Mar 26, 2021

Rio Tinto leveraging solar to power California mine

Rio Tinto
Borates
Heliogen
Solar
Daniel Brightmore
3 min
Rio Tinto
World’s second largest miner selects Heliogen’s breakthrough solar technology to provide carbon-free energy to Boron mine...

Rio Tinto and renewable energy technology company Heliogen have announced an agreement to explore the deployment of Heliogen’s breakthrough solar technology at Rio Tinto’s borates mine in Boron, California.

Under a Memorandum of Understanding, Heliogen will deploy its proprietary, artificial intelligence (AI)-powered technology at the Boron operation, where it will use heat from the sun to generate and store carbon-free energy to power the mine’s industrial processes. The two companies will begin detailed planning and securing government permits for the project, with the aim of starting operations from 2022. 

The companies will also use the Boron installation to begin exploring the potential for deployments of Heliogen’s technology at Rio Tinto’s other operations around the world to supply process heat, which accounted for 14% of Scope 1 & 2 emissions from the Group’s managed operations in 2020.

Heliogen’s high-temperature solar technology is designed to cost-effectively replace fossil fuels with sunlight for a range of industrial processes, including those used in mining. At Rio Tinto’s Boron mine, the company’s proprietary technology will use AI to control a network of mirrors that concentrate sunlight to capture energy used to make steam. Heliogen’s system will also store the captured energy in the form of heat, allowing it to power night time operations and providing the same uninterrupted energy stream offered by legacy fuels.

The Boron operation mines and refines borates into products ranging from fertilizers to construction materials and is producing lithium carbonate from a demonstration plant. The site currently generates steam using a natural gas cogeneration plant and natural gas fired boilers. 

Heliogen’s installation will supplement these energy sources by generating up to 35,000 pounds per hour of steam to power operations, with the potential to reduce carbon emissions at the Boron site by around 7% – equivalent to taking more than 5,000 cars off the road. Rio Tinto will also be assessing the potential for larger scale use of the Heliogen technology at Boron to reduce the site’s carbon footprint by up to 24%.

How it works

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Heliogen’s mission of slashing global carbon emissions by replacing fossil fuels with sunlight, as well as its focus on industrial sectors, made them an ideal partner for Rio Tinto, which is committed to decarbonizing its global operations.

Rio Tinto Chief Executive Jakob Stausholm said: “This partnership with Heliogen has the potential to significantly reduce our emissions at Boron by using this groundbreaking solar technology, and we look forward to exploring opportunities across our global portfolio.

“Addressing climate change effectively will require businesses, governments and society to work together through partnerships like this one, to explore innovative new solutions throughout the entire value chain. Our work with Heliogen is part of Rio Tinto’s commitment to spend approximately $1 billion on emissions reduction initiatives through to 2025 and our commitment to work with world-leading technology providers to achieve this goal.”

Heliogen CEO and Founder Bill Gross added: “Since its founding, Heliogen has been laser-focused on decarbonizing industrial sectors, including mining. As a result, this agreement with Rio Tinto is incredibly gratifying. We’re pleased to find a partner committed to cutting its contributions to climate change. We’re also pleased that Rio Tinto is exploring our technology to play an important role in helping reach its sustainability goals while dramatically reducing its energy costs. 

“More broadly, we’re excited to take this important step as we pursue Heliogen’s goal of avoiding more than 1 gigaton of CO2 emissions – 5% of the world’s annual total – from the global economy by turning sunlight into an industrial energy source.”

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May 15, 2021

Axora: driving safety, sustainability and efficiency

Axora
Sustainability
Digital Transformation
Decarbonisation
7 min
Discover the B2B digital solutions marketplace offering tailored support for mining companies seeking to innovate their operations

“Axora was conceived to bring collaboration and industrial digital innovation to the next level,” pledges CEO Ritz Steytler. “We spoke with the heads of innovation and the operations leaders of oil & gas and metals & mining organisations. We understand the intense pressure they face to modernise their operations. We’re focused on offering solutions to support mining companies with the three biggest challenges they face: safety, sustainability and efficiency."

Safety, Sustainability & Efficiency

"We can help with everything from discovering the right solutions to solve specific problems, to evaluating physical innovation and then supporting the end to end process for actually getting that technology to deliver business value," continues Steytler. That’s realised through our support of the procurement cycle and helping companies with the deployment and maintenance of their chosen solutions to ensure they continue to deliver value where it’s needed most.”

Axora hosts over 150 innovative solutions from sector leaders to start-ups, universities, and consultancies. Examples include machine vision technology that identifies mineral ore contaminants three times faster than the human eye, and predictive modelling for oil rigs which uses built-in sensors and AI to maximise production. Axora's proven digital solutions help to reduce wasted investment, avoid duplication and accelerate business growth.

Digitalisation

The World Economic Forum estimates digitalisation can create value to the tune of $400bn across the coming decade. However, the emergence of ‘digital mines’ isn’t just about the numbers. Digitalisation can transform mining into a far more sustainable enterprise by mitigating some of the big risks the industry faces. A digital mine can optimise operations, unleashing the power of data to understand and implement changes in the business.

