At the Centre of Canada’s Mining Revolution

The Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI)
Written by William Young

The Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) is a Canadian mining industry initiative founded in 2007 to help meet industry challenges by advancing successful innovation projects into commercially viable products and services.

Two major mining companies, Inco Limited (now Vale) and Xstrata (now Glencore Sudbury Integrated Nickel Operations), founded the centre, together with Laurentian University and the Government of Ontario.

The goal of CEMI is to help the entire mining industry advance into a secure and nation-enhancing future through commercial development of great innovations. President and CEO, Douglas Morrison, recalls that the industry recognized over a decade ago that funding research projects without a path to commercialization resulted in many innovative ideas not translating into commercial solutions.

As a bridge across this innovation-to-commercialization gap CEMI has seen remarkable success, advancing new mining endeavours that address industry challenges by finding groundbreaking solutions.

CEMI pays close attention to the criteria that each solution must meet: Namely, it must be a solution which accelerates time-to-revenue, reduces capital and operating costs, and improves investment return, decreases environmental liabilities, and further increases the net present value of mining operations.

CEMI meets regularly with organizations that offer solutions spanning the entire mining value chain, from prospecting to mine closure.

CEMI further aims to speed the adoption curve of these solutions by ensuring company readiness to commercialize innovations. Techniques CEMI utilizes to this end include scouting, challenge identification, challenge solution matching, and providing fit-for-purpose commercialization business services.

CEMI has also been successful in bringing collaborative teams together to work on various projects through a network platform.

Through these methods, CEMI has successfully helped several technologies through to commercialization and on to operational integration. These technologies include a rapid mineral digestion technology by ColdBlock; advancing the commercialization of battery electric-drive trains through Future Vehicle Technologies; commercialization of the Smart Helmet by Jannatec; and advancing ventilation monitoring technologies with Maestro Digital Mine.

Working with mining corporation Rio-Tinto on a program called the Rio Tinto Centre for Underground Mine Construction (RTC-UMC), CEMI helped the advancement of technologies related to ground control in mechanized excavations.

Through the Smart Underground Monitoring and Integrated Technologies (SUMIT) program for deep mining, CEMI advanced the development of smart engineering techniques, technologies, tools, and knowledge to facilitate step-change advances in productivity, efficiency, and energy optimization in underground mining at depth.

CEMI also hosted Canada’s first Future of Deep Mining Conference that advanced dialogue and technologies under the themes of increased productivity, reduced energy consumption, digital technology and wearables, and ore and waste management.

Through the CEMI-led Ultra-Deep Mining Network (UDMN), CEMI helped fund SMEs in the mining service sector to make new technologies commercially viable. The UDMN leveraged $35 million and generated 27 projects, further enhancing CEMI’s ability to harness the “network-effect”. To this result, add the long-term benefits of network members learning from each other how to solve commercial problems as well as sharing business best practices.

One of the initiative’s biggest projects is the National Mining Innovation Commercialization Accelerator (MICA) Network, a pan-Canadian initiative. It is designed to bring together stakeholders from various fields to accelerate the development and commercialization of innovative technologies to make the mining sector more productive and sustainable.

The MICA Network has six main partners from across Canada that pool the strength of regional innovation ecosystems to support Canada’s mining sector.

The $112 million MICA Network initiative looks to use both public and private sector funding and will address areas such as an increase in mine productivity at a lower cost, and the reduction of mining energy consumption through the implementation of smart/autonomous mining systems.

This will, in turn, help to cut environmental risk and long-term liabilities. “New techniques in these areas are critical to increasing mine profitability,” says Morrison, “as well as meeting the changing environmental and social needs of local communities adjacent to mining operations. For the global mining industry to be successful in meeting all the needs of the future it must begin to adopt a whole new approach to exploration, design, production and mine closure.”

The government of Canada’s investment in MICA marks the single biggest investment in advancing mining technology to date and is evidence of a renewed interest in securing mining’s ability to satisfy the requirements of the new economy.

Now in 2021, and looking beyond, the global mining industry is resolved to produce the minerals and metals necessary to reach global climate goals, but equitably and responsibly.

Morrison recognizes this as a critical time for the industry: “The Canadian mining industry and its associated service and supply sector has realized that it can lead the world in producing low-carbon mineral and metals and in supplying the world with the tools, equipment, products and services necessary to meet the demand for clean technologies.”

Morrison mentions that mine productivity has been dropping for over a decade as the main production platforms from the early 1980s become antiquated. The industry is now in a state of decreasing production with increasing costs.

But countering this, with the arrival of the COVID pandemic there was global recognition of mining as an essential service. COVID has accelerated the infusion of all technologies that enable remote activities; these include communications, digital, automation and any enabler of remote work.

For now, the most urgent solutions to ongoing situations are those that will increase safety and reduce the major costs. These are the costs of labour and energy, both now slightly mitigated by autonomous systems. “Reducing the cost of production is critically important because this lowers the cut-off grade allowing smaller, lower-grade deposits, in both existing mines and new mines in remote areas, to be brought into production profitably,” Morrison says.

Beyond the more troublesome situations brought on in the last year or two, the biggest regular challenge for CEMI is two-fold: prompt securing of public funding to match committed private sector funding, and mobilizing the Canadian innovation ecosystem to support the mining industry.

Fortunately, the funding scenario has been improved by the Government of Canada’s introduction of the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) Stream 5 program. The SIF program enabled CEMI to mobilize an estimated $112 million in public and private funding to advance key technologies into the mining sector.

Secondly, the thinkers at CEMI realized that there was untapped potential in the channelling of made-in-Canada endeavours into mining, recognizing that mining was effectively missing out on harnessing broader Canadian assets.

This challenge has since been allayed with the introduction of the MICA program, enabling CEMI to respond to industry challenges by finding new solutions wherever they may be found and utilizing them to help improve mining. Part of this is finding mining companies and integrators anxious to lead the transformation of the mines of the future.

Looking ahead to 2022, CEMI will advance its commercialization services capabilities, with the MICA Network being the flagship program for supporting the innovation ecosystem. MICA will enable its members to quickly advance comprehensive solutions that will make it possible for mines to produce the metals and minerals necessary to enable the low-carbon economy.

Further, CEMI will attract private investment into MICA which will enable the acceleration of large-scale commercial adoption of validated solutions into the global mining infrastructure. CEMI will grow the National MICA Network and create connections that will enhance collaboration of the global innovation ecosystems with Canada’s mining regions and respective networks.

Worryingly, there is now a global reduction in the discovery of new deposits, coupled with the present reality that it takes upwards of one to two decades to bring new mines into production. But Morrison’s comment reflects some optimism, “There is an opportunity to make the sub-economic deposits that we know about already become profitable, and this can be achieved in five to ten years by investing in new, more productive, lower-cost technologies.”

From its inception, CEMI has focused sharply on the Canadian mining industry and how it cannot just improve it, but truly revolutionize its practices. If CEMI’s accomplishments so far are any sign, the path ahead will prove an exciting and profitable one.



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