Mining is now a Data Science Business

BRIMM Winter 2021 Newsletter; February 2021
Op-Ed by Director Dr. John Steen

Mining is now a data science business

I’ve just finished writing the executive summary for a report on the history of Canadian metallurgical innovation by Dr. Peter Warrian at the University of Toronto. The report was commissioned by the Canadian Science and Technology Museum, Ingenium and the Metallurgical and Materials Society (MetSoc). It showed how innovation propelled Canada to an industry leadership position in mining metallurgy in the twentieth century.

One of the keys to this success was the transformation of how mining and mineral processing was organized. Before the first world war, mining and mineral processing was a craft profession. There was very little standardization of processes, and the lack of systematic recording and monitoring prevented the scaling of operations. The introduction of industrial management methods in large companies like Inco and Stelco meant that these organizations could become profitable and support large R&D centers.

Like the beginning of the twentieth century, mining is on the edge of a new industrial revolution. This era won’t be driven so much by industrialized management but by the availability and management of data.

In the last few months, I have been struck by how many BRIMM projects are tackling new challenges in mining with the aid of advanced data science. I will provide three examples of current projects, but there will be many more in future. Advances in sensor technology and computing mean that the amount of data collected in and around mines increases exponentially.

Tailings management is one of the significant issues in mining in the last five years. The Water Stewardship theme uses geospatial data better to understand the consequences of potential tailings dam failures worldwide. Collaboration between UBC researchers in the Faculties of Science and Applied Science combines data on tailings dams with satellite data and hydrological models to accurately identify the magnitude of risks from these facilities.

Mineral processing is adopting more control processes from factory engineering, which means that mines can use digital information to improve productivity and optimize metal recovery. The problem is that geological information is often analogue and frequently unstructured. The resulting information gap between the mine and the mill costs the mining industry billions of dollars each year. Fortunately, UBC’s Data Sciences Institute has expertise in digitizing analogue data and converting geological information into data that can be used in mineral processing is a promising project in the Orebody Knowledge research theme.

In 1994, I attended the Australian Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology conference as a Ph.D. student. At the end of the meeting, there was an announcement of an interest group forming in the newly emerging field of bioinformatics. The quantitative analysis of genomes is now an important scientific endeavour and has transformed medicine and agriculture. BRIMM is developing a project as part of the Federal Digital Supercluster program to create a genomic library of microbes associated with mining environments. In collaboration with Teck, BGC, Genome BC, Microsoft and biotech companies such as Koonkie, Illumina and Cemvita Factory, this library will create a platform for a range of new microbial technologies to process minerals and treat mine waste. The global market for these services is in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

UBC is fortunate to have world-class centers of excellence in data analytics, including the Data Sciences Institute (DSI) and the Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics (CAIDA). Like BRIMM, they have a mandate to break down disciplinary silos to find solutions to the 21st century’s significant challenges. We are excited to be working with them.