Positioning BRIMM for the Mining Industry after COVID-19

BRIMM Fall 2020 Newsletter; November 2020
Op-Ed by Director Dr. John Steen

In April, I wrote a short opinion piece for The Conversation on how the COVID pandemic was changing the mining industry. The central theme of that article was how COVID was not a classic economic disruption in the sense that we were going to see a period of depressed commodity prices. Instead, the gold price would remain high, and some metals where the pandemic had cut supply would see a price increase as well. Many innovations in automation and logistics would happen to keep mines in operation.

April seemed a very long time ago. Since March, I have been working from home as UBC prioritizes access for staff who need to be in laboratories. Many of the BRIMM teams have become comfortable working remotely, and we are exploring new ways to engage the industry through social media and webinars. Even if the pandemic were to stop tomorrow, these new ways of working would continue.

What is becoming apparent is that COVID19 will leave the world with many permanent changes, and the general pattern of change has been called “The Great Acceleration”. Trends in economics, politics and technology that were supposed to play out over decades are happening right now, which has enormous implications for the mining industry.

One of these trends is the energy transition to renewables and zero net carbon footprints. The falling costs of batteries, solar and wind power and energy storage were always going to mean that we would see a gradual phase-out of the fossil-fuel economy. As governments worldwide try to restart their economies, billions of dollars are flowing into EVs, renewable energy and cleantech. Unlike the recovery from the global financial crisis in 2008, there is a genuine commitment to ‘build back better.’

This will create enormous demands for a wide range of metals. Copper, nickel, lithium and rare earths attract a lot of attention, but other materials such as zinc, steel and aluminum will be needed as well. A typical wind turbine contains around 300 tons of steel.

Mining finds itself in the ‘best of times and the worst of times.’ The mining boom for the electric economy will be more massive than the 2003-2014 boon driven by Chinese industrialization. However, mining cannot continue with current methods that produce CO2 and waste and consume vast water quantities. It is not enough for mined products to provide the materials for products that will combat climate change. Mining itself must reduce its environmental footprint and transition to net-zero CO2 as fast as possible.

This presents a unique opportunity for BRIMM that we are positioning ourselves for. BRIMM has a focussed research portfolio of themes aimed at addressing this problem through water management, sustainable energy systems and lower impact methods of resource extraction and mine remediation.

This strategy is already reaping results, and in the past three months, a research funding pipeline of several million dollars has been in development with government and industry partners. I look forward to sharing more details as these projects are finalized.