Key technologies making resource industry safer, more sustainable

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By Marc Jadoul, Strategic Marketing Director, Nokia

On January 28, 2019, in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil, an 87-meter-high dam impounding almost 13 million cubic meters of mine tailings collapsed killing 270 people at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in Brumadinho. Investors in Vale SA, which owns the Feijão mine, were dismayed by more than the loss of life and environmental destruction. The shares of the company immediately plunged, wiping out in a single day nearly one-quarter of the value of the company, which almost immediately suspended dividends and froze its assets.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Nottingham and Durham University, in collaboration with Terra Motion, demonstrated that using satellite radar imaging InSAR to identify small ground movements in and around the dam, Vale could have predicted the collapse at Brumadinho as much as 40 days beforehand. They showed that, if combined with on-the-ground sensor data, the satellite imagery could have been analyzed by software to signal the need for evacuation.

This is the kind of technology that the mining industry needs, and investors are beginning to demand. In recent years, Health, Safety, Environment and Community (HSEC) have become important performance indicators for resource companies, while sustainable investment has become a mainstream strategy for financial asset managers.

Environmental monitoring in general is of interest to many industries that need to safeguard the lives and safety of their workers and avoid environmental disasters. More recently, and in another industry, the Category 4 hurricane, Laura, caused the suspension of production and evacuation of personnel at 1,400 active oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

With emergency responders more focused on search and rescue, spills and other damage were not detected for many days after Laura had passed. In total, the U.S. government received 31reports of oil and chemical spills connected to the storm. By using IoT sensors, video cameras and real-time data analytics to monitor platforms, pipelines and wells, the companies could have prevented a lot of the environmental harm caused by the leaks and damaged infrastructure.

Looking beyond the avoidance of one-time environmental disaster events, the resource industry also has to take into account long term safety and sustainability issues. The oil and gas industry, like the tobacco industry a generation ago, is now being pursued by a host of litigants for its role in climate change. While it seems unlikely that these claims will be successful, the reputational and brand damage is still significant. And on the investor front, there have been significant divestures occurring, and the value of many companies is at historical lows.

Yet, despite all the negative press, the world still needs fossil fuels and mineral metals. Even as society pivots to more renewable energy sources, the demand for everything from lithium and nickel to the many synthetic materials that are made from oil and gas feedstocks will play a critical role in creating the new renewable infrastructure. Thus, for a variety of reasons, the industry has to balance the need for its traditional products with the need to invest in sustainable operations and eco-friendly alternatives, including wind, solar and biofuels, as well as in energy efficiency technologies and low-carbon operations.

In terms of key technologies, electrification based on renewables is also a major theme. In the mining industry, there has been a strong trend toward the electrification of machinery, both above and under the ground, which lowers carbon emissions for the sector. The business case for electrification in underground mines is further strengthened because the cost of extracting diesel exhaust with ventilators is significant.

The Newmont Goldcorp Borden mine recently became the world’s first diesel-free mine, resulting in a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In its Climate Change Report 2020, Rio Tinto outlined its roadmap to achieve a low carbon future across all of its operations – aligned with the Paris Agreement – with the goal of reducing absolute emissions by 2030, by 45% relative, to 2010 levels. It also pledged net zero emissions operations by 2050.

Digital technologies such as IoT sensors, edge computing, private wireless networks and AI/machine learning are also playing an important role in the automation of many processes. In the mining industry, automation is helping to reduce emissions and increase worker safety with remote-controlled and autonomous operations being introduced around the world. Autonomous vehicles, for instance, drive more smoothly and fuel efficiently. For an average mine site with a production of 150 million tons, a self-driving autonomous haulage system (AHS) fleet can reduce carbon output by more than 15,000 tons every year.

In the oil and gas sector, incumbent fossil players like BP, Shell, Chevron, Total, ExxonMobil and Equinor are pumping billions of dollars into clean energy projects. This transformation fits into a strategy for transforming themselves into energy companies, thus limiting their exposure to the volatile fuel market, adjusting to an eventual reduction in oil and gas demand and addressing the emerging electric vehicle revolution.

Even the move to renewable energy will require advanced information (IT), communications (CT) and operational (OT) technologies. These digital technologies are playing a key role in managing distributed and intermittent power generation from rooftop solar, wind farms, battery storage and other alternate and local power generation. As major fossil fuel players invest in renewables and clean energy, they will have to rely on these digital technologies to manage their assets, monitor performance, and manage the increasing complexity of the grid.

Despite the use of recycled materials and the growth of renewable energy sources, demand for mined metals and fossil fuels will be with us for the foreseeable future. The industry has an important and leading role to play in the transition of our infrastructure, and digital and communications technologies will play an enabling role in helping them to operate more safely and sustainably in the future – while providing green value to investors and shareholders, as well as to the communities in which they operate.


Marc Jadoul leads Nokia’s marketing efforts for the mining and oil & gas industries to utilize digital technologies for making operations safer, more efficient and productive.

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