copy the linklink copied!2. The impact of technology on sustainability in the mining sector

This chapter explores how different technology trends are impacting the mining sector. Although in many cases the uptake of these technologies is driven by the potential to improve efficiency and competitiveness, they also help reduce the environmental impact of mining activities. Most of these technologies also have application beyond mining and can support linkage development to other sectors of the economy. Topics addressed include automation, remote control, electrification, renewable energy, digitalisation and remote sensing, with specific attention to both environmental and economic benefits. The impact of economic shifts towards electric vehicles, renewable energy and continuing economic digitalisation on metal demand is also discussed.


copy the linklink copied!2.1. Introduction

Over thousands of years, the fundamental purpose of mining has remained the same: removing metals and minerals from the ground and separating those that are desirable from waste. A miner from 3 000 years ago would recognise the basic fact of digging into the ground to find the Earth’s riches. However, both the scale of mine sites and the technology used have changed dramatically. At the same time, new technological and economic developments also determine what metals are in greatest demand, helping to shape the industry. Understanding the potential impact of new technologies is vital in moving to a more sustainable paradigm of mining.

For most of humanity’s history, mining technology focused on maximising outputs of mined material and minimising the cost for doing so. This single-minded approach helped fuel economic growth and provide the raw materials needed to build new things. It also resulted in significant environmental contamination, often severely damaging ecosystems. It also led to large-scale remaking of the environment. Massive open pit mines and enormous dams reconfigured hydrological systems and not infrequently failed, sending toxic water back into the ecosystem. Considering that environmental impacts from mining operations from two millennia ago are still detectable today (Pyatt et al., 2000[30]), the industry must continue to focus on environmental issues.

Globally, over the past two decades, increased scrutiny of environmental and social issues has led major mining companies to adopt sustainability plans (Jenkins and Yakovleva, 2006[31]). At the same time, new technology trends and economic developments are shaping the future of mining. The prolonged rise in prices for minerals and metals during the commodities super cycle fuelled mining company expansion; when prices crashed in 2014, companies were forced to adopt a greater focus on increasing efficiency and bringing down cost margins.

In the Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia (EECCA) region, this pressure is acute. The centrally planned economy of the Soviet era focused on production and had little functional environmental oversight. As a result, countries in the region were particularly exposed to negative environmental impacts of mining. Once closed, mines were often simply abandoned with no efforts to remediate the environmental damage. This left a hazard for people living in the area, as well as for the larger environment. Countries in the region are faced with both the ongoing legacy of environmentally damaging mining practices from the Soviet era as well as the challenges of developing a modern approach to the mining sector that can minimise environmental and health impacts, while maximising social and economic benefits.

Greening the mining sector in the region is an opportunity to introduce innovative, environmentally sensitive practices that can positively affect other related areas of the economy. For countries with large mining sectors, this is vital. Even for countries where the mining sector is less dominant, a greener approach to mining provides a channel to introduce clean technology.

copy the linklink copied!2.2. How technology is affecting mining operations

Mines have long lives. They depend on reliability and predictability, both for production and for ensuring the health and safety of workers. Consequently, mines have traditionally been conservative in deploying new technology.

Several factors are opening the sector to adoption of new technologies. From approximately 2003 until 2011, sustained high prices driven by demand from emerging economic powers, including the People’s Republic of China, led to a rapid expansion in operating and planned mines. The decline of demand, first in 2008 and finally in 2011 caused a renewed focus on efficient and lean operations. This decline was compounded by a general trend across the mining sector: as the richest and most easily accessible deposits have been mined, industry is increasingly going after lower ore concentration deposits and/or lower depth deposits.

At the same time, mining companies have faced demands for better environmental performance and transparency to earn the social licence to operate. Resource companies have also begun to look at how to improve efficiency. Increasingly, they want to position the mining sector as a modern and forward-looking part of the transition to a more sustainable economy. The technologies discussed in this section explore these issues.

2.2.1. Automation

One of the most important trends in the mining sector is automation. The drivers for this trend are not primarily environmental, but instead productivity, health and safety. Mining is a dirty and often dangerous business. The use of automated mining trucks and rigs means that fewer workers need to be directly exposed to minerals. At the same time, automation allows mines to function around the clock and maximise their use of inputs (NRCan, 2016[32]). As another advantage, automation can sometimes be retrofitted onto existing equipment rather than requiring an entirely new investment. To date, major multinational mining companies like Rio Tinto have used particular mines as test cases for “mines of the future”. However, as more manufacturers get on board the technology is becoming more accessible.

