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New innovations in mining
Innovation has long been a hallmark of the mining industry, and in recent months we’ve seen some significant research come to market.
Autonomous vehicles are not new to mining, but there are still several new uses that continue to evolve. In Western Australia, Rio Tinto has been the first in the world to deploy autonomous water trucks at the Gudai-Darri iron ore mine. The trucks automatically detect dry conditions that need to be watered and refill themselves. Rio Tinto believes that this will enable them to improve productivity at the site in their water activities while also reducing water usage.
Approximately 53% of organisations are turning to electrification to reduce costs according to State of Play’s Electrification Report 2021. However, the cost benefits need to be weighed against the cost of transitioning to a new energy source, which is something most companies considering the move are grappling with. One of the other benefits of electrification are environmental, thanks to a likely reduction in carbon and diesel particulate emissions meaning this opportunity could see more mines achieving zero carbon emissions.
With environmental impact now high on the agenda for most governments and companies, finding new ways to manage, reduce and rehabilitate environmental damage are important. Research in the US has found ways to measure the restoration of river systems impacted by mining. The study reviewed not only the river itself but also the plant species, animals and insects that relied on it. The research found that the river systems took an average of 10.25 years to recover once mining was completed, regardless of the level of pollution found initially. This is positive news and gives hope of reversing some of the negative impacts of mining in the future.
Environmental damage through extraction can also be significant. Researchers at Curtin University in Western Australia have found a way to extract invisible gold trapped in pyrite that is environmentally friendly. With the discovery of new gold deposits declining, being able to extract invisible or ‘fool’s’ gold is a welcome discovery.
The research found that the gold can be hosted in nanoscale crystal defects, whereas previously it was believed to be found only as nanoparticles or a pyrite-gold alloy. The gold is hosted in nanoscale defects called dislocations, so small that they require a technique called atom probe tomography to see them. To extract it they steered away from pressure techniques that require a significant amount of energy and found that selective leaching was effective. This involves using a fluid to dissolve the gold from the pyrite without impacting the pyrite itself.
Research is also being undertaken in France on how gold can be recovered effectively by examining how gold reacts with minerals that contain iron and arsenic to better understand the chemical reactions that occur in gold processing. The research should assist in being able to identify and improve exploration and extraction processes, potentially reducing both risk to workers and environmental damage.
Improvements in governance
Consumers are increasingly demanding more information about the origin of the products that they use. While this has been common in areas such as food production, it is also likely to become more prevalent in mining. Technology developed by Australian company, Source Certain International, and Cornish Lithium will allow the origin of lithium within a battery to be identified down to a specific mine site. This goes a long way to creating a transparent supply chain for lithium.
These developments are just a few examples of how innovative research and technology has the potential to transform the mining industry in the near future.
The impact of the Russia/Ukraine conflict on the sector
On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. Alongside the destruction and terror that’s been inflicted on the Ukrainian people, the conflict has also created great uncertainty in the global economy with flow on effects expected to be felt for years to come. Most western countries have imposed significant sanctions on trade with Russia, which includes a US ban on importing Russian oil. In addition, many Russian banks have been removed from the SWIFT global payment system which will impact the ability to make financial payments both within and out of Russia. This has a significant impact on the resources sector that is likely to continue in the short to medium term.
The economic sanctions mean that supplies of Russian originated resources are now in doubt. Even if the shipments do arrive, buyers may not be able to purchase them due to financial restrictions. Purchasers need to check their force majeure clauses to ensure they’re covered or scramble to find alternative sources to purchase their materials.
Some resources have seen prices increase along with demand. For example, the price of gold has risen as investors and central banks turn to the valuable commodity to diversify in the face of economic uncertainty. Russia’s central bank has also been purchasing gold to overcome financial instability.
Other resources that are experiencing an increase in demand include nickel, iron ore, copper and coal that have reached record highs since the invasion. For example, Russian coal accounts for about 30% of European metallurgical coal imports and 70% of their thermal coal imports. Asian buyers are also exposed to Russian coal, contributing to the uncertainty in those markets.
Uranium prices are also on the increase as Ukraine has the sixth largest reserve in the world, raising concerns about supply pressures in the near future. If Russia is successful in taking control of Ukrainian uranium reserves the potential impact on the global market could be significant, particularly as sanctions on Russian trade are tightened.
