Tech start-ups tap into Australian minerals sector’s need to decarbonise

The founder of an energy-saving Australian mining tech start-up has accused the industry of “posturing” over its green credentials — by talking about future plans rather than acting immediately to reduce its carbon footprint.

“The industry has a credibility problem,” said Andrew Job, founder of Plotlogic, which is backed by former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt’s fund and the miner BHP. In a Financial Times interview, he said he was frustrated by the mining sector’s tendency to issue press releases and marketing materials about plans in years to come to tackle decarbonisation.

“If the technology isn’t available now and won’t be for 10 years then it will be decades before this flows through,” said Job. “We need to focus on mining operations today and reduce the carbon footprint straight away.”

Plotlogic is one of a new generation of Australian mining technology companies that hopes to reduce energy costs for the world’s minerals companies and improve the precision of processing large amounts of rock.

The Brisbane-based company uses hyperspectral imaging sensors, combined with artificial intelligence software and “lidar” vision-sensing technology that is used in self-driving cars, to identify which parts of a mine contain the most valuable ores. That improves the efficiency of the exploration process and reduces the cost and energy needed to process worthless rocks.

“Without the ore body you’re just digging a hole in the ground,” Job said.

Sue Keay, chair of Robotics Australia Group, said that Australian mining tech start-ups, such as Plotlogic, would play an important role in the decarbonisation of the sector. She highlighted companies that were developing robots that clean solar panels at remote locations and others operating drones that scope and map mining sites, as an example of how the sector was begetting innovative companies.

“Mines are in the business of moving material, changing it from rock into ore concentrate and transporting it to market. Sixty per cent of the energy consumed by mines is used by mining equipment with 40 per cent of that being consumed in the rock-crushing process,” she said.

Adrian Beer, head of the Mets Ignited Australia incubator, said that the country had a long history of developing mining technology but had struggled to commercialise it. “It’s been easy to take innovation away from Australia and then to sell it back,” he said.

However, he pointed to the growing influence of companies such as Plotlogic and 3ME Technology, which developed a battery management system that helped electrify vehicles used in underground mines and had since been adapted for military vehicles and helicopters.

“The time has come for the resources sector to be led by technology and innovation and not by who has access to mineral reserves,” he said.

Job, a two-decade veteran of the mining industry, left his role running one of Anglo American’s coal mines in Queensland to complete a doctoral thesis on the use of advanced sensors and AI in mineral extraction.

Having proved the concept, he headed to Europe in search of specialised sensors used on offshore drilling rigs and remortgaged his house to buy some to test his thesis. He said the Norwegian company thought he was “an idiot”, but now Plotlogic was one of its biggest customers.

His company has grown from one employee to 75 in four years and with customers including Glencore, South32, Vale and Anglo American on board, he was able to raise A$25mn ($17mn) this year in a funding round led by Innovation Endeavours, Schmidt’s fund.

BHP, the world’s largest mining company, has used Plotlogic’s sensor system to extend the life of its Yandi iron ore mine in the Pilbara region in Western Australia, and also bought a stake.

Job said that it would have 23 sensor systems deployed by the year end, but the industry would need tens of thousands to reap the full benefits of precision mining processes. “It becomes a critical piece of mineral intelligence driving the entire mining operation,” he said.

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