One of the greatest challenges facing the resources sector is the projected growth in worldwide demand for raw materials – and how to access these materials in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way.
To address this, a group of researchers spearheaded by Professor Rick Valenta, Director of the W. H. Bryan Mining and Geology Research Centre within UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute, examined and analysed the constraints that can make it difficult to access complex ore bodies.
Professor Valenta, together with UQ’s Professor Deanna Kemp, Professor John Owen, Associate Professor Glen Corder and Dr Eleonore Lebre, looked at 308 of the world’s largest undeveloped copper deposits.
Grade and ore variability are widely recognised issues affecting mine viability, with low-grade ore bodies and deposits with large variability increasing both the cost and technological complexity of extracting minerals.
However, the researchers discovered that technical innovation was only one of the barriers to accessing these vital resources.
“The demands of our advancing societies mean we are now consuming our natural resources at an ever-increasing rate,” Professor Valenta says.
“As we looked more closely at the real issues facing access to these ore bodies, we discovered an array of complex interwoven social, political, environmental, technological and economic issues.
“More than 75 per cent of complex ore bodies are locked up through barriers that include non-technical constraints such as social unrest, permit issues, community resistance and environmental regulations.”
Based on this research, the researchers have developed a matrix of 12 risk categories that consider environmental, social, governance and mineralogical factors affecting the viability and accessibility of complex ore bodies.
Some of the environmental hurdles the researchers identified include water use and pollution, the environmental and health risks surrounding arsenic and other potential contaminants found in some ore bodies, the impact of mining on protected areas and zones of high biodiversity, and known issues around tailings dams.
Social issues include community acceptance and the community's relationship with the mine developer, the ability to build required infrastructure to service the mine’s operational needs, the need for post-mine land use and rehabilitation to be addressed, and dealing with areas challenged by corruption and poverty.
Then there are the governance issues. In some instances, disputes over land ownership and the rights of Indigenous landholders can result in legal and permit disputes that can delay mine development for many years if not addressed early. Additionally, third-party protests and court challenges could see costly long-term delays.
By applying the matrix to the 308 copper deposits, Professor Valenta’s team determined the major challenges that projects at any of the sites would need to address.
This clearly demonstrates, for the first time, the hurdles the industry and researchers need to overcome clear to unlock the complex ore bodies in a way that doesn’t ‘unleash’ an unacceptable suite of environmental and social impacts.
The researchers found that 96 per cent of the copper mines had concurrent risks spanning more than one topic on the matrix. They also found an increase in mineral price would not be enough to mitigate the risks. Unaddressed risks would continue throughout the life of the mine – with negative impacts.
“The portfolio of programs we need to develop to address the issues surrounding accessing these complex ore bodies are now clearly indicated,” Professor Valenta says.
"Realising that the provision of future global demand is affected by more than just technical innovation is just one of the breakthroughs of this research."
Professor Valenta and the team are now researching new solutions to address the challenges for complex ore bodies other than copper.
“Working across a range of disciplines – from mining and engineering through to the social, environmental and earth sciences – researchers now have information that enables them to develop informed programs," Professor Valenta says.
“Better methodologies for understanding social challenges, better industry Community and Social Performance, reducing the environmental footprint, and the value of smaller, more flexible operations are just some of the areas we are focusing on.
“These, of course, are in addition to the existing research looking at innovative, more efficient and more sustainable mining, mineral processing and waste treatment.
“There is still work to be done to ensure the industry is able to sustainably access complex ore bodies, but this matrix means we are now moving in the right direction.”
The story so far
2017: An extensive internal and external consultation process identifies several key future issues facing the mining industry, including the challenge of mineral supply which cannot be accessed due to technical, environmental and governance complexities
2018: The Complex Orebodies program begins at UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI), with projects across the range of disciplines addressing social performance, mining footprints, variability and flexibility, and energy and efficiency
2018: The inaugural AUSIMM Complex Orebodies conference is held in Brisbane with a large slate of industry and academic presentations and discussions
2018: The first year of the Complex Orebodies program finishes with projects established within the SMI and across UQ, with external participation and sponsorship from 12 companies
2019: The paper "Re-thinking complex orebodies: consequences for the future world supply of copper” is published. This is the first attempt at considering the full range of technical, environmental, social and governance risks for undeveloped copper orebodies
2019: The landmark report "Mining and Social Performance: A Review" is released, based on extensive consultation
2019: Industry support for SMI’s Complex Orebodies projects well exceeds Year 2 targets
Professor Rick Valenta, Sustainable Minerals Institute Director, W.H. Bryan Mining & Geology Research Centre Program Leader, Complex Orebodies strategic initiative program
Phone: +61 7 3365 5881
This article was last updated on 10 October 2019.