Did you know people have been mining for minerals and metals before recorded history? In fact, the oldest known mine, which is located in South Africa, appears to have been worked as far back as 40,000 years ago. 

That mine was used to dig for coal. Now mining is a massive global industry which extracts a wide variety of materials from terra firma. Today we take a quick look at the industry today, introducing what mining is, common mining techniques, and the current challenges and solutions faced by this important human endeavor. 

Overview of Mining Industry 

The mining industry is involved in the extraction of precious minerals and other geological materials. Ores recovered contain metals, coal, oil shale, gemstones, limestone, chalk, dimension stone, rock salt, potash, gravel, and clay. 

Metals can be precious like gold, platinum, and silver, or for industrial purposes – steel, copper, and aluminum. Gemstones such as diamonds are also extracted through mining. 

Coal is a significant mining product. Around 38 percent of the world’s energy comes from coal burning with many nations relying on it as a major power source (example: Botswana. Kosovo, Mongolia).

Digging the Earth – Current Techniques in Mining

Excavation types used in mining can be divided into two kinds: surface and sub-surface (aka underground). 

Surface mining removes surface vegetation, dirt, and bedrock to reach buried ore deposits. Techniques include: 

  • open-pit mining, which creates an open pit to obtain materials
  • strip mining, which consists of stripping surface layers off to find and expose ore
  • mountaintop removal, which involves taking the top of a mountain off to reach ore
  • landfill mining, which involves landfills sites to be excavated for ore and processed

Sub-surface mining consists primarily of digging tunnels (“shafts”) into the earth to reach ore deposits. Many can be classified by the type of access shafts used and the ore extraction technique. Drift mining, for example, uses horizontal access tunnels while room-and-pillar mining removes ore from the rooms while leaving pillars in place to support the room’s roof. 

In-situ leaching is a less-common method of mining. Also called in-situ recovery (ISR) or solution mining, this technique involves the extraction of minerals by artificially dissolving them using a solution like water. Potash, potassium chloride, sodium chloride, and sodium sulfate are examples of such minerals obtained by this technique.

Copper minerals and uranium oxide are also extracted using ISR. They require more extreme solutions like an acid or a carbonate to be properly obtained from ore.

3 Mining Industry Issues and Possible Solutions

The mining industry, despite its importance in many nations’ economies, faces numerous uphill battles. Environmental challenges, government regulation, and other issues like the exploitation of indigenous populations increase as well as the difficulty in developing and expanding new mining operations. 

In response, the industry has turned to several technologies to address some of these issues and challenges. Three being explored here include:

Miner Safety through Drones 

There are numerous occupational hazards associated with mining. Cave-ins, rock falls, inaccessible areas, and minimal to no visibility put miners at risk. Gasses in the mine can lead to asphyxiation and could also be combustible. 

Mining companies, to protect workers, are turning to drones for aid. Mining drone copters, equipped with gravimetric sensors, accelerometers, low-light cameras, and collision sensors, can be sent down mine shafts to map or inspect tunnels. Trained workers can pilot them remotely using an industrial tablet. The drones can also be programmed to fly autonomously. Miners can then follow after routes have been mapped and verified to be safe. 

Virtual Reality Training for Miners 

Another direction being taken to improve miners’ safety is training them using virtual reality. Already found in other industries like manufacturing and construction, trainees using VR would be able to practice some of the more dangerous but necessary tasks like the use of explosives. In the virtual mine, they can practice placing, setting, and even detonating the explosives. Instructors can highlight any mistakes and even revisit the lessons with fear of causing any damage to other people or the mines themselves.

Mining Industry Software 

Many of the once easy-to-access mining sites have been exhausted. Today, many sites are remote, deep into the earth, or both. Companies usually have a large amount of equipment and systems both onsite and remote, generating lots of information and data but with very little, if any, connectivity. interfaces independent from each other. This increases costs and decreases efficiency due to redundancy of information and lack of ability to get a “big picture” view of an entire mining operation (Mine to Mill to Smelter to Port). 

Digitalization in mining looks to resolve this. Computerized or digital devices or systems are brought in to compile, sort, and store data for easy access even via remote. Equipment operators and management can then, for example, track how much equipment like industrial PCs are used at a site and if they need any updates to avoid costly downtimes. Or environmental data can be reviewed by geologists and stakeholders to make decisions about a potential mine site. The hope is that more digitalization will lead to improved analysis, operating efficiency, and safety.

State of Mining Market 

The global mining market grew from $1,825.21 billion in 2021 to $1,990.9 billion in 2022. Compound annual growth rate (CAGR) during that period was 9.1 percent.  From 2021 to 2026, the mining market is expected to grow to $2,737.39 billion at a CAGR of 8.3 percent.

The Asia Pacific mining market was the largest in 2021, followed by North America. The market size in the US alone is expected to increase 53 percent in 2022.

Closing Comment

The mining industry is not only a multi-trillion dollar business but essential to many nations’ survival like a reliable source for electricity. The industry faces many challenges ranging the effects of mining on the environment to the safety of the miners. To deal with the challenge, Mining companies, to deal with these and other issues, are looking at technologies like drones and digitization, in response. 

Contact an expert at Cybernet if looking to see how industrial mini PCs and tablets may be the solution to your mining company’s challenges.

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