Automated machinery follows stricter protocols than human operation, reducing unnecessary use. Theoretically, this approach prolongs machine life, reduces operational emissions and uses inputs more efficiently. Automation takes a number of forms, with potential benefits that go beyond productivity to reduce environmental impact:

  • Autonomous trucks: trucks with this technology rely on global positioning systems, lidar and sensor systems embedded in the mine structure to help navigate. They can operate almost continuously, aside from breaks for refuelling and maintenance. They benefit from a longer lifespan, reduced fuel use and fewer maintenance costs (Nebot, n.d.[33]). At Brucutu mine in Brazil, Vale estimates that vehicle lifespan will increase by 15% and fuel consumption and maintenance costs will decrease by 10%. This will result in a lower carbon footprint (Vale, 2018[34]).

  • Automated drilling and tunnel-boring systems: automating drilling and tunnel boring have safety benefits. They remove humans from a potentially dangerous position due to hazards such as rockfall, gas outbursts and high temperatures underground. They also have environmental benefits. Linked with advanced sensing technology, automated drilling and boring systems can more precisely target ore deposits underground. In this way, they reduce wasted drilling time and maximise outputs (Ranjith et al., 2017[35]).

  • Automated site monitoring: automation and remote sensing can potentially benefit environmental performance by ensuring that issues are caught before they become significant, or before they occur at all. Potential issues include weakening of separation barriers for tailings areas, as well as levels of emissions from mining and beneficiation itself (Wang, Yang and He, 2018[36]).

  • Automated ventilation systems at underground mining sites: a major cost of underground mines is ventilation systems to the surface. This is vital to clear diesel fumes, gases and smoke from blasting, to control temperatures and to ensure safety of mine operations. Automated ventilation systems do not operate continuously. Instead, they rely on a network of sensors to move air to where it is needed at any given time. This saves up to 40% of energy (NRCan, 2016[37]).

  • Autonomous long-distance trains: mines are often located far from ports, population centres and industry. Transporting ore can be expensive, carbon- intensive and potentially hazardous. To alleviate costs and increase efficiency, Rio Tinto is automating its train systems in Australia’s Pilbara region. The inaugural fully automated trip took place in July 2018. Automation provides more consistent speeds with less braking and accelerating. It leads to better co-ordination between trains on the tracks and eliminates the potential for driver fatigue (Rio Tinto, 2018[38]). However, most mines do not have dedicated rail systems. Such a system makes sense for Rio Tinto due to the scale of its Pilbara mining operations and the distance to port.

Automation has impacts beyond productivity gains and a reduced environmental footprint. In many cases, it will change the employment structure, reducing opportunities for local, low-skilled jobs. While remote monitoring will create some new jobs, these positions will require a higher level of skills. Even maintenance on automated vehicles will require new training and qualifications (Cosbey et al., 2016[39]). At the same time, companies are building mines in increasingly remote locations, often with low or non-existent local populations. Increasing use of automation and remote control, requiring less direct employment, will reduce the need for large numbers of individuals to live around a mine. This will also reduce its environmental footprint (Nebot, n.d.[40]).

2.2.2. Electrification

Fossil fuel use at mining sites is a significant operational cost and source of both local particulate matter and air pollution, as well as the release of GHGs. At off-grid mining sites, diesel generators are normally used to power equipment. Shipping in fuel is expensive and carbon-intensive. At mining operations connected to electricity grids, large trucks and mining rigs generally run on diesel, releasing substantial emissions.

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Box 2.1. Goldcorp’s all electric underground mine

In Ontario, Canada, Goldcorp’s Borden mine is completely electrified. Operating deep underground, the mine has electrified everything from loading and hauling vehicles, and transporting ore and personnel, to ventilation and drills. Although this approach carries a 25-30% premium on the cost of equipment, long-term savings are significant. Goldcorp expects savings of CAD 9 million annually in operational costs from lower diesel use. There will also be 70% reduction in GHG emissions. Advancements in battery technology have made this fully electrified mine possible (Taylor and Lewis, 2018[41]).

Mining equipment manufacturers and mining companies are increasingly experimenting with hybrid diesel/electric or full electric versions of mining trucks and machinery. The benefits of electrification are even more substantial in underground mines, where exhaust fumes pose a health and safety hazard and must be continuously ventilated. Relying on electric vehicles and machinery reduces the need for that ventilation.

