Canada Wants its Bite of the Rare Earths Apple
Canadian extractive companies, in collaboration with the federal government and other groups, have launched more than 200 exploration projects targeting what are called rare earth elements (REE). Canada has set its sites on becoming a global leader in the growing multi-billion dollar industry – a goal that the Canadian government views as ‘critical’ for the country’s economy. For the past decade or more, China has dominated the industry and now Canada wants a share of the pie.
Rare earths, which include 15 lanthanide metals on the periodic table plus scandium and yttrium, are increasingly sought after by manufacturing companies. The elements, with their luminous, magnetic and catalytic characteristics are critical for manufacturing new technology, clean energy, automotive, defense, aerospace and other industrial products.
As an example, rare earths have become essential components in the development of electric cars, wind turbines, laptops, cell phones, rechargeable batteries, medical imaging equipment, LCD screens and more. With this in mind, it’s clear that they are potentially very valuable.
Rare earth elements are split into two categories, ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ and it’s the latter, which are said to be critical for the manufacturing of such products.
Canada Reports Elevated Concentrations of ‘Heavy’ Rare Earths
According to a report by Canada.com, Canadian deposits contain high volumes of ‘heavy’ rare earths, meaning that the country is set to reap great rewards:
“Canada is poised to capitalize on extracting rare earth elements, say briefing notes prepared for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver as part of last summer’s cabinet shuffle.
“Rare earth elements (REE) have been categorized by the government as being critical to Canada’s economy,” say the briefing notes, titled “Secret” and obtained by Postmedia News under access to information legislation.
“Canada could become a significant producer of rare earths over the medium term.”
By 2018, Canada wants to have 20 percent of global supply. Up until 2013, China produced an astonishing 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earths and is currently producing 90 percent. The country imposes steep export quotas.
According to Mining.com, the leading Canadian juniors vying to build Canada’s first rare earths mine include Rare Element Resources, Avalon Rare Metals and Quest Rare Minerals, while Saskatoon-based Great Western Minerals is recommissioning the Steenkampskraal mine in South Africa with Chinese backing.
Canada has more than 200 exploration projects searching for rare earth elements, representing more than half of the world’s exploration projects on REE. Furthermore, 11 of those projects are considered to be at an advanced stage of development according to federal officials, seven of which contain elevated concentrations of the valuable ‘heavy’ rare earths.
As it stands, Canada is not actually producing any rare earths, however the briefing notes state that it could become a ‘key player’ over the course of the next four to six years.
As with any extractive project, there are environmental challenges. Many of the REE mines are open pit, while rare earths are generally accompanied by uranium and thorium — radioactive elements, albeit in low quantities.
What’s more, building, developing and opening a rare earths mine, including the subsequent processing costs, amounts to $1.5 billion to $2 billion. The importance of rare earths in new manufacturing technology does however mean that each mine could produce tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars. According to reports, rare earths actually aren’t that rare. They are abundant around the world, but very rarely in concentrations that are economically recoverable, which is where the risk element comes in.
Having said this, the briefing notes indicate that at least one of Canada’s advanced projects, from Avalon Rare Metals, is expected to begin production in 2017, with four other projects potentially starting production between 2017 and 2019.
Avalon’s flagship mine is in the Northwest Territories, while other companies like Quest Rare Minerals and Matamec Explorations are proceeding with projects in Quebec.
“Canada may become a major producer of the valued “heavy” rare earth elements by the 2017 to 2020 time period,” say the briefing notes.
Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) is working closely with industry and academia to develop a rare earth industry in Canada, including the training of needed workers.
Any foreign investment in rare earth elements is subject to a national security review under the Investment Canada Act to ensure potential acquisitions don’t pose national security risks.
“NRCan will continue to closely monitor the global rare earth industry and cooperate with other departments to manage future production and shipments of these resource materials consistent with the government’s strategic objectives.”
The future looks bright for Canada’s rare earths industry.
Mining 4.0: How innovation is shaping mines of the future
Mining may be the gateway to the world’s carbon neutral future. Green energy storage systems, for one, are largely dependent on minerals. According to the World Bank Group, clean energy needs will escalate demand for rare earth minerals by nearly 500% by 2050.
