Rock sorting just got easier – MineSense’s latest invention
30 Sep 2014
National Post – (Latest Edition)
By Peter Koven Financial Post email@example.com
Rock sorting just got easier
Mining is risk averse, but innovation may change the game
There’s a hole in the market right in the space where we operate
The mining industry is not always synonymous with innovation. Extraction methods have been entrenched for decades, and many companies are happy to stick with the same mining and milling processes that are standard across the sector.
“There’s a monolithic barrier to anybody trying to do anything new because everybody’s the same and everybody thinks the same,” says Andrew Bamber, chief executive of MineSense Technologies Ltd.
Mr. Bamber, 43, believes there is an untapped billiondollar market for innovation and new technologies within the broader industry. With Vancouver-based MineSense’s latest invention, a unique orehandling technology for optimizing metal recovery, Mr. Bambler hopes to help prove his case.
The technology has nothing to do with finding new mines. It is about identifying valuable ore in existing mines that he believes companies are foolishly throwing away. Conversely, it is about making sure companies do not waste time and money processing low-quality ore.
When mining firms design their mine plans, they spend hours poring over the drill holes on a property and carefully assigning value to blocks of material in the ground.
Rock that gets assigned a high value goes to the mill for processing, and low-value material gets shipped to the waste pile.
Mr. Bamber says the mine plan is akin to a strawberry cake. “We know there’s strawberries in it, and we’ve got a rough idea where some are because two holes might hit a strawberry. And we extrapolate in between to say what the rest of the massive cake looks like to define the value.”
This is incredibly inefficient, he says. Drill holes can be spaced far apart, and he does not think they provide nearly enough insight on the ore. Moreover, materials can shift when companies are blasting to get the rock out of the ground, making the original model even more inaccurate.
To address this problem, MineSense has designed sensors that integrate right into mining shovels, scoops and belt conveyors. The sensors monitor the ore grades and alert companies about whether the rock should be sent to the mill or the waste pile. Essentially, the sensors are supposed to create certainty where many companies are making educated guesses.
According to MineSense’s projections, this technology could lead to cost reductions and production increases of 15% to 30% respectively, along with significantly less waste and lower energy costs.
If MineSense’s projections are accurate, it may seem absurd that no one has done this before. But that just underscores the lack of innovation in an industry where many companies are risk-averse and slow to adopt new technology, Mr. Bamber says.
“There’s a hole in the market right in the space where we operate,” he says.
Pilot trials quickly demonstrated the potential benefits of the technology to customers, Mr. Bamber says. One miner in Chile found the sensors could add hundreds of millions of dollars of value to its operation and increase the mine life.
The obvious customers for this technology are miners with low-grade, marginal projects or mines with short lives. A minor improvement in project economics could extend the life of the mine or even prevent it from closing.
When metal prices fall and miners find themselves with unprofitable operations, they usually do one of two things: cut costs aggressively or invest huge dollars in expansions to achieve economies of scale. Those are both very challenging and time-consuming options.
“We offer a third route … to put loss-making operations back into profit,” Mr. Bamber says.
If everything goes as planned, he is eyeing commercialization of the technology by the end of 2015. MineSense has a number of key milestones in its sights, including raising a fresh round of capital and finding a partner (likely an equipment manufacturer that actually builds shovels).
Mr. Bamber says a lot of mining companies, including some senior producers, are supportive of the technology because they see the potential. But one challenge in marketing it is that many companies in the mining space are so set in their ways that it can be difficult convincing them that a technology could make such a difference, he says.
On the other hand, he thinks there is a possible benefit in the fact that mines across the world are so similar in how they operate: If the technology produces good results at one mine, many others will be keen to adopt it.
Mr. Bamber founded MineSense in 2009 after working on its basic concepts as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. The company was incubated in a lab at UB C and operated out of an employee’s garage for a while. From those modest beginnings, it now has 20,000 square feet of industrial space in South Vancouver.
“Some companies in Silicon Valley actually rent garages, so they can say they went through a garage phase,” Mr. Bamber says with a laugh. “We have a genuine garage phase in our past.”