Beyond electrification of vehicles, electric equipment at underground mines can also reduce ventilation and yield significant benefits. Electric motors have significantly fewer parts than internal combustion motors, require less maintenance, do not create emissions and are much quieter. However, the upfront cost can be significant. Furthermore, to benefit fully, mines need to be designed with electrification.

2.2.3. Renewable energy

Renewable energy is increasingly a viable option for off-grid sites, particularly through hybrid diesel-renewable energy systems. Commercial-scale solutions are still needed for battery technology to provide the stable supply required for purely renewable energy. However, diesel systems – mated with solar or wind – reduce emissions and the cost of trucking in diesel fuel to remote locations. Renewable/diesel hybrid systems have been deployed successfully in different contexts, including Canada and Australia. However, they have benefited from government support for their development.

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Box 2.2. The mining sector as a driver for on- and off-grid renewable energy

Globally, mining enterprises are taking advantage of renewable energy to cut emissions, cut fuel costs and increase reliability. Opportunities exist for both on-grid and off-grid mines. For on-grid mines in countries with expensive electricity, purchasing agreements with renewable energy companies can cut costs and drive development of new renewable energy generation. Where mines are operating off-grid, renewable energy can reduce dependency on diesel and heavy fuel oil, cutting costs and increasing reliability.

On-grid renewable energy and mining in Chile

Copper mining is a major industry in Chile, requiring substantial amounts of energy. However, electricity rates in Chile are relatively high. Over the past decade, prices have doubled. In August 2015, for example, prices hit USD 100 per megawatt hour, twice as much as in neighbouring Peru, which also produces copper. While Peru has the advantage of domestic hydropower and natural gas reserves, Chile has had to rely on imported fuel for its power sector.

A confluence of factors has created rich potential for renewable energy in Chile for both industrial and consumer use. These factors include high energy prices, declining costs for solar photovoltaic technology and wind turbines, high wind levels and world-leading levels of solar irradiation in the northern Atacama Desert. At the same time, existing power generation was concentrated in the more heavily populated southern part of the country. In the north, this has driven the building of more and more renewable power capacity. At their current level of technology, renewables could not entirely replace baseload generation capacity. However, they have capacity to augment existing power use and reduce the need for fossil fuels or added generation capacity. For instance, the Chilean government held a power procurement action in October 2015. The auction sold 1 200 GWh of available contracts to wind and solar projects, which outcompeted proposals for coal plants based on price alone.

Off grid renewable energy in Australia

Sandfire Resources NL’s DeGrussa copper mine is located about 900 km north of Perth, Australia in a remote area without access to the electricity grid. The mine was powered initially by an on-site 20-megawatt diesel generation station that requires substantial amounts of diesel fuel to be trucked to the site. To reduce use of diesel fuel and lower both costs and emissions, Sandfire developed a large solar power generation (10.6 megawatts) and storage (6 megawatts) facility. The project, commissioned in May 2016, is one of the largest integrated off-grid solar and storage facilities on a mining site in the world.

Diesel generation is fully integrated with the hybrid plant. During the day, power is drawn from the solar panels, with the battery making up for short-term drops due to cloud cover and diesel generators still supplying some percentage of the power. During the night, diesel generators provide full power. The battery may be used during night to help smooth fluctuations and support system reliability. In total, it will offset over 20% of the mine’s annual diesel fuel use.

The project was supported by repayable finance from two Australian federal government agencies. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) provided almost AUD 21 million in a recoupable grant. For its part, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation provided AUD 15 million in debt finance. ARENA was able to fill the “risk gap” for financing faced by first-of-kind projects.

Source: OECD (2017), PD-NR Compendium of Practices,

2.2.4. Digitalisation

Advances in digital technology have drastically changed the quality and quantity of data that mining companies can access. This, in turn, supports the deployment of automation. Exploration companies can now rely on a range of different technologies to show them what is underneath the surface, to sample and to decide whether to develop a mine.

  • Exploration: using remote sensing tools such as unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites can substantially reduce the ecological footprint of mining operations (European Commission, 2018[42]).

  • Site operation: networked sensors, machinery and devices, combined with imagery data from satellites and other sources, have provided mine operators with unprecedented data. Widespread use of sensor technology ensures that mining operations are better aware of what is happening, and where. This includes monitoring emissions, tracking water and air quality, and minimising energy use.

