Technical innovations in natural resources

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

Uranium mine

Natural resources companies, like those in many sectors, are adapting technological innovations developed for other uses. They also are breaking ground themselves.

“The interesting thing is that every industry has something to teach other industries,” says Dan Miklovic, principal analyst at LNS Research, a technology research firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Here are some examples of how natural resources companies have adapted innovations from other sectors:

 

Autonomous vehicles

“Mining was one of the first industries to use autonomous vehicles,” Mr. Miklovic says. “Autonomous mining trucks operate all over the world today.”

Autonomous vehicles, including trains and smart mining systems, allow mines in desolate or dangerous areas to greatly reduce the number of workers needed and to improve safety, especially underground and undersea, he adds.

Autonomous vehicles conduct inspections where it’s too dangerous for humans to go, says Jim Crompton, subject matter expert for Noah Consulting, a Houston division of Bangalore-based technology consultancy Infosys.

 

Military

Drones, adapted from the military, are being used to inspect offshore oil platforms in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico and may be adopted for land use as well if regulations change, Mr. Crompton notes.

Offshore oil rig drilling gas platformThe oil and gas industry also has adopted the safety culture of military nuclear submarines. “After the Horizon drilling disaster, there was a real strong push to drill wells more safely,” he says. “There can be no accidents in the nuclear reactors in submarines. The framework from the nuclear submarine industry was added to the oil and gas environment.”

In addition, military and intelligence set an example for cybersecurity. “It’s not well known, but oil and gas is probably second to the government and financial services as a target for hackers,” he says. “Some is intellectual property theft. But it can be even more serious. Everything is connected now and someone can change the control parameters and cause a physical accident.”

 

Medicine

Natural resources companies, along with medical imaging, led the way to the development of high-performance acoustic imaging technology to see below the surface, whether of skin or earth, Mr. Crompton says. Companies can model underground reserves in 3D and even 4D, showing the change over time.

 

Manufacturing

Just as manufacturers manage the entire factory as a whole, rather than each critical piece of equipment separately, oil and gas firms increasingly view their operations as a single operation with repetitive functions, notes Mr. Crompton. They drill wells in a repetitive way in order to gain efficiencies and use sensors, control systems and executing systems to monitor the entire operation.

 

Aerospace

As planes fly, sensors on myriad parts capture and transmit data for real-time analysis so that even small maintenance jobs can be handled while the plane is on the ground between flights.

Oil and gas is now doing that on compressors, turbines, pumps and even blowout preventers,” Mr. Crompton says.

Diagnostics have greatly improved to predict if a part is about to fail and cause alarms to sound, Mr. Miklovic says. “What they haven’t done is take the analytics to the next level. They haven’t gone past predicting when failures are going to happen, to telling users what to do to prevent the failure.”

 

Information Technology

Rather than sell a piece of equipment, some suppliers now are selling capability and guaranteeing reliability, Mr. Crompton says, similar to the IT model of “software as a service.” For example, blowout equipment can be leased for a decade with the maintenance included.

RefineryNatural resources companies have employed modeling tools to design distillation towers and cracking equipment, for example, and are now using data analytics to measure how well their models map back to reality, Mr. Miklovic says.

However, they have yet to fully exploit the vast amounts of data they collect, using it, for example, to refine information about rock density, rock hardness and the amount of valuable mineral in the ore to continuously improve production, he says. “Natural resources involve a huge amount of variability,” he adds. “They could do a better job of going back to accurately gauge how well their predictions related to reality.”

 

Logistics

The supply chain for natural resources companies is highly complex, and traditionally companies had warehouses of spare parts. By using sophisticated logistics systems, companies can eliminate the cost of keeping warehouses and stocks of spare parts, while ensuring the supplier can get the right part to the right place at the right time, Mr. Crompton says.

 

Challenges Ahead

A number of technologies are likely to affect the natural resources sector in coming years, from better communications to 3D printing, to better understanding the chemical breakdown of ore as it is getting processed, Mr. Miklovic says.

The challenge the natural resources industry has is it needs to stay current with technologies,” Miklovic says. “Don’t let them get too far ahead because there will be someone in your industry that adopts them quickly.”

 

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Robot Miners of the Deep

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

A combination of technological advances, from such unrelated fields as smartphones, sensors and robotics, is pushing deep-sea mining closer to reality.

The sea floor is particularly rich with precious metals—more so than land deposits. Seawater seeps through cracks in the volcanic rock on the ocean floor along the edges of the Earth’s tectonic plates. Underground, the water is heated by the nearby magma. It dissolves the metals in the rocks then is spewn out through hydrothermal vents in a liquid “smoke” of fine mineral particles. The particles react with the cold sea water and settle to the ocean floor, creating deposits, called seafloor massive sulfides, that can be 10 to 20 times higher grade in minerals than those on land.

The ocean floor also has iron-manganese nodules, which can also contain copper, nickel and cobalt, and cobalt-rich crusts. The main metals sought in deep-sea mining are copper, gold, nickel and cobalt.

