so that our space rockets can go to that place and get the water and then convert that water into hydrogen fuel and then carry on with their journey wherever they're going.

    So the current focus is on water, but there will be space mining. There are a lot of spin off companies coming up, new companies coming up looking at exploration and mining. There are other opportunities, companies looking into, such as asteroids, such as moon, and wherever they think there's going to be minerals that we'll be able to use in this space. Now, this is important, Neil. We don't want to bring them minerals from space into Earth. We want to use the minerals in the space wherever it is for space activities.

    Neil Martin:

    And what's the reasoning behind that?

    Rae O'Brien:

    Can I answer this one?

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Okay, Rae, you go.

    Rae O'Brien:

    No, I happened to have the privilege of going to visit NASA a few years ago and basically, I think my numbers are probably out of date, but it costs about $11,000 per kilogram to lift it off the Earth, get it into orbit. So the less weight you take with you, the more likely you are to get off orbit. You just can't take everything with you. So the idea is if we are aiming to go to the moon, we are aiming to go to Mars, in whatever the timeframe is, you've got to be able to make what you can with what you've got there. So very different reasoning than mining here. We actually have no idea what's there. So a lot of the technology we're talking about in mining, like remote sensing, is going to be really important in space as well so we can understand what the rock is and whether we can actually use it.

    Ismet Canbulat:

    And Neil, number one reason why we want to do space exploration and mining activities is human settlement. So there will be human settlement somewhere in the space, whether it's Mars, whether it's somewhere else, but there will be some human settlement for various reasons.

    Neil Martin:

    And like you said, you need to create everything for the settlement for the people who are potentially going to live there.

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Absolutely. I mean, we not going to process gold in the space to bring it down to Earth to sell it. We got to produce gold to use it in semiconductors and chips and in the space technology and for human settlement. More than making money out of it but using it for day-to-day life on space.

    Rae O'Brien:

    Yeah.

    Neil Martin:

    I think Elon Musk has said that he can foresee this happening quite quickly. If I was to ask you for the timeframe that you think this will happen, what date would you say?

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Well, I think it might happen, I don't know, 20 years down the line. I mean, it is happening right now. So we work with NASA to be able to look at the water sources and where it could be and we look at the mineralization of the different rock types and things like that. So it is already happening. It’s not that we just dreaming right now. It is happening as we speak, but it will intensify as we go. Next 10 years, it will be way more and then the following 10 years will be more.

    Neil Martin:

    Would you be putting your hand up, Rae, if there was an opportunity to be one of the first to go and be the mining expert that goes to a colony on Mars for example?

    Rae O'Brien:

    I reckon they'll rely on the remote sensing from here.

    Neil Martin:

    But I think that might lead to why I think it might be the final question. Space, obviously, is always exciting and offers new opportunities. But if you were a 16 or 17-year old thinking of getting into mining as a career, what would you be most excited about in general?

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Well, I think the most exciting thing to become a mining engineer right now is to be part of the solution, part of the solution for renewable technologies. The mining engineers will contribute through renewable energy technologies and implementation of those technologies as much as any other engineering discipline, if not more. So therefore, there is going to be huge potential for mining engineers. I mean, we talked about coal mining, I should have mentioned that there as well. Coal mining will stay with us, but coal might be used for something else. And the next generations we are working on it right now, our American colleagues call it carbon ore. So extracting critical minerals from coal and then using the coal for high value chemicals that Rae talked about. So the mining engineers will do it. There are other opportunities as well, such as travelling opportunities as part of your job and going to different countries, different parts of the world.

    Rae O'Brien:

    Or space.

    Ismet Canbulat:

    And space as well, space as well. Exactly, exactly Rae. Space as well. And yet, you get paid the best salary as a graduate engineer in Australia. So I mean, I don't see any negatives of being a mining engineer right now. But when we talk to school kids coming to our school, the moment, as I said before, the moment you talk about mining, the first thing that come to their mind is coal mining. And we need to change this perception and we need to be able to tell them, "We not going to produce a coal miner out of you. We're going to produce a mining engineer that understands from mining operations, extraction of those reserves, and helping the nation, helping the humankind on Earth." And obviously, space is another story. I worked with a number of people and we get people from NASA as well. Geologists work at NASA. So there is your business to be able to look at what is on Mars' surface and moon surface and to look at different rock types. And mining engineers will be able to one day take what they produce and turn it into a valuable resource for human settlement on space.

    Rae O'Brien:

    Well, I guess it is a really exciting time to get into this. You have a real opportunity to make a big difference not just to yourself, not just to your organisation, but to your country and to the whole world. So one thing that mining engineers do more so than other types of engineering is you have to be across all of these different technologies, all of these different disciplines to actually make sense of the overall plan going forward and actually have a really good business head on you as well. So it's a really exciting time.

    Neil Martin:

    Yeah, it definitely sounds exciting and thank you both for such a fascinating discussion about the future of mining. I'm sure the next generation of mining engineers are out there listening and excited to play their part in helping to change the world over the next 20 years. Professor Ismet Canbulat and Rae O'Brien, thank you very much for joining me.

    Ismet Canbulat:

    Thank you, Neil. Thank you, Rae.

    Rae O'Brien:

    Thanks, guys.

    Neil Martin:

    Unfortunately, that's all we've got time for. Thank you for listening. I've been Neil Martin and I hope you'll join me again soon for the next episode of Engineering the Future.

    Voiceover:

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