The alumina and aluminium market are also at risk with UC Rusal halting shipments from its refinery near the port of Mykolaiv in Ukraine. The supply has since been transported to Rusal’s smelters in Russia. Rusal also owns refineries in Ireland that supply European smelters but these also could be redirected causing supply shortages in Europe. Even if they aren’t redirected, purchasers may be prevented from purchasing from Rusal due to trade sanctions.
Sanctions on UC Rusal could also significantly impact the Queensland alumina refinery in Gladstone which is 20% owned by the Russian company. The refinery is one of the largest in Australia and it’s unclear whether it will be adversely affected by the sanctions.
In addition, some countries have already halted significant projects. One of the most notable is Germany’s decision to halt certification of the new Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline which would’ve doubled their gas supply from Russia. Many businesses have also halted or started exiting operations in Russia including BP, Shell, major consulting firms and banks.
While tragic, the conflict does create a potential opportunity for Australian producers. Vimy Resources has already completed a $17 million placement to complete the Mulga Rock bankable feasibility study and commence a drilling program at Alligator River, for example.
For the global economy these price increases are likely to have an inflationary impact and adversely impact growth rates. We’ve already seen the pressure on global oil prices, but this is likely only the beginning of broader inflationary pressures. For many businesses, managing costs will come to the forefront while they continue to grapple with other issues putting pressure on expenses like decarbonisation.
Finding new markets and suppliers is only part of the mitigation solution for businesses. The conflict also highlights the need to diversify energy supplies. However, it will take a much longer time to diversify and create clean energy sources, leaving industry to find ways to continue to power their businesses in the short-term.
Despite an unpredictable two years, the energy and resources sector has weathered tumultuous conditions and come through stronger. All signs indicate that 2022 and beyond will see strong growth in demand and exciting new developments.
Resources and Energy Quarterly has predicted that Australia’s resource and energy exports will increase from $310 billion to a new record of $379 billion in the financial year to June 2022. This will be driven by volume growth, a weak Australian dollar and high commodity prices. However, not all minerals will benefit equally.
While iron ore prices are expected to decline, coal prices continue to surge as new markets are uncovered across Asia. Copper prices had a stellar year in 2021 reaching record highs of $14,979 per tonne driven by demand for clean energy technologies. But copper isn’t expected to reach record highs in the coming year, with prices impacted by increased production in China and easing of supply issues in Latin America. Growth in demand for copper is anticipated to continue as it’s an important metal in the development of electric vehicles.
Another mineral expected to see increased prices is nickel but these may take five years to reach their peak. Over 2022 prices are expected to weaken as the market for nickel tightens. A key issue in the demand for nickel is the need to convert Class 2 nickel ore into Class 1 so that it can be used in the battery industry. Without this car producers will continue to search for alternative resources to produce components.
One option to nickel is lithium which is expected to significantly increase production in the coming years. Exports are also expected to rise for lithium thanks to increased demand from the electric vehicle market. There is however still expected to be considerable change ahead that will continue to impact the growth and pricing in the industry. New extraction techniques could change the supply market for lithium, while demand will continue to accelerate as green industries accelerate.
While gold experienced significant lows in 2021, with its first calendar year price decline since 2018, it’s expected to bounce back in the coming year. Some factors that are believed to have contributed to gold’s price in 2021 include a rising US dollar and the increase in cryptocurrencies. While it was a rocky year for the gold price, the trend was positive in the final few months and is expected to continue to rise as investors look for safe options amidst continued market volatility.
We can expect to see demand for rare earth minerals to continue to grow throughout the next decade boosted by the demand for electric vehicles and decarbonisation technology. It’s anticipated demand for electric vehicles could grow by up to 40 times in the next 20 years which translates into an increase in demand for rare earth elements of up to 15 times. Australia is the third-largest rare earth oxide resource in the world and can expect to benefit from the impending boom. New projects like the Arafura Resources’ Nolans rare earth project are expected to be developed. Key to growth will be our ability to not just extract rare earth minerals but also to process them, with our largest competitor, China, currently seeking to dominate the market.
According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) the outlook for gas in Western Australia also looks solid with supply estimated to meet demand until the end of 2024. To ensure the market can continue to meet supply there is the opportunity to develop additional gas reserves in the state. This is based on gas demand increasing as the reliance on coal declines.
Overall the signs look positive for the industry in 2022 and beyond. Challenges with decarbonisation and improving clean energy resources continue, and bring with them exciting opportunities to transform the sector.