Data is essential in all mining operations. Geological, hydrological, environmental and operational data are collected at mine sites to increase efficiency, improve safety and maximise profitability for operations. This data can be used to obtain climate change impact insights and can be a vital tool in achieving climate change reduction objectives.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a globally recognised, robust, quantitative method for determining environmental impacts on a given product or process. Sustainability in the construction sector is now synonymous with LCA, and whilst slower to get started, the approach is gaining traction in the mining industry. By taking material and energy input data alongside any known direct emissions, LCA practitioners can accurately translate this information into environmental impact data for a given asset. LCA captures climate change impact potential (scope 1, scope 2 and upstream scope 3) and a wide range of other environmental impact categories. This can include acidification potential, particulate matter impact and eutrophication potential. It is good practice within LCA to be mindful of multiple impact categories, as optimising for one sustainability goal does not necessarily optimise for others.

Advances in cloud-based technologies have allowed the data to be acquired for LCA calculations. This is a significant opportunity for the mining industry to link existing data systems to environmental impact tools to generate high-quality environmental insights. Much of the data collected at operations today is sufficient to gain insights into the environmental impact of products coming out of operations.

Unlocking sustainability insights in the development phase

Data can provide value at any stage in a mine’s life cycle. Even the limited data generated in the earliest planning phase can be used to run LCAs on a given project set-up to identify potential environmental hotspots. This can be completed for a given time period to best represent the actual environmental impact of producing, for example, a tonne of copper ore or a kilogram of nickel concentrate. Beyond this, scenario analyses can be conducted to evaluate the environmental performance, and climate change impact, of different project iterations, including alternative mineral processing flows, production regions or energy supplies. This makes room for the constant evolution of sustainable practices in the sector, using the sturdy LCA framework as support.

A geometallurgical approach is commonly used in the project development phase, or when looking to expand production. This collates geological, mineralogical, and metallurgical ore property data that can be integrated into a spatial predictive model for mineral processing design and operation, mine planning, and financial analysis of future or existing mines. This data can be used and integrated with LCA to promote resource efficiency and reduce the socio-environmental impacts of all the extraction stages along the mining value chain, for instance, by lowering acid consumption in hydrometallurgical circuits, or by increasing resource efficiency through the recovery of by-products from mine tailings and waste streams. A more detailed evaluation can be found in the academic paper,  “Towards sustainable extraction of technology materials through integrated approaches.”

It is possible to further streamline LCA by linking mine planning and scheduling software with LCA tools recently launched by Minviro. By connecting data between interfaces, the process can be smoother, negating the need for manual input. Minviro worked with Maptek to create an API data connection system, more information of which can be found in the March 2022 edition of Maptek’s Forge magazine.

Unlocking sustainability insights during operations

During mining operations, a variety of sensors can generate significant geoscientific, asset condition and operational data. Data captured directly by instruments on fuel consumption, equipment health and productivity can also generate environmental insights. Indirect data collection from fleet management systems can similarly be used. All of this can be fed into an LCA model.

Every mining and metal company has access to procurement and purchasing data. Mines need to know how much fuel or explosives they need to ensure continuous operation. Data from ERP systems can also be connected to LCA software to automate the time-consuming process of data collection and organisation. One of the advantages of this form of data collection is that you can measure historic impact data and forecast future impacts. This is an important consideration as more mining companies commit to climate change targets. Once impacts are quantified, strategies can be built around reducing the most impactful results to guide environmentally conscious project development.  

Maximising LCA Outputs

The value of using LCA in the raw material sector is centred around the ability to make environmentally informed decisions regarding the future of projects, and safeguarding future performance under increasingly stringent sustainability targets from downstream purchasers and international governance. Sustainable credentials are essential to investors and permitting processes for new mines and are no longer desirable or peripheral. Environmental impacts must be quantified, understood and communicated to demonstrate a company’s dedication to reducing raw material burdens on the planet as we move towards a decarbonised society. By using primary data, already in existence, measured from a site or generated for pre-feasibility studies, the highest-quality LCA insights can be gained to drive businesses towards net-zero goals in a practical, achievable manner.

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