Embracing digitalisation

Online Editor

The future of energy and mining: Corinne Bulota details how the industry can produce in a more reliable, sustainable and affordable way in the digital age

To build a more sustainable future, the search for new clean energy sources is in the spotlight of governments, industries and companies around the world. Even though the mining industry is a major source of raw materials for many industries, it is one of the most energy-intensive industries in the world. Over 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy production for electricity generation, transportation and heating. ‘Business as usual’ is not an option in the darkening shadow of climate change. Against this backdrop, the use of new technologies has proved to be an essential way for companies to rethink their business to obtain more sustainable, safe and efficient operations.

Any business transition must consider mining, given that around 45% of the world’s economic activity is driven by this sector alone. That will only increase, as the demand for clean energy increases and minerals are critical components of the associated batteries, turbines, electric vehicle engines and electricity grids. According to the World Bank, the demand for these raw materials will grow by around 500% by 2050. The mining industry knows the world is watching and that, it has a pivotal role to get climate change back on track. For this reason, major mining companies have pledged to be net-zero for scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2050.

Mining industry demand management

So how can the demand for more energy and more raw materials from the mining industry be met in a sustainable way that secures the future of the world we live in? In simple terms, we need to do more with less.

Moving from a linear economy that relies on inefficient low-cost bulk extraction and transportation through global supply chains to a circular one that will demand less carbon, less waste, less water, less harm and more transparency. According to Deloitte, the next decade will witness some of the most exciting and transformative years in the mining industry’s history. Some of these are driven by the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the growing need to integrate environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments with central business functions. However, the way companies design and operate their facilities and interact with their ecosystems is also changing.

Reliance on virtual worlds before committing to the real world will become the new normal. The application of virtual twins brings unrivalled collaboration and intelligent data analysis as well as faithful modelling and simulation. Not only that, but by being delivered on an integrated technology platform, business processes and capabilities can be executed with absolute confidence. It is a case of “ensuring that someone does something somewhere at a given point in time”. It is this same vision that will make AI, automation and autonomous mining more mainstream.

Digitisation of this kind is not only applicable to achieving sustainability around production systems, but also processing, supply, governance, rehabilitation and many other business domains. Typical benefits include the potential for a 10% increase in geological asset value, a reduction in design time by 50%, a 60% reduction in late error detection and around 35% reduction in wastage of resources. Improved quality and security of supply will be important additional benefits. All of this adds up to much more sustainable operations that are also likely to be more profitable. Encouragingly, most analysis shows that solutions to decarbonise the majority of emissions will become economic within this decade, addressing both Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. The deployment of virtual twins allows companies to better invest in their development projects and operations with confidence, knowing that potential risks have already been overcome before they are encountered in the real world.

How energy is generated and how the minerals required to support that generation are produced is undergoing a massive shift by moving away from large-scale centralised generation and extraction facilities to more localised and modular supply. The same virtual twin technologies advocated for mining are already being used in other sectors – for example, to design and operate in the meticulously governed nuclear industry where new, small modular reactors are finding favour for their relatively fast and lower-risk construction as opposed to the mega power plants of yesterday. Similarly, in mining, a growing number of smaller precision extraction ventures are emerging that require less infrastructure, energy and other resources than the bulk mining operations of the past which typically produce three times as much waste as the ore of interest.

Energy and sustainability goals

A desire to operate in a more sustainable way is being driven on several fronts. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the World Bank’s Climate-Smart Mining initiative and the International Council on Mining and Metals principles have all set the bar to which the mining world has opted to reach. That ambition goes much further than addressing climate change, touching on every aspect of a sustainable planet which is the vision that Dassault Systèmes has set itself to enable. It really is about harmonising product, nature and life, and requires a unique approach.

Corinne Bulota is  Infrastructure, Energy & Materials Industry vice president, Dassault Systèmes