With a swathe of new technologies emerging over the last decade including the advent of electric vehicles and lithium-ion batteries, the mining sector has not been left behind with a suite of technologies now available to make exploration and mining autonomous, more efficient and safer.
The latest mineral exploration technologies have led to more efficient and targeted drilling campaigns, as well as world class discoveries.
Speaking with Small Caps nickel, copper and gold miner Independence Group (ASX: IGO) managing director and chief executive officer Peter Bradford said everyone at the company was passionate about the need for exploration and discovery to identify Australia’s future mines.
“That’s based on a fundamental belief that we, collectively as an industry, have not done enough greenfields exploration over the last couple of decades.”
“We’ve lived off work from the past.”
He said Independence Group was currently exploring in some of Australia’s new frontiers that haven’t been previously evaluated because the rocks are under cover, and in areas that are much more remote.
Mineral exploration technologies
To make it possible to explore these areas, Independence Group has leveraged numerous new technologies.
“We’ve been leveraging the latest and the best airborne electromagnetic technology available to us including sponsoring Spectrem Air to travel from South Africa to Australia.”
Spectrem possesses what it claims is the most advanced fixed-wing airborne electromagnetic system, with the technology collecting high resolution electromagnetic, magnetic, and radiometric data concurrently.
The SPECTREMPLUS system provides the ability to simultaneously map shallow and deep features with what Spectrem says is at a higher level of resolution than any comparable system.
“We’ve had near exclusive access to Spectrem for the last 2 years, flying airborne surveys on our land positions in Western Australia and the Northern Territory,” Mr Bradford explained about Spectrem’s work for Independence Group.
He said Spectrum’s technology has allowed Independence Group to fast-track its target generation.
In addition to airborne surveys, Mr Bradford said the company uses aircore drilling to get down into the bedrock and detect different rock types.
He said this method also enabled Independence Group to collect trace elements and analyse them to gain a better-understanding of the mineralisation the company is potentially dealing with.
“Closer to home around our brownfields projects we explore with a bigger lens because we’re trying to leverage existing infrastructure investments,” Mr Bradford explained.
One of the technologies Independence Group is using to explore its brownfields assets is a Low Temperature Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (LT-SQUID) magnetometer system which can see down to depths of 1km.
“It’s a fantastic tool and prompted Independence Group to recently invest in two High Temperature SQUID’s to increase our flexibility in the use of this system on our ground positions.”
“As a business, we want to make electromagnetic detection one of the core capabilities of the team, but we also rely on 3D seismic which we’ve used at three of our mines now, including Long back in 2008, Tropicana in 2015 and Nova in 2018.”
“The survey at Nova was the biggest hard rock 3D seismic survey ever carried out in Australia.”
He explained the 3D seismic survey could map the geological architecture to a depth of 6km.
Commenting on the type of information a 3D seismic survey provides, Mr Bradford said the survey can detect transitions or changes in rock types.
“This allows you to build up an understanding of what the geology and structures look like.”
“When you get two different rock types and you hit them with the seismic then you’ll get a reflection off that boundary between the two different rock types.”
“We’ll see these reflectors in the 3D seismic interpretation, but then we’ll put drill holes in them to understand what that means and then extrapolate that to other reflectors in the database. So, over a period of time, the information that we harvest from the 3D seismic becomes better and more precise.”
He added that 3D seismic enables companies to build up an understanding of an area’s whole geology and how everything fits together.
“Apart from drilling lots and lots of very deep holes, there’s no other technique that we could use that would allow us to develop that understanding to the depth that we’re doing it.”
Mr Bradford noted the company also used other “cutting edge” tools to gain a better understanding of a target’s geology including photogrammetry.
He said that all the underground voids at Nova are mapped with the technology to take hundreds and thousands of images per second.
“This effectively allows us to get a 3D picture of all of the excavations we have underground, which we can then splice together on the computer.
“Over time, we build up that 3D model from within the mine to give us a better understanding of what it looks like.”
He added this data can then be integrated with the 3D seismic data to provide detailed information on the underground mine and surrounding area.
New exploration technologies are essentially driving earlier understanding for companies, which can eliminate time and money spent on wasted exploration as well as increasing discovery potential.
“If you take our Nova mining lease, for example, another way of approaching it would be to just start in one corner and to do deep grid drilling from one corner of the concession to the other corner. That would take multiple years and would cost millions of dollars,” Mr Bradford explained.
He said that by applying science first and gaining an understanding and interpretation of the geology the company “significantly” reduces cost and accelerates discoveries.
Moving into the mining space, many companies are making themselves as autonomous as possible, because this can enhance safety, boost operational time and reduce wear and tear on equipment.
Independence Group is one company that is on the path to developing an autonomous operation at Nova.
In readiness, Mr Bradford said the company had installed a fibre-optic backbone through its Nova underground mine.
He added the company had also introduced a wi-fi system underground.
“We’re using that to allow ourselves to operate underground boggers from surface.”
He said the autonomous boggers had boosted the company’s productivity in this area by 10%.
In addition to the autonomous boggers, Independence Group is also considering using its wi-fi system to detonate blasts wirelessly from surface.
“That will be a first for Australia when we commence doing that.”
“Our future aspirations would be to progressively go more autonomous including autonomous loaders and haul trucks.”
Mr Bradford explained that because Nova was a new and relatively shallow underground mine, it afforded the company some infrastructure advantages that would making moving to a more autonomous operation easier to achieve compared to older mines.
He explained the key drivers to transition to an autonomous mine would be productivity gains, with some companies reporting up to 40% higher productivity at a fully autonomous operation.
“And there’s the important safety benefits because you’re removing people from harm’s way.”
He added it wasn’t just taking people out of situations where they could get harmed by machinery, but an autonomous mine means reduced exposure to diesel fumes underground.
Nickel-focused miner Independence Group is hoping to capture a large slice of the mounting nickel deficit as a result of the surging electric vehicle and lithium-ion battery markets.
During the 2019 financial year, Independence Group spent $51 million on exploration to boost its resources and reserves.
The company’s flagship asset is the Nova nickel-copper-cobalt mine and Independence Group is currently evaluating the potential of downstream processing of Nova ore to generate a battery-grade nickel sulphate product.
According to Independence Group, up to 900,000t of extra nickel production will be needed to meet electric vehicle battery demand by 2025.
Nova began commercial production in mid-2017 and during the first half of the 2019 financial year, Nova achieved record nickel production.
Independence Group also has a 30% stake in the Tropicana gold mine which generates strong free cash flow for the company.
Mr Bradford will be speaking in greater detail on the use of technology in mining at the upcoming Austmine event.