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130 years of mining experience: ABB and the road to sustainable progress for the mines of the future

ABB’s involvement with the mining industry began 130 years ago. The company delivered its first electrical motor for a mine hoist in Sweden back in 1891. Since then, ABB people and technologies have helped to progress, transform and add value to the industry. ABB is today working with mining leaders to make mining more sustainable.

By Max Luedtke  LinkedIn
Global Product Group Manager
Mining, Aluminium & Cement
We know that mining has a major role in our society. Predictions show that the current production rate of metals and minerals cannot support a global economy with net zero carbon emissions. Extraction rates have to be raised, sustainably.

Mining provides the world with materials which are building blocks for modern life. Electronics that are often taken for granted – including smartphones and tablet computers – would not exist without them. A mobile phone contains copper, tellurium, lithium, cobalt, manganese and tungsten.1

Mining also provides materials used to generate electricity, underpin critical infrastructure such as houses, hospitals, roads, satellites, and support an array of other 21st century goods and services.2

Electric vehicles, wind turbines and other green technologies rely on copper, lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and graphite for wiring, batteries and components. Solar panels use tellurium and silicon within cells to turn sunlight into electricity.3

Move to net zero means more mining

The UK plans for all new cars to be electric by 2030. To switch Britain's existing 31.5 million petrol and diesel vehicles to a battery-electric fleet would take 207,900 tonnes of cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate, 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, and 2,362,500 tonnes of copper.4

This is twice the current annual world production of cobalt (used in battery electrodes), an entire year's world production of neodymium (to make electric motor magnets) and three-quarters of the world production of lithium (battery electrolyte).

Mining is essential for the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables. It will continue to lead on extracting and processing metals and minerals in ways that minimize energy and resource consumption, and carbon emissions. Mining has to be part of the solution on limiting global temperature and greenhouse gas emissions in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

ABB is partnering with industry players to drive move towards sustainability

The mining industry, in partnership with companies such as ABB, is already making strides to reduce its environmental footprint. Around 20 years ago, the industry was dominated by talk of digital transformation. Now, the priority is reducing CO₂ emissions and energy consumption in mining projects using digital, automation and electrification. 

At ABB, we have committed to help our customers realize the all-electric mine, helping mines move towards carbon-neutral operations. We draw upon our 130 years of experience in the mining industry and our world-class electrification, automation and digital solutions to design mines where electrification and digital are fully integrated, from hoists, grinding and conveyors to vehicles. We optimize processes and equipment, integrating stable and efficient systems to maximize energy efficiency.

Today, the challenge our customers face is on the electrification of trucks, eliminating diesel - the largest source of CO₂ emissions in many open-pit mines. Co-creation of solutions with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and mining companies is needed as nobody can achieve this transformation alone. 

This year, ABB signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Hitachi Construction Machinery to share their expertise and collaborate in bringing solutions to market that will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with heavy machinery in mining.
 

We are also part of a collaboration project with LKAB, Combitech, Epiroc and Sandvik, aiming to set a new world standard for sustainable mining at great depths. Electrification, automation and data sharing are being used to reduce CO₂ emissions at a mine to zero – while at the same time increasing productivity by 50 percent.

In Canada, ABB is providing a trolley-assist system to Copper Mountain Mining for hybrid electric trucks. The initial phase of the trolley assist system will reduce carbon emissions at the site by up to seven percent when installed in 2021. The aim is 50 percent over five to seven years.

And that’s not all:

Focus on safety

At ABB, we do not compromise on the health and safety of people working in mines, from our people to our customers’ employees. We create mining environments that are safe for workers. We are focused on developing reliable mining equipment (ABB Ability™ Safety Plus for hoists), autonomous solutions (ABB Ability™ Ventilation Optimizer, robot charger project), systems (cyber security), and digital services (ABB Ability™ Collaborative Operations) that improve the quality of the working environment, enable remote supervision and autonomous operation, and remove operators from hazardous areas.

Positive energy

Reducing energy consumption and using energy from renewable sources to power mines is critical to the industry’s push for greater sustainability. Electric mines are a huge step forward, but not if the electricity that powers them comes from fossil fuels: the whole value chain must be green. 

In Canada and Sweden, the power for mines increasingly comes from wind farms and hydropower plants, and in other places solar. A key future metric will be measuring how much energy is expended to extract a ton of ore. 

In the past, miners could bank on finding high-grade ore near the surface, but most of that is now gone and ore grades are deteriorating. This is forcing operators to find new ways to extend the life of existing mines and shorten supply chains. 

The future is now, and so are we

Nowadays, where our food comes from and whether it has been farmed ethically is an important factor. When I talk to mining company executives, they would like to see a ‘farm to fork’-style system for metals and minerals.

By learning where the world’s resources come from and how they are extracted, consumers may be prepared to pay more for their next phone or car so that it can be produced in a more sustainable way. Understanding the environmental and human cost of electronic products may inspire people to reduce their own waste and make choices that push manufacturers to act to new standards.

Mining companies must demonstrate their sustainability credentials to the next generation. Ten years ago, I talked to a mining CEO who told me that if the industry doesn’t push digitalization young engineers and talent will not want work for us. We are seeing that play out today as mining companies strive to improve their sustainability credentials to attract the next generation of talent for whom climate change and ethical business practices are a key differentiator rather than a ‘nice to have’.

We cannot create sustainable progress without mining. ABB is committed to working with its many mining customers to ensure this happens to the benefit of the environment and future generations. 

ABB is committed to reducing the environmental impact of mining with our technologies and efficiency-optimization solutions. I would like to close with an important indicator that makes me proud to work for ABB. Today 75% of our R&D investment has sustainability as one of the main drivers or is contributing to sustainability, through the reduction of the environmental impact of mining (carbon emissions and energy efficiency) and improving human health and safety in the mine.

That is the road we are on, and we, at ABB, are perfectly positioned to drive sustainable progress for the mines of the future. I am proud and happy to be part of such a great team and I am confident that we have everything in our hands to make the next 130 years successful. So let’s continue to write the future of mining, together!
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