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Mining Industry and Academia Team Up For Research
Feature Article, CIM Magazine, May 2010
Industry and academia team up to push research agenda
By Heather Ednie
Minerals research and innovation in Canada are increasing in importance, as mining companies look to new technologies and processes to give them a competitive edge.
The way it is undertaken has changed significantly, as mining companies are electing to do less research at their own labs, opting to fund university-based projects instead.
Additionally, keeping these projects practical, relevant and financially viable poses a tremendous challenge. The one thing that does seem clear is that the guiding principle of the next decade must be collaboration.
Collaboration is key to effective mining research
Many of the big players - the federal and provincial governments, research institutions and companies - are working together under the auspices of the recently formed Canada Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) to nail down the basic research needs and opportunities for this collaborative future.
"CMIC is a story of interplay and collaboration," says Stephen Lucas, Assistant Deputy Minister, Minerals and Metals Sector, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).
"We're bringing users and researchers together with funders, policy-makers and the institutions that develop the highly-qualified people we so need. Collaboration is the golden key to effective mining research and innovation for our industry."
"We want to show some results this year," says Engin Özberk, chair of CMIC and vice-president of innovation and technology development at Cameco Corporation, "to ensure our entity is sustainable and help companies justify the merit of making future investments in research - a common challenge for companies, academics and government alike."
R&D collaboration will lead to more investment
Özberk says he can't stress enough that a strong R&D industry in Canada needs more collaboration.
"People don't realize the energy required to prepare acceptable selling points - research is about convincing people to spend money on something without really knowing what it's going to be, and without a guarantee of success," he says. "The challenge is to define what needs to be done, with enough technical merit to gain support."
Cameco and Areva work with University of Saskatchewan
One example of a successful collaboration is Cameco's and Areva's work with the University of Saskatchewan.
Together, the companies fund a number of research initiatives, focused primarily in areas such as tailings management and toxicology.
"Cameco and Areva jointly operate some of the mines, so we have a common interest to build towards success," explains Özberk. "Likewise, the projects at the university are of common interest to both companies."
Cameco has had strong ties with the University of Saskatchewan for over 15 years. The partnership has produced more than 70 peer-reviewed scientific papers and overseen the training of more than 50 graduate and undergraduate students, post doctoral fellows, research associates, assistants and engineers.
In 1993, Cameco donated $1.5 million to endow a Chair at the university to investigate environmental liabilities associated with waste products from the company's mining operations, specifically tailings materials and waste rock piles.
Hydrogeochemist Dr. James Hendry was appointed to the position.
In September 1995, Hendry was awarded the prestigious Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Industrial Research Chair in Aqueous and Environmental Geochemistry.
He is now nearing the end of a third 5-year funding term.
CEMI and COREM unite researchers in mining
Some companies and institutions need a little convincing to come together; others require a little more facilitation.
Two organizations serving as research "matchmakers" are the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), based in Ontario, and COREM, headquartered in Quebec.
CEMI works with large mining companies, suppliers, governments, universities, and consultants on research projects focused on underground hard rock mines, mainly geared towards Northern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.
"Industry has downgraded research facilities in recent years, creating a greater need for CEMI to be in place to carry on the research and do it on the mining companies' behalf," says Al Akerman, CEMI R&D program developer, operations.
CEMI establishes collaborative networks focused on common problems in the mining industry.
"Basic research is executed in the university environment, with more of an applied research in the operations," explains Akerman. "The biggest challenges are finding the right people and putting together a proposal that has merit going forward."
To address this manpower issue, CEMI helps train the highly-qualified people (HQP) the mining industry requires.
"Our intention is to ensure that the students get exposed to the mining operations and build contacts," explains Akerman.
CEMI finds major funding for mining R&D
CEMI's third focus is on helping to fund research projects, leveraging dollars from industry and government, and ensuring investors get a healthy return on their investment.
Currently, CEMI's major funders include the Ontario government ($10 million), Xstrata Nickel ($5 million), Vale Inco ($5 million) and the federal government ($4.25 million).