The main hurdles to mining these deposits have been technological. “There’s no wifi, no cellular service,” says Justin Manley, president of Just Innovation, a Boston undersea technology and robotics-consulting firm. Sound waves travel much more slowly underwater than through air, “so you can’t get the same kind of bandwidth” for communicating with the robots, he says. Equipment needs protection from the corrosive saltwater; the cold, which can decrease batteries’ power; and the pressure, which increases by one atmosphere for every 10 meters of depth, he says.

“People can’t dive to 1,600 meters,” says Mike Johnson, chief executive of Nautilus Minerals Inc., a Toronto-based company that’s the first commercial enterprise to develop a seafloor production system for deep-sea mining of massive sulfide systems. Nautilus was granted a mining lease in 2011 by Papua New Guinea for an area called Solwara 1 in the Bismarck Sea in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. Mining hasn’t yet begun, as parts of the seafloor production system aren’t yet completed.

Now we can do everything robotically,” he says. “In the short time we’ve been going seriously, about 10 years, I’ve seen huge changes in the quality of the technology, particularly things like mapping. A lot of the technology for sonar is developed in the military then declassified and put on the market. Similarly, there have been huge advances with battery tech and computing power.”

ConstructionA standout technology for Nautilus is a heave-compensated crane. The crane is on the ship to lower machinery into the water. This crane can hold the machinery exactly, say, 10 meters off the sea floor in order to stabilize it during precision work.

“Computers on the crane talk to computers on the boat,” Mr. Johnson explains. “They figure out where the hook of the crane is in 3D space. As sea swells come through, the crane takes in and lets out wire to make sure the hook stays in the exact position relative to the sea floor. It’s amazing to see. The hook hardly moves—we can watch it on video—even though the boat goes up and down all the time.”

A special ship is being built for Nautilus for the operation. It will have a moon pool, or a hole in the middle. The equipment, such as the pump and riser system, descends through the hole so the vessel sits directly above the pump. The vessel has to stay in place on a moving sea—called dynamic positioning. The ship’s computers talk to satellites to engage the propeller systems so the vessel doesn’t move more than two meters from a point on the sea floor, he says.

The riser was designed for the oil and gas industry to clear out the cuttings from deep-sea drilling, rather than to let them dissipate on the ocean floor. Deep-sea mining won’t dig below the surface, but will remove mineral-rich formations on the sea floor. A large central pipe will ferry slurry with the mineral cuttings up to the vessel, while two smaller pipes on the sides will send the seawater back down.

The seawater is filtered to four microns, or about a quarter of the thickness of a hair, “so we don’t return much,” Mr. Johnson says. And, on the advice of marine scientists, the water isn’t simply dumped overboard because the pH and temperature of water at 1,600 meters has a different pH level and is far colder—about 2.6 degrees Celsius—than the 30-degree Celsius surface water.

Different kinds of robots do the work. Autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs—torpedo-shaped robots loaded with sensors—go back and forth over a selected area, like mowing a lawn, to detect changes in the water’s chemistry (temperature, pH, turbidity) that can signal the presence of mineral deposits, says Mr. Manley of Just Innovation.

AUVs, which also are called unmanned undersea vehicles or UUVs, can be specialized to gather images from an area of interest, to create detailed maps.

Then the work is turned over to remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs, which remain tethered to the ship by a thick cord carrying electrical and fiber-optic cables. An operator on the ship, who watches the action via television screens, directs the ROVs. One kind of ROV, about the size of a small car, collects samples. The actual seafloor production tools that cut and collect the rock are massive—about 14 meters high and 16 meters long and weighing 300 tons, Mr. Johnson says. Because ROVs get electricity from the ship, they can stay underwater longer than the 18 hours of battery-operated AUVs.

With regulation and monitoring to ensure it’s done correctly, undersea mining could have a much smaller environmental impact than mining on land, Mr. Johnson says. The higher grade of mineralization and its concentration means less area is affected. The process has no tailings, because even the iron pyrite around the precious metals gets used. It doesn’t affect fresh water or human habitats.

“It’s why I like this project,” he adds.

It will have such a small footprint, compared to a mine on land. To stop a rush to the bottom we need good regulations and the system needs to be transparent.”

Perhaps technology will be the answer. Some underwater and surface robots are being developed that could stay in place for a year, Mr. Manley says, potentially offering a way for regulators to monitor mining sites remotely.

 

 

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

How can technology protect natural resources?

By Alyssa
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In recent years, due to growth in places like China and India and increasing urbanization, demand for natural resources has dramatically increased. Natural resources companies are under pressure to provide the materials to feed that growing appetite – while at the same time protecting the environment and local communities where the resources are found. Because these resources can take millions of years to replace, it’s critical to be very aware of where the resources are so that we can understand the available inventory and the costs of extracting them.

Marni millions of years-001
 

In a new video produced by Wall Street Journal Custom Studios for 3DS’s LinkedIn community, Future Realities, Dassault Systèmes Vice President of Natural Resources, Marni Rabasso, explores how technology can address these concerns. Click here to watch the 3-minute video and then jump over to LinkedIn to comment!



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