Beyond Oil: Researching Energy Solutions for the Mining Industry

Sustainable Mine Energy Systems, Extraction,

The case for not using oil is moving beyond environmental and ethical concerns, the mining industry’s reliance on fossil fuels is becoming increasingly expensive for operations.

According to Costmine Intelligence, a mining cost estimate service, mining operations expenditures have experienced the biggest increase due to their exposure to fuel and electricity costs, or as Michael Sinden in an interview with The Northern Miner, put it: “Anything hydrocarbon related is inflating costs at a mine.”  

So where is the mining industry looking for solutions or alternatives? 

The Bradshaw Research Institute for Minerals and Mining (BRIMM) is researching ways to reduce the mining industry’s reliance on fossil fuels to reduce costs and create a greener industry. 

Dr. Parham Samea is a Research Associate at Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia. His research digs into decarbonization solutions, improving energy efficiency, and investigating alternative energy for reducing the carbon footprints of the mining industry.

We had a chance to sit down with Parham to ask about his journey to and his research at BRIMM.


BRIMM:  How did you end up at UBC and working with BRIMM?

Parham Samea: My background is in environmental geomechanics and geotechnical engineering. My studies have been mining adjacent or a friendly neighbour to mining but the mining industry was never my original focus. 

I did my PhD at McGill and it was there I studied  rock mechanics which laid a foundation to study mining. 

After my time in Montréal, I worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in mining energy systems at UBC, and then BRIMM on the decarbonization of mine energy systems, and in particular how microwave technology could be used to decarbonize processes in mining that heavily rely on fossil fuels.

BRIMM: Microwaves? Are you microwaving rocks in your kitchen, or what’s the science behind this?

Parham Samea: It’s pretty much the same thing, except that the machines that we work with are much more powerful than the microwaves in your kitchen. The scale is different but the principles are the same.

The way it works is you can direct the thermal energy into rocks to break them apart at lower energy levels. This serves a lot of purposes in mining, for example, before the extraction of the valuable minerals. Using microwave energy, the ore structure is weakened, thereby making it easier to grind. This reduces the energy required in the subsequent process for extraction of metals and minerals.

Another application of microwave systems is in excavation. For instance, as drilling progresses into increasingly harder rock at greater depths, traditional methods rely on mechanical energy, such as blasting or crushing. However, by using microwaves to pre-weaken the rock face, there’s potential to significantly reduce the energy needed for the excavation and it’s carbon footprint.

BRIMM: How does this research impact the mining industry?

Parham Samea: It is all about replacing fossil fuels. The microwave concept has been around for 30 to 40 years, and it could reduce the energy requirements to excavate and process minerals.  But when it comes to practice, it has not yet been that successful. 

Our goal is to increase the efficiency of microwave systems so that we can reduce fossil fuel consumption in metal extraction and processing. Aside from the environmental concerns related to fossil fuel emissions, a mine’s reliance on oil, diesel or natural gas is becoming increasingly expensive, making operations less profitable. 

This is just one of the projects that I’m currently working on with BRIMM.

BRIMM: Where do mines use the most energy?

Parham Samea: It is in comminution, or breaking down the rocks to smaller sizes, and mineral processing that eat up a mining operations budget because of its reliance on fossil fuels. 

According to one study, if you analyse energy consumption at a mine, comminution accounts for 25% of energy consumption of an “average” mine site. Diesel in mobile equipment accounts for 46%, electricity in mining (ventilation) is 15% and other electricity is 14%.

If we can make mining less dependent on fossil fuels, we can reduce the industry’s overall  environmental impact and improve its profitability.  

BRIMM: How do you get real world insights into how mines operate as an academic?

Parham Samea: The BRIMM ecosystem creates unique opportunities and relationships. I’ve been working with one coal mining company in Eastern British Columbia to figure out how to decarbonize their mining operations. 

When I say decarbonization of mining operations, I mean reducing the energy demand of the systems or improving their efficiency, electrification of mining equipment, and switching to renewable energy sources. 

What it means is using green energies as much as possible, replacing technologies that require fossil fuels. That’s basically everything under the umbrella of mine energy systems and decarbonization of mining systems. 

BRIMM: Companies are making progress towards ESG but do they have the capacity to account for some of the byproducts of their operations?

Parham Samea: Yes, but they need to build the methods to track and estimate their impacts. So for example in coal mining, methane leakages are a significant issue, but companies often struggle to accurately quantify the extent of these emissions. There are ways to quantify and capture that methane and possibly to turn it into a usable energy source. 

Coal mining companies do not know how much methane is in their reserves until we do some testing. So we’re trying to quantify the amount of methane in those mines and see if there are ways to abate those emissions.

My research is not limited to one mine, commodity, or technology. I work on research questions to give mining companies the capacity to understand their environmental impact.

For example, over the past two years I have also worked on carbon sequestration into tailings with Ali Madiseh and Greg Dipple whose work gained recognition from Elon Musk’s X prize. This is another example of showing mines their impacts and potentially turning those liabilities into assets. 

BRIMM: What are the benefits of working with an organization like BRIMM?

Parham Samea: UBC and in particular BRIMM creates an environment to interact with brilliant people from different disciplines about real world problems. By having access to these people, you see problems from different angles and find new and innovative ways of solving problems. 

This is the whole point to BRIMM, bringing together people from different disciplines and asking them to collaboratively work on a specific problem. This is what I love the most about BRIMM.

BRIMM: Why would someone from outside of academia care about your research and BRIMM?

Parham Samea: Global warming is not an abstract. It is an engineering and scientific problem, caused by our heavy dependence on fossil fuels. If there are ways to resolve this issue, they have to start with applied research, and that’s why I think everyone should think about it, because it’s our lives and our next generation’s lives that are very tightly connected to this. 

BRIMM: Do you see yourself staying in academia or do you want to apply your research in the business world?

Parham Samea: I love academia because it gives me the opportunity to work with young and enthusiastic students with very novel ideas. It keeps me engaged. 

I am also fortunate that BRIMM provides me the option to work with companies. When you are in a strict academic setting you rarely have access to the real engineering problems companies face. 

I have real world problems to study, such as how to reduce energy consumption and be more efficient or create methods to account for a mine’s impact. I am not pondering the mysteries of the universe or a philosophical question. I am solving real world problems.

BRIMM: Thank you Parham for your time and we look forward to seeing you further your research at UBC.

Parham is one among many researchers working at the Bradshaw Research Institute for Minerals and Mining (BRIMM), tackling the legacy issues of the mining industry and building the solutions for the future to ensure the world has the minerals and metals it needs. 

By working across the UBC campus, we have access to top minds in the fields of Mining Engineering, Microbiology, Geology, Business, Policy, Data Science and more. It is through these connections that we build teams of researchers for the big mining problems of today.

One of the key aspects of BRIMM is driving this change through a multidisciplinary approach through our researchers, such as Parham but also with input from key stakeholders in the mining industry, mining companies, communities and academia. 

If you have any ideas for research projects, please reach out to us here. We look forward to working with you.

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Beyond Oil: Researching Energy Solutions for the Mining Industry

Dr. Parham Samea is a Research Associate at Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia. His research digs into decarbonization solutions, improving energy efficiency, and investigating alternative energy for reducing the carbon footprints of the mining industry.

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