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The changing landscape of mining innovation

What drives innovation in mining? Is innovation happening at all stages of the mining value chain or are some fields more innovative than others?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
(Photo: Getty Images)

How has mining innovation evolved since 1990?

Mining innovation increased in a rather spectacular fashion in the early 2000s and for about a decade. More recently, we also observe at least some signs of a slowdown. But this overall picture of mining innovation tells us very little about the geography of innovation or the technological changes that may be happening in the mining supply chain structure.


The mining value chain

Mining innovation occurs in the different stages of the mineral extraction process – the mining life cycle – and the supply chain organization.

The mining life cycle consists of several distinct stages, starting with the exploration and discovery of an ore body, moving to the extraction, refining and shipping of minerals, and finishing with the mine closure to its natural state. Each stage of the mining life cycle can include innovation inputs in multiple areas of technology:

  1. The exploration stage includes activities such as ore body discovery, mineral determination, resource estimation and feasibility studies.
  2. The mining operation stage includes activities such as mine planning, design and development, mine construction, and mineral extraction and processing.
  3. The refining stage occurs once the ore has been processed.
  4. Services such as transport, waste treatment and energy generation support and add value to each stage of the process.

Which stages contribute the most to innovation?

The mining stages with the most innovation are exploration (24.8% of total mining innovation), mining operation (31.1%) and refining of extracted materials (19.1%). Other fields involve less innovation: blasting (0.6%), environmental improvements (12.6%), metallurgy (1,1%), , processing (4.6%) and transport (6%).

Across the years, from 1990 up to 2015, there has been a switch, in innovation, from refining to exploration and transport. The industry’s technological response to the surge in demand of extractive products seems to have put less emphasis on improving refining methods. This may be a consequence of the declining quality of mined ores, making it inefficient to invest in new refining techniques. Firms could prefer to dig new mines instead.  The increase in exploration and transport probably relates to the industry’s increasing need to discover new deposits in more distant locations to face rising demand. We observe also a small increase in environmental and processing subsectors. The increase in the share of environmental technologies is probably linked with wider social and industry awareness of the environmental impact of mining activities.


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