Will new-age technology spark a gold mining revival? www.123rf.com

“As long as there are underground gold reserves available that can be mined safely and economically, mines will be able to continue mining.”

This is the view of JAMES WELLSTED, Senior VP of Investor Relations at Sibanye-Stillwater. Wellsted was speaking to GERARD PETER about the long-term sustainability of South Africa’s gold industry.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 2, 2019

At the same time, however, he alludes that there are challenges that affect deep level production levels.

“Rising electricity and labour costs over the last few years have resulted in less shafts being profitable,” Wellsted explains.

“The reason for this is that deep level mining in South Africa consumes a vast amount of electricity to ventilate and cool the working areas during elevated virgin rock temperatures at these depths.

"Coupled with the exponential electricity prices increases the country has seen over the last few years, the input costs to mine an ounce of gold have crept up rapidly.

“What’s more, South Africa’s West Wits ore bodies are typically narrow vein and tabular in nature, which makes it less amenable to mechanisation and therefore mines are very labour intensive.”

So how can mining companies overcome these challenges?

For the most part, the answer lies in new technological advancements. Mark Fellows, head of mine supply at Metal Focus – a London-based precious metals consultancy – believes that embracing new technology is the only way that the South African gold industry can remain sustainable.

“The only real prospect for a turnaround, to my mind, has to be by virtue of technology, but that will need to be a combination of pretty radical new tech, much of which is some way off being developed and implemented,” he states.

Fellows adds that most of these new tech solutions revolve around automation, facilitated by the convergence of multiple technologies, from artificial intelligence to robotics.

“Automation will remove underground workers from harm's way, and that is going to become an ever-bigger imperative, if gold miners are to remain (or rather, become) investable by international capital, he says.

Investing in local technology

Wellsted agrees with Fellows.  It is for this reason that Sibanye-Stillwater has made significant investments in improving the sustainability of all its operations through new technology and innovation.

For example, the company is a participating member in the newly established Mandela Mining Precinct (MMP). This is a government and industry funded initiative that aims to improve the industry’s ability to effectively extract resources, as well as advance secondary local supporting industries to the extent that they become globally competitive.

One of the projects currently underway at MMP is the development of a lighter and energy efficient rock drill. (See story on pg xx for more detail).

In addition, Sibanye-Stillwater currently invests approximately R20 million per annum into postgraduate institutions with a predominant technology focus.

“For example, we sponsor Digimine, Wits University’s digital mining laboratory which focuses on using digital technologies to improve all aspects of the mining value chain,” Wellsted explains. 

A fundamental component of DigiMine’s research agenda is seismicity research in deep level gold mining operations. 

Adapting current technology

While research is ongoing, there are also possibilities of using current above-the-ground technology to further deep level mining. One such possibility is the use of drones.

American company, Flyability has been working on a drone that helps in deep level exploration.

Named Elios, it is outfitted with a rotating carbon fibre protective cage that protects the propellers, camera and drone body from damage as well as keeping it stable in the air upon collision. It has already been successfully used to explore mines in Canada.

Meanwhile, Anglo American believes that 3D software can be useful during the mine development phase.

For example, when looking at an ore body, one wants to be able to see the rock strength, the ore characteristics, etc.

All of these factors enable companies to decide the best way to approach the ore body, thereby translating into a more effective mine design.

It is also far easier to develop a common understanding of a problem or solution when it can be visualised through the use of 3D software.

No doubt, companies are actively investing in technology to increase their production outputs. Of course, the key question revolves around the economics of these technologies.

Will it pay back the investment? Odds are that it will in the long-term and that gold mining could once again become a sunrise industry.

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