The electrification of underground mining equipment is at the forefront of the CLEER plan to reinvent the industry in Canada.
The Canada Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) and the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) recently led a joint letter of intent submitted to the federal government’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative.
On behalf of the mining industry, CEMI and CMIC proposed the creation of a clean resources supercluster called, CLEER (Clean, Low-energy, Effective, Engaged and Remediated). CLEER aims to transform the Canadian mining sector’s productivity, performance and competitiveness.
While CLEER has already raised $376 million from the private sector, the letter of intent asks the federal government to invest $185 million.
“The CLEER Supercluster will help Canada become the leading supplier of sustainably-sourced minerals and metals the world needs,” said Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of Canada. “This is especially important in the transition to a low carbon future, which will only increase the demand for our products. Through this project, industry and governments can be powerful partners in achieving this vision.”
Look to battery power
Douglas Morrison, president & CEO of CEMI, explained “the big thrust” in equipment innovation is the advancement of battery-powered electric motors. Currently, batteries are capable of powering mining equipment for about two hours.
“Battery technology is becoming achievable, but it still has a way to go,” Morrison said.
The main advantage of battery power is the ability to reduce heat and emissions created by the current diesel engines, which in turn reduces the need for ventilation in the mine.
“Ventilation is probably the largest single-point cost for an underground operation, except for labour,” Morrison said. “It’s a misnomer that ventilation is for people to breathe. If we’re pushing air through to meet the needs of the equipment and remove heat, there’s more than enough oxygen left over for people to breathe.”
As mines in Canada continue to reach new depths, the power needed for ventilation increases. Morrison explained some gold mines in Quebec, for example, are reaching 9,000 ft. below the surface and the natural temperature is about 60 C.
“That means a lot of ventilation has to go into bringing these temperatures down to 25 C or 30 C. These are difficult conditions to be working in,” he said. “The deeper you go, the hotter it gets.”
Transporting the diesel fuel needed to power equipment is another problem solved by electrification.
“The logistics of these mines is very complex,” Morrison said. “Mines have to move a lot of diesel to serve the needs of their equipment. If you have electric drives, that’s not required.”
Gold mines have already been able to utilize battery-powered machinery.
However, the base-metal mine industry, which moves up to 5,000 tonnes of material a day, is still awaiting effective electric technology for their operations.
“Of course, their product is less valuable than gold, so the relative cost of energy for them is very significant,” Morrison said. “It’s much more difficult to achieve the tonnages that are required for very large base-metal mines with the current level of technology for batteries.”
Smaller equipment manufacturers in Northern Ontario have already moved towards electric drives to serve the needs of gold mines.
“There’s a lot of desire from the mining companies view to move in that direction,” Morrison said. “How quickly the larger OEMs will be to respond to that demand, I don’t know.”
More D than R
The funding obtained through CLEER will be used for research and development of new mining equipment technology. However, development and innovation would see a higher level of investment.
“There are certainly research pieces in the spaces of underground equipment and heavy equipment,” Morrison said. “But there wouldn’t be a lot of room for fundamental research.”
Successful applications to the federal program require the project to conclude in a five-year timespan. The funding would be used to complete pilot projects of electric motors, full-scale underground trials and the finalization of a market-ready product.
“There’s not a lot of time available to do research. The object of the exercise is to achieve a commercially viable outcome as fast as the five-year program,” Morrison said. “You really do need to have completed the research phase, convince yourself and others this really will work and then take it through the innovation process.”
CLEER also aims to bring automated equipment to market in an effort to eliminate delays in production.
“If we can automate equipment so it can continue to run in between shift changes, for example, we won’t stop the drills from drilling,” Morrison said.
With mines reaching 9,000 feet below the surface, a shift change may equal up to four hours of lost production time, according to Morrison.
“If it takes two hours to get out, and two hours to get in, you’ve lost four hours out of 24,” he explained “Automation would allow us to reduce that loss significantly.”
In May, the federal Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, opened the application process for the Innovation Superclusters Initiative. The 2017 federal budget has made $950 million available over five years to support a small number of business-led innovation superclusters that have the greatest potential to accelerate economic growth.
At the end of August, a shortlist of applicants will be invited to provide their full submission. Funding announcements are expected in early 2018.
A supercluster focuses on technical themes deemed critical to the mining industry. In collaboration with other mining companies, CLEER identified these strategic innovation themes:
Energy technologies: renewable energy generation and storage; mine electrification; battery-electric vehicles; ventilation; automation; sensors and sensor-based sorting; advanced comminution; and guidelines.
Water technologies: water conservation technologies; water treatment technology; and, water quality sensors.
Environmental footprint reduction: mapping; land reclamation and remediation technology; and, sensors and sensor-based sorting.
SMART Technologies: sensors; data analytics; pattern recognition; predictive analytics; high performance computing; artificial intelligence; and, mine digitization and digital communications.
What is a supercluster?
Innovation superclusters aim to “build a better Canada” by creating high-quality jobs, help businesses succeed in the marketplace, and fostering stronger collaboration between the private, academic and public sectors.
The CLEER Supercluster is an industry-led, multi-stakeholder consortium comprised of four existing clusters, which combined, represent an initial eight resource companies, 12 post-secondary institutions, 42 small-to-medium enterprises and 25 other support organizations.
With the objective of growing the mining services and supply sector, the supercluster predicts the ability to stimulate investments exceeding $5 billion, improve industry productivity, initiate export pathways and create more than 100,000 jobs.