Mapping the critical minerals path to achieving net zero
Technology is playing its part in the way companies are meeting the challenges of net zero as well as dealing with safety and profitability pressures.
Major shifts in the investment landscape are underway, which is supercharging innovation in new capabilities and generating its own momentum for how fast companies go about adopting them.
Demand for critical minerals is undeniable. In part it is being driven by well-known and rapidly approaching climate targets. At the same time, it is reflected in demand for renewable sources of energy generation and storage, and a growing ubiquity of chargeable devices.
The need for the minerals used in clean energy sector technologies is expected to quadruple by 2050. In the area of lithium production alone, demand is projected to increase four-fold by 2030 (EY, 2022). Meanwhile, use of copper across the next 30 years is anticipated to reach double the volume required during the previous 3,000 years (Foyer, 2023). These are staggering figures that will necessitate new mining workflows and processes to ensure mining companies maximise site production, while fulfilling safety obligations and maintaining their alignment to other important ESG goals.
We’re rapidly moving from a fuels-intensive to a metals-intensive economy – as a result, we are seeing both research and development, and its related investment, already accelerating to meet that need.
New technology-enabled capabilities will assist with solving current (and emerging) challenges. These will help with finding new orebodies more efficiently and safely, helping businesses to better understand them during exploration and development. Technology will augment the ability to identify and mine orebodies that were previously not viable to mine, either because they were too remote, deep or low grade.
Capabilities enabled through robotics, autonomy, artificial intelligence (AI) and other fields will give greater insights captured and delivered in safer ways. The skills needed to operate, interpret and even optimise these capabilities represent new jobs and more opportunities for the mining sector, and will challenge the notion that mining is an industry of diminishing potential. In fact, among six critical recommendations, a recent IEA report flagged the importance of promoting technological innovation at all points in the value chain as key to unlocking new mineral supply (IEA, 2021).
Upskilling the workforce will be crucial to exploiting these new opportunities. Data-driven decision making will be central to the way the future of mining is managed. The skills needed may more closely resemble that of a business analyst than traditional surveyor or operations manager. Robotics, AI, machine learning, data analysis, analytics and communication will drive the need for enhanced skills and training. Beyond the upskilling of existing workforces, new recruits may be drawn from outside existing fields and experiences.
The work environment, for some, is also likely to change. With remote and automated systems, surveyors and geo technicians may find themselves less underground and more office bound.
According to Deloitte (2023): Mining underpins approximately half of the global economy, so has the greatest potential of any industry to positively influence social, environmental and economic development.
Greater operational efficiency will be enabled through the growing digitalisation of assets and processes, which includes the automation of many procedures and workflows.
Beyond what we currently see in the areas of autonomous trucks and remotely operated equipment like boggers – which has already achieved huge efficiency gains – many other tasks requiring people to be underground (and exposed to increased danger) will also benefit from advanced forms of automation. This trend will see data being safely collected, processed, merged, analysed and acted on as a continuous process – not a periodic event.
These changes will help facilitate the efficiencies necessary to achieve net zero. They will also mean that mining becomes safer, more productive and more profitable. Key tools like autonomous robots will drive multiple outcomes simultaneously: safer mining with less dependance on human-centric infrastructure planning; more ‘intelligent’ mining, with actionable data available for rapid decision-making any time; and more efficient mining, with insights and analysis improving visibility over resource deposits.
As industry investment shifts faster and further to enable more mineral exploration and mining, the technology underpinning these businesses will be critical to achieving our net zero objectives.
To explore this topic further, watch the AusIMM Thought Leadership Series ‘TLS Extra’ interview with Dr Stefan Hrabar and Simon Jemison, AusIMM Head of Advocacy and Government Relations. Watch now
EY, 2022. Critical minerals supply and demand challenges mining companies face (online). Available from: https://www.ey.com/en_us/mining-metals/critical-minerals-supply-and-demand-issues
Aaron Foyer, 2023. The volume of 2050 Net-zero copper demand (online). Available from: https://energyminute.ca/infographics/the-volume-of-2050-net-zero-copper-demand/
Deloitte, 2023. Deloitte Global mining and metals report explores key trends shaping the industry’s future (online). Available from: https://www.deloitte.com/global/en/about/press-room/deloitte-global-mining-and-metals-report-explores-key-trends-shaping-the-industrys-future.html
International Energy Agency (IEA), 2021. The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions (online). Available from: https://www.iea.org/reports/the-role-of-critical-minerals-in-clean-energy-transitions