"The intent is that a dollar invested in CEMI will actually turn out to be $1.50 in research," says Akerman.
One of the major challenges for mining research in Canada is the persistent gap between academia and industry. CEMI's president, Peter Kaiser, says his organization sends out what he refers to as "solution teams" to help close this gap.
"They identify a problem, scope out the project, identify researchers, partners and technology providers, and put the team together," says Kaiser. "It's active collaboration."
According to Kaiser, one problem ripe for the solution team approach is deep mining, where aspects related to geophysics, risk, safety, and energy requirements will drive that area of research.
"There is a real need for R&D to make deep mines in Canada more economical and eliminate risk," attests Kaiser. "It's an area that may be under-represented right now."
COREM devoted to improving mineral processing
COREM is a non-profit research consortium that aims to improve the competitiveness of industrial operations through sustainable development and technology transfer. The organization is driven by 12 to 15 corporate members who set the research agenda.
"COREM is essentially dedicated to improving mineral processing," says executive director Yves Harvey.
Typical projects or research areas will target process efficiency, cost reductions, reduction in energy requirements, and potential environmental benefits. These all contribute to a more competitive mining industry.
In the years to come, COREM will likely focus on the field of mineralogy and on improving the performance of mineral processes as the industry moves towards lower grade and more complex ore deposits.
Also, COREM believes more efficient use and reuse of process water will be on the agenda in the future as legislation imposes minimal discharge regulations. "In these areas, there will always be room for innovation," says Harvey.
Canada's green mining initiative
Building on sustainable development work such as that undertaken by COREM, Canada hopes to shine in green mining research.
"NRCan's Green Mining Initiative [GMI] is intended to help the industry remain a global leader by strengthening its competitiveness, environmental performance and social responsibility," says Ginny Flood, director general, strategic policy and planning, Minerals, Metals and Materials Policy Branch, Minerals and Metals Sector, Natural Resources Canada.
The GMI, which is guided by a multi-stakeholder advisory committee, was presented and endorsed at the Energy and Mines Ministers' Conference last September.
"Green mining technologies and practices make good business sense," says Flood. "Although investments in clean technologies were affected by the economic crisis, they have responded well in the second quarter of 2009."
Canada must lead mining research
The main challenge facing organizations like CMIC, CEMI and COREM right now, says COREM's Harvey, is getting more funding, over a longer term.
"We need mechanisms in place to support appropriate research for the mining sector, with multi-year support from industry as well," he says.
"I think one is likely to trigger the other. I'd like to see a focused funding mechanism for research and innovation, perhaps driven by the federal government but triggering substantial support from industry."
The government and industry already jointly fund a number of projects. For example, out of total annual outlays of more than $300 million for public-private R&D partnerships, NSERC offers 3 funding programs - collaborative R&D projects, industrial research chairs and industrial scholarships/fellowships - which require industry cash commitments.
"Our funding program provides access to knowledge, equipment and expertise in the faculties and, as the icing on the cake, access to students," says André Isabelle, director, environment and natural resources, research partnerships at NSERC.
"Participation in our programs helps industry get involved in projects and aids their decision to go on to participate in other projects.
As well, it requires leadership and a demonstration of commitment from the private sector to ensure research supports their needs."
With its natural resources-based economy, Canada must do even more to take a leadership role in mining research and innovation or else get left behind, adds Flood. "For example, Australia is investing heavily in R&D, and that investment is growing," she says.
Improving mining R&D will make industry stronger
Ultimately, bringing all these threads together will make the industry stronger and more profitable, say many insiders.
"The goal of all our efforts in mining research and technical development in Canada is to advance industrial performance - increase productivity, lower costs, and improve health, safety and environmental performance, and CSR [corporate social responsibility] practices," says NRCan's Lucas. "It's also about adding value and improving job opportunities, throughout the whole mine lifecycle."
"My recommendation to our industry would be to continue to focus on collaboration and networking," adds CMIC chair Özberk. "It sounds so simple, but there are so many egos - individuals, companies, universities, departments, regions - we need to get over those barriers."