Insights from TMS 2019
by Dr Mark Cooksey
Turning mineral processing challenges into opportunities
Recently I was fortunate enough to attend the Mineral, Metals and Materials Society’s (TMS) Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas.
TMS brings together industry experts to discuss developments, trends, challenges and opportunities occurring in the global minerals, metals and materials industries.
During the event there were many innovative ideas presented and technical issues discussed, but three key challenges came to my attention that I found specifically relevant to minerals processing.
These challenges are significant, but provide significant opportunities for leading mineral processing operations.
Three key challenges facing mineral processing operations in 2019
1. Sustainability remains elusive
Sustainability and the use of sustainable materials and products was a strong discussion point at TMS 2018, and continued to be a focus this year.
Despite the desire to increase recycling rates, there remains a strong trend to continue designing products that are actually difficult to recycle. The reasons behind this are predominantly economical.
Mixed material products are harder to recycle due to the combination of many materials. However, they continue to be a desirable option because they deliver higher performance at a lower cost.
Compounding this, the trend of lightweighting can make recycling less economically viable for many operations, due to the low mass of the valuable components.
Moreover, sustainability is heavily influenced by strategic context. For example, some primary aluminium companies are now part of the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative, and are marketing ‘green’ aluminium; aluminium guaranteed to be produced below a specific level of CO2 per kilogram.
Some producers indicated that it is an important strategic decision whether to participate, as promoting ‘green’ aluminium can create a negative connotation with ‘other’ aluminium, and then perhaps the overall perception of aluminium will suffer.
Political issues also impact sustainability. For example, China and India are both in the process of banning the import of various scrap materials, starting with plastic.
In the short term, this makes sustainability challenging for operations that have been exporting scrap to these countries.
However, in the long term, this may encourage more local recycling and closed loop processes, improving overall sustainability.
2. Digitisation is the next big thing, but will it always be out of reach?
Data capture and analysis through digitisation has proved to be a growing trend in many industries, which has led to improved performance and profitability through analysis and automation.
The complexities within mineral processing operations, however, have created issues for those who are investing in digitisation initiatives.
For example, the aggressive environments can make data capture difficult and subject to large error.
This can make it incredibly challenging to capture value from the data being analysed.
CSIRO has extensive experience in measuring plant process parameters in difficult environments.
Furthermore, one company emphasised that you should not underestimate the challenge just in storing and managing your data.
While digitisation is undoubtedly a huge opportunity in mineral processing, the difficulties and complexities that exist within this industry should be considered before investing in and embracing digitisation.
CSIRO has undertaken considerable research in this field, investigating the digital innovation opportunities in Australia.
3. Process development continues to be an ambitious challenge
It is well known that process development can be an expensive, time-consuming and high-risk endeavour, especially if undertaken without appropriate knowledge or expertise.
At the conference we learned more about Elysis; a joint venture between Alcoa and Rio Tinto to develop a more efficient electrolytic cell for aluminium production.
They appear to be attempting an accelerated process development schedule involving multiple aspects in parallel. This illustrates the pressure to reduce development time and cost, but can risk large expenditure at demonstration scale without sufficient understanding of phenomena at smaller scales.
This highlights the value of involving experienced people in the development of new processes, as demonstrated by CSIRO’s extensive expertise and experience in this field.
Overcoming these hurdles to improve operational outcomes
TMS 2019 gave me unparalleled insight into developments in the minerals industry and the challenges that are most pertinent in the current environment.
While the three challenges I have discussed are unique, they all show the importance of systems thinking, illustrating the need to consider the whole system when you’re trying to improve your processes, and the danger of narrowed thinking and planning.
While these challenges will not be easy to overcome, through science-led innovation I believe it is possible to overcome the current hurdles to achieve improved productivity and sustainability in the mineral resource sector.
At CSIRO, we engage experts in many different disciplines, and therefore have more capability for strong systems-thinking and scientific research and innovation.
To discuss CSIRO’s Mineral Processing team’s ability to support your operation with sustainability, digital integration, process development and more, contact the team on +61 9545 8865 or email me, Mark.Cooksey@csiro.au.