Digital solutions in sustainability: A realistic approach in a growing world

By Alim Somani | Tuesday, February 27, 2024

In an industry rife with calls for sustainability, it's crucial for the future of mining to move beyond independent perspectives and delve into realistic conversations about the intersection of industry, growth, poverty reduction, and climate change. Hatch expert Alim Somani brings a pragmatic view of the role digital integration will play in sustainable mining practices, emphasizing the need to address macro-level challenges and opportunities. 

As the global population is anticipated to surge from 9.5 to 11 billion in the coming decades, addressing the escalating energy demand has become a priority. Securing these energy needs is vital for fostering an equitable and secure society, with a crucial emphasis on achieving sustainability through clean energy solutions. The shift from fossil fuels as our primary energy source necessitates a substantial increase of electricity generation capacity, leveraging sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear. 

Developing less carbon-intensive methods for producing metals like steel is imperative and building advanced technologies and sustainable supply chains for environmentally conscious mining, processing, and recycling battery materials is critical. While electric vehicles (EVs) contribute to the rising need for electricity, it’s noteworthy that the average EV currently demands approximately six times the mineral input by weight compared to traditional vehicles, excluding steel and aluminum. EV batteries encompass an array of elements including Lithium, Cobalt, Nickel, Manganese, Graphite, Copper, aluminum, Iron, and various rare earths; some estimates suggest that the carbon footprint associated with mineral extraction and processing brings an EV’s environmental breakeven point to around 50,000 miles.

Realizing a vision of an equitable and sustainable world in the coming decades requires the establishment of a more extensive and sustainable mining and metals processing industry. Transforming this vision into reality demands innovation not only in traditional mining, metallurgic, mineral processing, and material engineering fields, but also in material engineering. And the realization of this vision hinges on digital innovation, leveraging intelligent data use, analytics, and machine learning. 

In recent decades, the landscape of many industries, including healthcare, financial services, and retail, has been revolutionized by data and digital technologies. While digital entrepreneurs have gravitated toward these sectors, an equally substantial opportunity awaits in the mining and metals industry. There lies untapped potential for digital innovators to channel their expertise and efforts, steering the industry to create a better world through positive change in four concrete ways: 

  1. Digital twins and simulation. Using digital twins—virtual models of mining operations—engineers and decision-makers can simulate and analyze various aspects of mining and processing. This technology allows for testing different scenarios and operational changes without physical or environmental risks. It enables optimization of processes for reduced energy consumption and minimal environmental impact, and it can also be used for training purposes, reducing the need for on-site training that could disrupt operations. 
  2. Smart water management systems. Digital technologies can greatly enhance water management in mining operations. By using sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, mines can monitor water usage and quality in real-time. Advanced analytics can then be used to optimize water consumption, ensuring efficient use and helping to minimize environmental impact. This is particularly crucial in regions facing water scarcity. Predictive analytics can also be used for anticipating and managing water-related risks, such as contamination or excessive usage. 
  3. Tailings storage optimization. Tailings, the waste material left after ore extraction, pose significant environmental and safety challenges. Digital technologies can improve tailings management through monitoring and predictive modeling. Sensors can provide real-time data on tailings dam stability, helping to prevent disasters. Machine learning algorithms can analyze historical data to predict potential failures or leaks, allowing for proactive management. Moreover, digital platforms can optimize the design and placement of tailings facilities, reducing the environmental footprint and enhancing safety. 
  4. Predictive analytics for resource optimization. Advanced data analytics can be used to create predictive models that optimize mining operations. This includes precise ore grade forecasting, which can significantly reduce waste and energy consumption. By predicting the quality and quantity of the ore, mining operations can be more targeted and efficient, thereby minimizing the environmental impact. 

With environmental degradation—including habitat disruption and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions—well documented, the mining industry is now turning to resource use, recycling, and site reclamation, along with funding the research and implementation of greener technologies to develop greener extraction methods to contribute to a sustainable approach. By balancing resource needs with environmental responsibility and emphasizing the need for upfront capital to push green technologies through the door, industry can foster a greener economy by promoting long-term viability.

This narrative expands beyond climate change and net-zero goals and must account for the persistent issues of poverty and the pursuit of a higher standard of living. The challenge is to balance growing energy demands with sustainable practices while considering environmental and social implications. Collaborating with stakeholders, embracing circular economy principles, and adhering to responsible mining standards all contribute to more harmonious integration of mining activities. As an industry, we need to continuously innovate to achieve this balance, and adapt our investment and regulatory strategy accordingly. 

As we continue to explore ways to drive positive change in navigating the complex landscape of sustainability in mining, it’s imperative to consider the multifaceted challenges presented by global growth and climate change. Our integration of digital solutions is in alignment with UN sustainability goals, providing a holistic approach to addressing the pressing issues of our time. In the pursuit of a sustainable future, the key lies in realistic conversations, innovative solutions, and a collective commitment to balancing progress with environmental and social responsibility. 

Hatch actively encourages and supports entrepreneurs to engage in tackling the world's toughest challenges through digital innovation, fostering a collaborative and impactful approach to sustainability. Discover how our digital solutions are advancing sustainability across client businesses by contacting us. We’re here to help.