While this growing demand holds much promise for mining companies, it also creates new challenges. Mining operators must navigate the ever-present highly cyclical market conditions and capital-intense operations. Recent trends layer on additional challenges, such as the progressive retirement of the industry’s most experienced workers, increasing regulatory pressures, and rising energy costs. To proactively manage these multiple challenges and capitalize on rising demand, mining companies must innovate and lower operating costs to remain both profitable and viable.
Why the urgent need for innovation?
Leading mining companies have shown that lower operating expense (OpEx) is a pre-requisite to on-going business success. This need is driven by the cyclical mining market and ever present,, hefty capital requirements, both of which are inherent in the mining industry. And, when demand is high, the OpEx cost component of unplanned downtime grows steeper. Data indicates that, in mining operations, the root cause of OpEx overages lies in maintenance issues that impede operating efficiencies and incur unnecessary costs. Left unaddressed, these gaps will prevent mining companies from fully capitalizing on increasing demand.
According to McKinsey, mining companies have historically struggled with significant productivity declines, as shown below. In recent years, there is evidence that a slow recovery is underway, however, full resolution is in its’ infancy, primarily rooted in maintenance cost optimization.
Other data points on current mining operations underscore the urgent call for innovation and change:
- 70% operating efficiency due to breakdowns and stalled production, which translates to real potential for increased productivity and throughput
- 30-50% of mining operations costs spent on maintaining plant, fleet and equipment, so, the magnitude of potential improvements on bottom-line profitability is significant
- 3-5X cost for urgent repairs and corrective work requests versus planned maintenance, often made evident by tracking the percentage of work orders managed through the planning office.
While change is always difficult, the promise of technology (and Industry 4.0, Mining 4.0) is a welcome and required one for mining companies. Digital technologies and automation, or Mining 4.0, is defined by smart equipment, drive data-driven (and thus better) decisions, catalyze connected communications and provide easier, more affordable maintenance. From there, mining companies will be able to speed up production, reduce downtime and boost employee safety – three pillars that have challenged mining operations for years.
The first step: Predictive maintenance via condition monitoring
As the first step to regain operational optimization and lower costs, mining companies must get “ahead of the curve” and prevent process interruptions and unplanned downtime. The key is predictive maintenance via condition monitoring systems. By proactively assessing equipment health, mining operators can be alerted to developing failures before they occur and schedule planned repairs at the lowest possible cost and with minimal impact to production.
Condition monitoring systems are based on the principal that failure is a process, not an event. By monitoring asset characteristics, latent anomalies become apparent well before full failure, allowing for low-cost interventions, root-cause analysis and proactive planning for resolution, thereby mitigating process interruptions. Concurrent with deployment of well-engineered predictive maintenance strategy, a thorough rationalization review can minimize unnecessary or redundant maintenance tasks and, in many cases, eliminate human-induced failure modes.
Maintenance optimization is a powerful lever – and the first step -- to achieving and sustaining lower production costs in mining.
When 14% equals $8 million
Consider this PwC mining example, where predictive maintenance enabled a 14% reduction in maintenance spend by mitigating unplanned downtime to deliver US $8 million savings in operating expense (OpEx).
Goal: Reduce unplanned downtime
Solution: Condition monitoring system on critical equipment
- Condition monitoring insights provide operator alerts of potential failures.
- Proactive scheduling of repairs moves resolution to occur during planned maintenance, partial outage periods or normal equipment rotations.
- Asset availability and reliability increases, production interruptions are minimized and maintenance costs are reduced.
Result: 14% reduction in maintenance spend generates US $8 million in OpEx
Source: PwC “Balancing Uptime and Working Capital: Maintenance and Inventory Strategies in Mining”
Reliability and employee safety
The example above illustrates the dramatic improvements to operating expense as mining operators move from reactive / unplanned to proactive / planned maintenance. With decreased downtime, overall operational reliability also improves and with it, a metric of paramount importance in mining: employee safety.
Studies indicate that more reliable operations are safer operations. That’s because technology serves to reduce human-to-machine interaction and urgent, reactive work declines. For one industrial company, as shown in the graph below, an OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) improvement of 52% delivered a safety improvement of 69% during a 10-year period.
