Virtual models can identify how operational steps contribute to carbon emissions, and help miners and manufacturers simplify processes from within.
Mining is the cause of about 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. But where, exactly, do those emissions come from?
Is it the trucks trundling in and out of an excavation site? The aircraft bringing skilled workers to a remote community? The effort required to haul spare parts over great distances?
It’s a challenging question with a wildly complex answer.
“The first question is actually understanding where the carbon is in the system,” says Digital Twinning Australia CEO Genéne Kleppe. “And then who owns it. So, you’ve built this processing plant, and much of its carbon footprint is in its construction. But is that your carbon? Or the builders?”
It’s something Australia has to get its head around because much of the world has already begun accounting for carbon-emission ownership through the Green House Gas Protocol of 2001.
In the protocol, Scope 1 represents a company’s direct greenhouse gas emissions, such as heating furnaces and operating vehicles. Scope 2 is indirect emissions, such as those created by the electricity company providing a steel plant with the 2000 megawatts it needs each year.
Scope 3 is where it gets messy – it’s what a company is indirectly responsible for, such as the solar panels, pumps, vehicles, pipes and equipment it consumes. Scope 3 is usually the big one, and the most difficult to account for, to cut back, and to comprehend. This is where the concept of digital twins comes into play.
Nothing’s simple about mining or manufacturing anymore. The days of picks, shovels and wheelbarrows are long past. Everything now is mechanised, digital and interconnected, and a fault in one place may cause problems in a seemingly unrelated area.
But the overwhelming quantity of data bouncing around modern facilities tends to be siloed. Only those directly responsible for equipment – be it a pump or a furnace – tend to know what’s going on at any one time. The concept of digital twins aims to overcome this.
Digital twinning creates a highly complex virtual model that is the exact counterpart (or twin) of a physical thing. It transmits – in real-time – what’s happening, where, and why. It translates data from energy, water, temperature and equipment performance sensors into a comprehensive 3D model. This makes it easier for everyone – be they a CEO or electrician – to understand what’s happening with the entire process at any one time.
If a pump glitches, for example, the conveyor operator will know to slow their line – and why. A plant manager can quickly dial-up the output of other pumps to return the conveyor to full productivity. And the maintenance chief will immediately know which pump has what fault before sending a mechanic on a 1000km trip to fix it.
“Operating data can be visualised – such as electricity being captured, transferred and used, for example,” Kleppe says. “It’s part of becoming aware of what part of the carbon-production problem is mine, and what’s not mine.”
But mostly, it puts even the most complex remote-mining facility under intense boardroom – and staff lunchroom – scrutiny. “That tells you what you should be working on, what you can control, and who is responsible for what you can’t,” Kleppe says.
Things are getting harder, especially for older mining sites. Ore deposits are deeper in the ground, and their quality is declining. This means more trucks, longer hauling distances, and additional intensive processing. And that’s a problem for profits, as well as carbon budgets.
“At the corporate level, Australian mining companies want to know how to count carbon”, says Kleppe. “They want it to become embedded in their business. They are thinking about it. And they want to understand it.” It’s a matter of staying relevant.
Global consumers – from commercial clients to the general public – are starting to demand green credentials at all levels. And they want to see the evidence.
“At the moment, some of the carbon problem is very well known,” says Kleppe. “But not a lot of it, and it’s certainly not known at an operational level.”
And many attempts at “fixing” the problem simply push it further up or down the supply chain.
Where does a mining company start? The obvious point is to cut down on fossil fuel consumption. But where? Will building regional solar farms help? What about wind power? Or hydrogen?
Global climate goals will not be possible if the mining and metals industry does not invest heavily in renewable energy and low-carbon technology. But which works the best? And which results in a string of changes that undo much of the intended good? The solution, Kleppe says, is in metadata.
Almost everything is now being built with performance-monitoring sensors. And sensors are so cheap that they’re relatively easy to install on old equipment. The issue is, who owns that data – the supplier, or the user? Or both? And what you can do with that data.
Mining is the building block of almost every carbon-mitigation project. Lithium, copper, aluminium – solar cells, wind turbines and high-capacity batteries would be impossible without them. And that means no renewable-energy industry.
But that industry cannot be effective if the carbon price in building it is too high.
“It’s really a matter of wheels within wheels,” says Kleppe. “The whole climate issue is that it is a complex system. So, therefore, we should be looking at things at a systems level, not at a machine level.”
Read also: The carbon offsets conundrum
It takes a lot of steps for a mineral to become a useful metal, and every step adds to a carbon budget’s accounting.
Until now, understanding such complex systems was the arcane art of engineers – often pondering two-dimensional status boards and roaming through halls of gauges and dials. Now even students can see – at the touch of a button – the effect recharging a laptop has on a school’s entire solar-driven electrical grid. An executive can see how inefficient pumps are blowing a carbon budget, and a tradie can explore alternatives before suggesting changes at the next round-table meeting.
That means the tradie needs to see how the pump works and contributes to its installation. And the executive needs to see how the facility is performing.
“The whole thing is digital, but it’s also visual, so it’s not overwhelming or intimidating for someone who actually works with the stuff,” says Kleppe. “We want everyone involved in a site to have good ideas and come up with something that makes things more efficient and safe. To do that, we need to make immense amounts of data more tangible rather than esoteric.”
Kleppe says there is no silver bullet, but there is a multitude of fixes that can amount to massive change. “There are heaps of processes in a mining site where you can never remove the carbon,” she says. “It’s just a thing. That’s why we need to find, and focus on, what can be changed. And we need to account for those aspects for which there is no alternative but to find an offset”.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.