The NRC collaborates with industry to turn bright ideas for new mining technology into innovative tools for today and the future.
For more than a decade, the High-efficiency Mining (HEM) program at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has been developing sensing and monitoring technologies that promise to transform the resource extraction sector. These groundbreaking innovations have led to greater productivity and efficiency, a reduced environmental footprint for the mining industry and opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to grow and prosper.
According to the NRC's Dr. Mohamad Sabsabi, Principal Research Officer, Energy, Mining and Environment (EME) Research Centre, partnering with industry ensures that new technology meets users' needs and requirements. "We gather together companies with common problems and help them develop practical solutions for those challenges," he says. "We then transfer them to Canadian suppliers who can build commercial systems and provide them to users."
Dr. Sabsabi points out that development is a long process, and that most high-efficiency mining technologies pioneered over more than a decade are now entering the field-testing and commercialization stages. "The long-term impact of the program is vast," he adds. "In the supply chain, manufacturers will have sensors that are first on the market; in the Canadian economy, SME growth will create new, well-paid jobs."
The program has created 40 patents and collaborated with more than 100 Canadian companies for further advancement and testing to take the technologies to market. In the last 10 years, the NRC has granted more than 20 commercial licences to companies for the commercialization of new sensor solutions as part of the program.
Adapting the technology
While technologies developed by the program were intended for the mining industry, they are being applied much more broadly. A global first was breakthrough technology based on laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS), which uses laser pulses to analyze various elements in solids, liquids and gases.
In mining for example, LIBS can identify metal veins underground, so operators can extract only ore containing valuable material. One adaptation is Lumine™, which combines LIBS with artificial intelligence (AI) to quickly confirm the concentrations of elements in rocks and their mineralogy once they are brought to the surface, crushed and put onto conveyor belts. Lumine™ allows operators to sort ore more efficiently and reduce their environmental footprint.
"This is a world first in assessing the mineralogy of ore in real time," says Alexandre Nadeau, CEO of Lumine licensee Tecnar. "We are field-testing it at a mine in South Africa on a massive scale, scanning rocks from around the world on a specially built conveyor belt." He points out that the technology not only reduces the amount of wastewater from the process, but also cuts the amount of power needed to drive various machines, possibly up to 20%.
Tecnar has been working with the NRC for more than 3 decades, growing from 2 to 45 employees and acquiring 500 clients that have bought unique technology originally licensed by the NRC. "SMEs are the strength of Canadian industry, but they must get innovative products onto the market quickly if they are to survive," says Nadeau. "The NRC fills a major gap between the private sector's needs and scholarly academic research by providing applied research and development."
LIBS has been adapted for use in other fields as well, such as carbon capture in precision agriculture. For LaserAg, a Canadian soil and carbon analysis firm, the NRC developed and licensed the technology used in QUANTUM, a next-generation LIBS system that speeds up the analysis of agricultural soil samples and plant tissue.
The High-efficiency Mining program has also developed numerous advanced monitoring sensors based on ultrasonic technology. These high-performance, robust and economical sensors are used to monitor the condition ("health") of critical structures in the mining, energy and aerospace industries. For instance, the NRC's Rock Bolt Sensors (RBS), licensed to YieldPoint, provide an incomparable level of information on ground support conditions in underground mines. They increase worker safety and prevent unnecessary delays in accessing production sites. Another example is e2Sense, a company that specializes in providing solutions for tracking the health of large structures that are affected by wear, corrosion and material fatigue. One client is a major commercial aircraft manufacturer, which is currently testing the technology for structural health monitoring for airframe.
Taking discoveries to industry
These enterprises illustrate how the NRC has partnered with industry to attain a level of technology that can be sold on national and international levels. This business model has withstood the test of time and will continue to work after the High-efficiency Mining program has concluded on March 31, 2023.
The NRC will transfer its role in the HEM program to industry to maintain the practice of commercializing technology advances created in collaboration with academia, industry and government.
"Our research and technology development will continue to bring the latest innovations in support of clean energy and critical minerals to Canadian industry," says the NRC's Yves Quenneville, Business Management Officer, Energy, Mining and Environment Research Centre. "Our expertise and innovations are constantly at work to support SMEs in finding practical solutions for their current and future challenges."