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(This story was initially published in BNamericas' ICT sector.)
There is often a disconnect between what scientists and technologists choose to research and what the private sector can actually use in a practical sense to boost business.
But Chile's Advanced Mining Technology Center (AMTC) might be finding the right balance.
Established in 2009 at Universidad de Chile, the oldest public university in the country, AMTC receives state funds but with one condition: it must work with private miners to develop technologies that will help the sector become more competitive by cutting costs and improving efficiency and safety.
For years, successive Chilean governments have talked about trying to diversify the local economy beyond its traditional reliance on natural resource extraction to a value-added model where the country can leverage its expertise in key industries.
AMTC aims to create technologies for the mining industry that can then be made into products or services and transferred to other industries. To date its focus has been robotics, sensors and simulation.
ROBOTICS AND AUTOMATION
This year, with copper prices still in a slump, the center is due to see the commercialization of its first product (pictured up top) – an automated LHD (load, haul, dump), which is a front-loading, low height, vehicle used for clearing rock out of underground mines.
Self-driving LHDs already exist but have mostly been used for 'block-caving,' a method usually associated with bulk mining of large, lower grade orebodies.
AMTC has developed an LHD designed for sublevel stoping, a vertical mining method frequently used in medium-sized mines in Canada and Chile. It requires a more mobile loader to maneuver in and out of narrow galleries.
Built by German mining machinery manufacturer GHH, and having been simulated in artificial environments, the vehicle is now ready for the 'acid test' in a real mine situation this month.
Another project AMTC is working on is a robot that can streamline the process of mapping a mine in full production to help maximize mineral extraction.
Currently this is done manually and involves a human going around tunnels and calibrating sensors. Production has to be stopped while this is happening and can take several hours, meaning considerable downtime. With a robot doing this task, the process could be done better and faster, says AMTC executive director Javier Ruiz del Solar.
"For this project we have developed prototypes and some of the maps created have even been used by mining companies," he told BNamericas.
A third project has to do with geolocation. Autonomous vehicles normally use GPS and need four simultaneous signals to maneuver.
However, in certain atmospheric conditions or areas, or at a particular given time, one or more of the GPS signals is not available and trucks have to stop operating. AMTC has developed a technology that enables trucks to navigate without GPS, which is currently at the test phase. As the technology has not yet been patented, Ruiz del Solar (pictured left) was unable to provide more details, but adds that the patent application should be approved this month.
Continued financing has always been one of the major challenges for academic research. AMTC has sought to address that by dividing its funding sources into three.
One third comes from the Basal program of the science and technology council (Conicyt), from which R&D centers can receive up to 56bn pesos (US$84mn) over five years. As a prerequisite, Conicyt requires counterpart funding from the private sector, which makes up the second one-third.
In order to get companies to put money into their projects, researchers must develop projects that are feasible and meet the industry's real needs.
The third source of funds involves competing for specific government or private-sector funded projects.
"The thing about this model is that the slump in mining in recent years hasn't affected us because only a third of our financing comes from the industry. It has forced us to go out and compete for more funds," AMTC technology transfer manager Rodrigo Cortés told BNamericas.
"The advantage of the Basal funding is that we can have full-time researchers dedicated to the center. Often with these sorts of projects, researchers have to divide their time between classes and other work at the department. But we have students dedicated 100% to this."
The AMTC does not sell the technology it develops. "Our idea is to license our technology to small local providers, which can go and sell to mining companies, and we then receive a royalty that helps us continue our research," Cortés said.
These companies form part of a research monitoring committee that once a year takes a critical look at the projects underway and decides whether to assign additional resources to continue the research or allocate the funding elsewhere.
AMTC has a permanent center consisting of four floors covering 1,232m2, with 10 labs and 173 researchers. Its researchers often find employment with the minters they've directly worked with.
One of the most promising AMTC projects involves hyperspectral imaging technology, which is once again having its moment after emerging in the 1960s and consists of analyzing images across the electromagnetic spectrum.
What is new is machine learning. The software can detect and analyze different layers of rock and identify patterns of the levels of mineral available, creating heat maps. Technicians can tag certain types of mineral within the image.
A prototype is being developed with financing from Conicyt's Fondef science and technology fund. Ruiz del Solar believes it could lead to a major breakthrough in for exploration.
Exploration geologists could use hyperspectral imaging to analyze samples taken on site in real time. This would allow them to make rea-time decisions on whether to collect more samples or move to another area, instead of waiting until they get back to the lab for results.
Combined with that process, geologists could use drones to cover greater areas, saving time and money.
"We've done the research, now we're just waiting for a partner company to decide whether to back it or not," Ruiz del Solar said.
Some quick wins are important to encourage companies to invest. AMTC has outsourced research to the local Advanced Laboratory for Geostatistics and Supercomputing (ALGES).
ALGES has developed a software called U-Fo, which assesses geological resources over a deposit in complex geometries due to the presence of faults, veins and folds.
U-Fo has been used by Yamana Gold since 2012 in the company's official declaration of resources and reserves, and is now in use in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, leading to lower costs in the categorization of reserves.
NOT ALL ABOUT PRODUCTION
The AMTC laboratory is seen as an important building block in Chile's 2035 national mining roadmap that seeks to improve the competitiveness of the mining sector by developing a supplier industry with technological capacities.
But it's not all about money and efficiency. The use of robots and autonomous vehicles can improve the safety and quality of life of workers by removing them from hazardous or uncomfortable situations, said Ruiz del Solar.
And projects previously considered unviable because of mine instability or flood risks can be explored further. "With autonomous vehicles you can operate high-risk mines in the knowledge that if there is a flood, you simply take the machine out, clean it up, and put it back to work," he added.
AMTC is also actively working on projects to reduce emissions, remove arsenic from water and improve relations with local communities.
One of the key elements of the 2035 mining roadmap is to reduce the risk of tailings dam failures. In conjunction with Fundación Chile, AMTC is developing a system that generates data regarding the chemical composition and stability of tailings dams, which can then send alerts to miners, communities and authorities.
"Beyond the robots and productivity, we look at applying technology for sustainability and the benefit of the communities affected by mining," Ruiz del Solar said.