Danish engineering and equipment supplier FLSmidth has taken a lead in the collaboration between academia, companies and entrepreneurs that is vital in creating viable new technologies.
Mining Magazine EMEA editor Craig Guthrie relayed questions about innovation in design to R&D heads and innovation specialists at the company, with FLSmidth content manager William Leahy aggregating their responses.
How important is R&D and academic collaboration as the industry looks towards 2025?
Some of the most important technological breakthroughs in mining of recent years have come from academia. HPGRs, minerals processing simulation tools (e.g. JK SimMet) and the REFLUX Classifier have all been developed in collaboration with universities. As the industry matures, innovations rely on more sophisticated and complex technologies, meaning research partnerships are more important than ever, however, universities rely on mining and METS companies to commercialise technology and realise the impact.
One example of such a collaboration is between FLSmidth and Professor Kevin Galvin at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales. The university has just established the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence (ARC CoE) on Eco-Efficient Beneficiation. The ARC CoE is the next step in advancing several key separation technology differentiators in the FLSmidth product portfolio. The Centre also includes key mining customers under the global AMIRA umbrella and various international universities.
The partnership supports development of the eco-friendly REFLUX Classifier, REFLUX Flotation Cell, and coarseAIR technologies. These products are among the most promising of the novel flotation and beneficiation technologies coming onto the market today, with more selective, faster, and efficient separations. The alliance will focus on accelerating adoption of the equipment in industry by demonstrating early gangue rejection, improved sparging kinetics and bubble-slurry segregation amongst other topics.
But, of course, we are involved in many important R&D collaborations across the flowsheet. Key academic partnerships for FLSmidth in dewatering and tailings include Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany), University of Alberta (Canada) and University of Leoben (Austria), CSIRO (Australia). In flotation, we are currently working with University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University (South Africa), Imperial College of London (UK), Helmholtz Center at Dresden-Rossendorf (Germany), University of Newcastle (Australia), Norwegian University of Science and Technology (Norway) and the Swedish Environmental Research Institute (Sweden). Another area of focus for us is comminution and again, we have some established partnerships in this area, for example, with Chalmers University (Sweden), University of British Columbia (Canada), Universidad de Santiago and Universidad Federico Santa María (Chile).
What areas of R&D will be the most important as the mining sector secures its licence to operate towards 2025?
As the world responds to the challenges of climate change, mining license to operate is shifting towards minimising environmental impact. This involves three major areas; water, energy (carbon emissions), and miscellaneous emissions (pollution, tailings, waste, etc). Taking them in turn, the largest contributors to energy waste in the mine are comminution and load & haul. In relation to water, FLSmidth has been focusing and supplying dry stack tailings technology with up to 95% water recycling to the market, and this technology offering will be further improved over the following years.
FLSmidth is tackling energy-efficient comminution with a focus on novel technologies such as the HPGR and OK mill (vertical roller mill). Load & haul can be replaced by in-pit crushing and conveying, with up to 100,000 tonnes of CO2 averted for each system installed. All of these technologies are being developed and brought to market through collaboration and partnership both with the mining companies, universities and key suppliers.
What are the challenges facing R&D as the sector looks to become more sustainable?
R&D efforts in mining are notoriously difficult to capitalise on. Industry risk aversion is high due to large capital outlays and long project development timelines, which, when coupled with site-specific minerology and long product development pathways, means technologies often take decades to come to fruition. It is a common refrain that miners want to be ‘first to be second'. This highlights again the importance of academic research, which is less constrained by time-to-market and ongoing complexity. Grant funding can also help decrease risk on more ambitious projects.
Though the industry is opening up to face the challenges and is starting to put sustainability on top of the agenda, this opens for strong collaborations between METS and mining companies, which is required to overcome the challenges.
How can R&D help discover new seams of resources in innovative ways which do not impact on the environment?
Sometimes discovery can involve looking at existing resources in new ways. FLSmidth is committed to our Mission Zero and by having this as our goal we will be focusing on what needs to change in the industry and what technologies are required to fill these gaps. One example is FLSmidth's Rapid-Oxidative-Leach (ROL), which won an R&D 100 award.
The technology overcomes numerous technical challenges associated with scrubbing and activating particles in a leaching operation. It enables the leaching of 97 to 99% of copper from mineral concentrates containing as little as 5% copper in less than six hours; a faster and much more simple process that saves energy and significantly improves sustainability of existing mines. The process has seen success in processing arsenopyrites ores, making copper extraction financially viable for the first time.
How can R&D help in replacing existing machinery and processes with newer and more efficient models?
For decades advanced simulation has been a part of how new developments get to the market, and it has also been a central part of how we develop our offerings such as ECS/ProcessExpert, which we are continuously improving based on site data.
FLSmidth has partnered with the Helmholtz Center Dresden Rossendorf (HZDR) and the EU Horizon program under a project named "FlotSim" with the goal of drastically improving the recovery rates of flotation through fundamental flotation analysis and comparing the industrial state-of-the-art technologies to each other.
This fundamental research, along with strong internal R&D efforts, will advance our existing and developing flotation products including forced air nextSTEP, naturally aspirated WEMCO®, fast flotation REFLUX (RFC) and coarse particle coarseAIR flotation cells. In addition to furthering fundamental understanding, these efforts will allow for improved simulation models allowing optimized equipment selection and flowsheet design.
Improved next generation flotation processes are mandatory to remain economically competitive and to respond to sustainable mining for future generations. The FlotSim collaboration with industry and university partners, along with recruitment of five early stage PhD research candidates, will address some of these important societal challenges.