Together, mining and digital will forge brave new worlds, better futures

By Alvaro Rozo | December 21, 2017

New realities are driving this need for change. In mining-affected communities, water is becoming more precious than gold. In its 2017 Environmental Responsibility Report, Apple claims its goal is to “stop mining the earth altogether” for the rare minerals used in its devices. It plans to recycle them and consider the implications of alternative non-mining-related-product technologies.

Should recycling the technosphere be considered a new mining method?

There’s nothing new about recycling metals in the commodities sector. The steel and aluminum industries have been using scraps, waste, and recycled metals for decades. In 2008, steel demonstrated that it had reduced its own consumption of materials by 470 million tonnes since the 1970s. That equated to saving 1.12 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2008 alone[1] Aluminum is also a remarkable success story. Recycling it now saves more than 90 percent of the energy required to produce new metal[2].

According to Jan Zalasiewicz et al in their paper, "Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: A geological perspective”, the “technosphere” mass might be as much as 30 trillion tonnes, five orders of magnitude more than the human biomass. This is based on an exhaustive list that includes everything from power stations, roads, and farms to plastics, airplanes, and transistors. The new Global E-waste Monitor 2017 report from the United Nations University estimated that the value of raw materials in all e-waste in 2016 was roughly 55 billion Euros (US$64.7 billion)—more than the GDP of most countries.

Recycling or mining this technosphere mass seems to be a logical alternative to mining new ore deposits. It’s pretty certain that retrieving unused or unspent raw materials from landfills to transform them into the next generation of products could save significant cost, energy, and natural resources.

Could an “energy-star” type of certification for sustainability in mining be a way to improve the value of mining products or to compete with future alternative products?

The consumption of mining and metal products can only continue to grow. The world expects to add about two-billion people in the next few decades. They will need infrastructure, cars, computers, and electronics, all of which currently rely largely on mining-related products.

Mining has many smart and seasoned competitors already operating in the environmental-sustainability pool. New alternative-product technologies are constantly being created. These exploit their sustainability and better product features, trying to erode the share that mining-and-metals industries have in some traditional markets, like electronics, construction, and buildings. Carbon concrete, for instance, wants to be the substance of choice to replace the 160 million tonnes of steel used each year to reinforce concrete structures. It offers a product that will allow better architectonic designs for buildings to develop. How would you compete with that type of technology?

What if we could make the sustainability footprints of mining processes more transparent and traceable right across the value chain? Maybe give mining products something like Energy-Star®certification for sustainability? Could this increase their value? Convert new opportunities to viable, marketable product lines?

Is digital a great mining ally?

Consider this. By 2025, digitization will generate an incredible wealth of benefits in metals and mining sectors:

Consider this. By 2025, digitization will generate an incredible wealth of benefits in metals and mining sectors:[3]

  • More than $320 billion of industry value over the next decade, a potential benefit of $190 billion for the mining sector and $130 billion for the metals sector;
  • A reduction of 610 million tonnes of CO2 emissions;
  • A thousand lives saved and 44,000 injuries avoided through improvements in safety.
Benefits of digitization in metals and mining

Start-up companies like Everledger have been connecting digital technologies to mining products in order to provide additional service offerings and the protection of valuable assets. It ensures the transparency and authenticity of goods traded globally and the provenance of high-value assets. In its two-and-a-half-year existence, Everledger has already connected 1.6 million diamonds to blockchain technologies.

But what if mining could do more? The price of cryptocurrencies has been increasing exponentially in recent years and is currently the subject of much pricing speculation. What if we could link the value of cryptocurrencies to the value of commodity pricing to enable better market understanding and adoption? What kind of value would this type of business model unlock for mining? Could this enable trading and exchange for cryptocurrencies? Could cash flow maybe be unlocked before production to support future projects?

The relationship between mining and digital is growing stronger and more reciprocal. Mining products produce the electronics that digital technologies use. And digital solutions and technologies hold the key to making mining construction and operating processes more cost-effective and environmentally sustainable.

We're poised to see how emerging digital technologies and modern mining products will find new, more effective ways to complement, guide, and drive each other to brave new worlds and better futures.

 

[1] World Steel Association

[2] The Aluminum Association

[3] World Economic Forum 2017