  • Environmental impact: remote sensing technology, including drones, holds significant benefits for ensuring good environmental outcomes following the closure of a mining site. Tailings and waste rock sites can remain toxic for decades or even centuries after a mine closure. Companies must monitor and respond to releases as quickly as possible. This is especially the case in remote locations that make in-person examination difficult. Remote sensing allows for ecosystem monitoring of land and water impacts (Charou et al., 2010[43]).

Through the use of digital sensors, mining companies have vastly more data at their fingertips than ever before. This trove of data also enables and supports automation.

copy the linklink copied!2.3. How new technology is driving demand for different minerals

As recently as a decade ago, many analysts were writing about “peak oil”. They believed that in a time of rising prices and spiralling global demand, the world was set to run out of fossil fuels. Instead, accelerating developments in renewable energy and electrical vehicles (EVs) have shifted projections for the demand of raw materials. Some metals, such as copper, have always been important economically. Considering that a single EV can require upwards 180 kilograms of copper, the mineral will only become more important. This same demand pattern then extends to renewable energy installations. Wind turbines, in particular, require significant amounts of copper. Broadly, anything electronic will continue to require substantial amounts of copper. As the world shifts from a fossil fuel-based economy, this will become ever more important. The same trends are also driving mining companies’ interest in lithium – an essential ingredient in contemporary battery technology (MGI, 2017[44]).

Over time, demands for certain minerals may shift again. Already, some researchers argue that lithium-ion batteries have limited capacity to be scaled up. They believe a different technology will be needed to change renewable power generation into baseload generation. To improve environmental performance, the mining sector must be agnostic when it comes to the specific material being mined. Rare earth minerals and cobalt, key ingredients for many high-tech devices, renewable energy generation, and energy storage, are often mined in ways fraught with environmental consequences. As such, many of the most important supplying mines are in countries with more permissive environmental regimes (MGI, 2017[44]). While government policies do not determine what minerals become in demand, policies must be flexible enough to respond to new technological developments.


[14] Charou, E. et al. (2010), “Using remote sensing to assess impact of mining activities on land and water resources”, Mine Water and the Environment, Vol. 29/1, pp. 45-52,

[10] Cosbey, A. et al. (2016), Mining a Mirage? Reassessing the Shared-value Paradigm in Light of the Technological Advances in the Mining Sector, International Institute for Sustainable Development, Winnipeg,

[13] European Commission (2018), New EXploration Technologies, (database), European Commission, Brussels,

[2] Jenkins, H. and N. Yakovleva (2006), “Corporate social responsibility in the mining industry: Exploring trends in social and environmental disclosure”, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 14/3-4, pp. 271-284,

[15] MGI (2017), Beyond the Supercycle: How Technology is Reshaping Resources, McKinsey Global Institute, New York.

[4] Nebot, E. (n.d.), “Surface mining: Main research issues for autonomous operations”, in Springer Tracts in Advanced Robotics, Robotics Research, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, Berlin, Heidelberg,

[11] Nebot, E. (n.d.), “Surface Mining: Main Research Issues for Autonomous Operations”, in Springer Tracts in Advanced Robotics, Robotics Research, Springer Berlin Heidelberg, Berlin, Heidelberg,

[8] NRCan (2016), “Automating for Energy Efficiency Underground”, webpage, Natural Resources Canada, Ottawa,

[3] NRCan (2016), “Improving Automation and Equipment”, webpage, Natural Resources Canada, Ottawa,

[1] Pyatt, F. et al. (2000), “An imperial legacy? An exploration of the environmental impact of ancient metal mining and smelting in southern Jordan”, Journal of Archaeological Science, Vol. 27/9, pp. 771-778,

[6] Ranjith, P. et al. (2017), “Opportunities and challenges in deep mining: A brief review”, Engineering, Vol. 3/4, pp. 546-551,

[9] Rio Tinto (2018), “Rio Tinto achieves first delivery of iron ore with world’s largest robot”, Press Release, 13 July, Rio Tinto, Melbourne,

[12] Taylor, S. and B. Lewis (2018), “First new all-electric mine dumps diesel; cuts costs, pollution”, Reuters, 21 June,

[5] Vale (2018), “Vale will have the first mine operating only with autonomous trucks in Brazil”, webpage, Vale, Rio de Janeiro,

[7] Wang, L., X. Yang and M. He (2018), “Research on safety monitoring system of tailings dam based on Internet of Things”, IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, Vol. 322, p. 052007,

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2. The impact of technology on sustainability in the mining sector