Green mining technologies improving the mining industry
The technology driving mining efficiency
The terms “mining” and “green” haven’t traditionally sat comfortably together but things are starting to change. As the world begins to demand greater environmental accountability, mining operations are implementing technologies that reduce the environmental footprint of mining vital materials.
What actually is green mining? Green mining defines a mixture of technological advances and best practices to achieve the extraction of minerals and metals while mitigating the environmental impacts of the process. There are several key parts of the mining lifecycle that this philosophy can be applied to such as power consumption, water usage and mine decommissioning. It is technology which holds the key to reducing the environmental impacts of mining as we require greater quantities of material to supply global demand.
Like other industries, the power requirements of mining can be optimised to reduce resource strain. Mines utilise an enormous amount of power for machinery and extraction processes. As the demand for raw materials increases through population growth, the power consumed by industry continues to rise. Improvements in how power is supplied to and used by mines are essential to reducing the environmental impacts of mining. New automated technologies are improving energy efficiency. This is an example of aligning benefits between both miners and the environment. A reduction in power costs is driven by a desire to increase profits. The environmental impacts are reduced as a byproduct.
Clean water is a vital resource and mining is an industry that utilises a lot of water. Another major environmental issue surrounding mining are the ways water is utilised during the mining process. Water is intrinsic to almost all aspects of mining operations and it is estimated that the mining industry utilises around 20% of the world’s water supplies. One of the ways in which water management is improving is through the implementation of real-time calculations to accurately identify water requirements. Previously, miners would budget their water requirements based on averages but enhanced technology is improving the accuracy of measurements. This allows miners to accurately assess their water requirements and reduce water wastage. Again there is an alignment between the drive for profit and a reduction in environmental impacts.
Another primary factor in the impact that mining has on the environment is what happens to mines after they are closed. Mines have a lifecycle that reflects the volume of extractable materials in the location. When mines exhaust the minerals or metals they are decommissioned and this has caused significant environmental damage in the past. However, things are changing and new approaches to mine decommissioning now include considerations for soil recovery and the planting of trees. In Canada there is a move towards planting energy crops on mining land that has been rehabilitated using organic wastes. This adds another dimension to mine commissioning as the land can produce biofuels which contribute to power requirements. The most progressive regulations globally now stipulate the processes for mine decommissioning so that miners can plan and communities can set their expectations.
The importance of improving the implementation of these three processes cannot be overstated. However, without continued investment in the research and development of these technologies, we will not make significant progress in reducing minings impact. Research and development is unachievable unless there is an investment in the scientific infrastructure supporting them. A reduction in the mining footprint is reliant upon investment in new green technologies that can be efficiently and unobtrusively integrated into existing mining operations. The technologies we can expect to see develop the fastest are those which reduce environmental impacts while improving profitability for miners.
Pressure from the public is one of the most effective methods to challenge the actions of large industries. We have already seen a shift in the coal mining industry as the major players exit the sector in favour of more socially palatable operations. This does not mean that there will be a reduction in coal mining as the world is still very much reliant on coal for its energy supplies. As the bigger players move out of their coal mines smaller miners will take their place. To avoid further environmental impacts from smaller miners with less robust technology it becomes even more important for communities to implement environmental risk mitigation strategies that will encourage best practices within the mining sector.