With the right solutions it’s possible to effect radical changes in a process that is understood better. Solutions that have been road-tested across the oil and gas industry can deliver real benefits for mining companies, including early adopters like Glencore, explains Axora’s Mining Innovation Director Joe Carr: “Opex Group are using Machine Learning with an AI algorithm to pull in all the available sensor data to monitor a processing plant. Its solutions analyse output and look across all the pumps and motors to offer exact data on where to tweak them down. It’s cloud-based and can monitor, reduce and control operational emissions, optimise energy use and minimise environmental impact. It’s currently being used in the oil and gas industry and it's been shown to save up to 10% of power, but the driver of it was actually Co2.

“If you're running an oil platform, your power is essentially free because you're pumping it out of the ground. But in a mine the biggest power user, outside of the trucks and shovels, is the process plant. It uses around 21 kilowatt hours per tonne of processing power to run, right? Obviously, that's dependent on the plant, but it's a power-hungry situation. Diesel is not cheap, especially in remote locations. Being able to save five to 10% of your power usage for no issue in terms of production could be a big win for mining.”

Decarbonisation

Net Zero

Carr highlights there is also the real opportunity to significantly reduce Scope 1, Scope 2 and even into Scope 3 emissions where Opex Group’s solutions could be used in a smelter to go for the “low hanging fruit” and cut Co2 emissions. “It's a win-win all around, and yet it's a technology which the mining industry doesn't use today, but it exists in a parallel industry.”

To further reduce emissions, Axora is offering solutions which are involved in the scheduling and optimisation of haul truck fleets. “If your fleet is idling for even 10 minutes a cycle, that is wasted fuel,” notes Carr. “It just goes into the atmosphere. And very rarely do the drivers turn the trucks off because they don't want to be stopping and starting those big engines. The mine may be in an extreme climate so even something as basic as saving idling can contribute towards a company’s net zero targets.” The Axora platform also features a system to manage shipping and logistics. “Are you moving your material in the most effective way in terms of routing for fuel usage and speed?” asks Carr.

“Being able to program those variables in terms of Co2 tonnage produced offers new capabilities. We’re able to help our customers understand what they want to achieve. Scope 1 emissions might be the easiest to impact with the haul fleet. Scope 2 focuses on the processing plant and the downstream movement. Understanding what a mining company’s customers are using its materials for makes Scope 3 more difficult to impact – for iron ore it would be a steel melt…”

To that end, Axora offers a predictive maintenance system for aluminum smelting which Carr notes can reduce downtime by up to 20%. “Aluminum smelting tends to come from hydro which can be very clean – it’s energy intensive,” he explains. “But the same system could easily be applied to steel or copper processes where you don't want to be turning them on and off. You don't want to be running your autoclave in a gold mine with a varying sulfide input because the heat goes up and down and it messes with your recovery and you're using a lot more power to heat and cool your autoclave.”

The Axora Platform

“Challenge us and we will find it for you,” asserts Steytler when explaining how he envisages the Axora platform developing. “We aim to match a technology provider to a particular business buyer, somebody that has a real problem that needs to get solved. They can then collaborate to deploy that technology successfully.” Steytler is positioning Axora beyond the sales and procurement process. “There’s no such thing as on time and on budget with a digital transformation effort, right? It’s a difficult thing to achieve, we’re not talking about shrink-wrapped software. That’s why partnerships are extremely important and we can help facilitate those to deliver the value required.”

Reacting to Trends

Against the backdrop of record years for many mining companies – with copper and gold production and prices on the rise – what trends are the team at Axora seeing across the industry that will necessitate a response from its multi-solution platform? “Despite the uncertainties of the global pandemic, mining companies have taken a practical approach,” notes Carr. “What we’ve seen during the pandemic is that miners have realised they need to embrace the digitisation journey. The past year has proved to be a gateway with younger guys coming through the system ready for change.”

Carr highlights that with Covid, engineers couldn’t simply fly to West Africa or Chile so the door to digitsation opened. Where has he seen the biggest push? “How do we get the data we want and then what do we do with it?” he counters. “Miners have so much data that it's in Excel sheets, and it's got macros, and it's historically stored on a server somewhere that nobody's looked at for five years since it was sent out. Our clients' demands today are more around how do we do something with that data? Because we know the benefits are there. The sensor data around predictive maintenance and all these things exist, but they're having such a struggle to deal with it and deliver meaningful insights.”

However, Carr concedes it's a cyclical business. “If it comes down to buying another truck or buying a data server, what's going to get more tonnes out of the ground? But with the right data we can see what will actually benefit operations in the long term… That push towards digital has seen what we thought would take the next five years actually happen in one year because remote capabilities and enhancement to operations centres have advanced to meet demand. At Axora, we’re seeing mining companies assess solutions to improve health and safety on their sites by reducing members of the workforce exposed to risk and in harm’s way and keen to discover how they can drive efficiencies to make more tonnes for less. Ultimately, it’s part of our job to make it simple in terms of a value calculation.”

Digital Transformation

“Axora is here to accelerate digital transformation in the mining industry,” asserts Steytler. “We can simplify that process. And with investment in that transformation expected to reach $6.8trn between 2020 and 2023 as the world economy digitizes, there’s never been a better time to realise the benefits.”

Emissions AI

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