Customer Case Study: Slurry pumps
Let’s look at specific mining applications ripe for optimization and maintenance cost savings. The first is slurry pumps. In mining pumping stations, pump failures are responsible for 97% of unplanned maintenance costs. Pump reliability, however, is crucial in the areas of safety, environmental impact, and efficient transportation.
Key characteristics of slurry pumps can be monitored so that timely analysis of impending issues enable early detection of issues at inception and prior to failure. This avoids unplanned maintenance, unplanned downtime, and averts lost revenue.
In slurry pump applications, dynamic pressure sensors can be used to detect reciprocating diaphragm failures, providing a novel diagnostic to increase pump reliability. The solution is based on these design principles:
- The hydraulic fluid flexes the diaphragm
- When the diaphragm flexes, slurry is discharged
- Abrasive, corrosive slurries prohibit pressure sensor installations in slurry valves
- Thus, dynamic pressure monitoring of the hydraulic fluid assesses the effectiveness of slurry discharge
The result? A savings of US $3 million per year, based on maintenance cost recovery and capacity increases for a 10-pump station.
Customer Case Study: Haul Trucks
In mining operations, haul trucks are another critical asset, as they are relied upon to move raw materials. Alignment of extraction speed to transportation speed is required to keep operations flowing smoothly. Mining operators have invested in larger, automated haul trucks to facilitate this timing alignment and optimize logistics. Thus, haul trucks and their operational health is a key enabler of production reliability in mining operations.
Monitoring haul truck health to ensure reliability, however, presents unique challenges. Because haul trucks are in constant motion, data collection at precise and crucial times with linkage to a monitoring center and diagnostics requires innovative thinking and design.
For one mining company, a custom engineered solution for the haul truck’s control system was designed and installed. The system was devised to monitor haul truck health in two distinct operating states so that changes in the various failure mode characteristics could be accurately identified:
- Running and loaded. In this state, vibration data is collected while the truck is running, loaded and in reverse mode (braking the truck using the electric motor of the electric wheels).
- Unloading. During unloading, vibration monitoring data is collected when the haul truck dump or bucket is being raised.
The result? An estimated savings of US $5 million per year, based on an iron mine fleet of 30 trucks operating at 80% capacity.
Outcomes like the examples above are possible for mining operations via innovative condition monitoring systems. There are many other condition monitoring mining applications, such as wireless sensors for hoist systems and continuous monitoring for SAG (semi-autogenous grinding) mills that deliver transformational outcomes. The ultimate payoff for mining companies occurs when these applications and systems scale and interconnect into an operation-wide solution, enabling more holistic optimization.
Benefits of condition monitoring
Condition monitoring is part of Mining 4.0, the transformation driven by the adoption of automation and digital technologies. Mining 4.0 inherently supports the infrastructure and process requirements for condition monitoring systems. Specifically, Mining 4.0 will facilitate capabilities such as digitization, automation, analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, establishing a powerful foundation for predictive maintenance solutions and innovation.
Technology and predictive maintenance benefits have the potential to transform mining operations, starting with condition monitoring. In addition to managing and minimizing the impact of failures, mitigating downtime and reducing maintenance costs, condition monitoring systems also help to increase worker safety, reduce energy consumption and meet environmental requirements.
These benefits unleash significant potential for radical and positive changes in mining operations. All condition monitoring systems, however, vary in scope and effectiveness, so proper selection of a design and enablement provider with full-scale capabilities and proven expertise can impact outcomes significantly.
Innovation beyond technology
While innovation and transformation hold great potential, mining companies must go beyond reducing maintenance costs and implementing technology solutions. Companies must work differently and work smarter to capitalize on the full potential of digital technologies and holistic data strategies that deliver operation-wide benefits. For successful adoption, overcoming internal organizational barriers and cultural challenges to digital adoption is equally essential.
To reduce pressure on capital-intense mining operations, condition monitoring solutions can be “self-funding” initiatives on the journey toward Mining 4.0 as operational benefits of condition monitoring are realized progressively from the early stages of implementation.
The way forward for mining companies is clear -- and full of promise. As the world increasingly relies on mining to produce the minerals needed for green energy, innovative mining leaders will usher in an era of profound global transformation that ultimately benefits us all.
To learn more about condition monitoring systems in mining operations, please reach out to speak with one of us or another experienced professional at Baker Hughes.