Barriers to Innovation

An essential first step in our Zero-Waste Mining Prize Design process is to determine what barriers exist that prevent our problem (in this case, mining waste) from being solved. This is necessary so we know exactly that challenges a prize competition will have to overcome.

Some of the barriers we’ve identified can be summarized by the following:

  • **Innovation in Mining is Challenging**: due to risk aversion, long timescales, and variability of commodities, geologies, and geographies
  • **Lack of External Pressure**: whether from policy, investors, or the public, the emphasis is on management of waste rather than prevention or remediation
  • **Lack of Awareness**: whether it’s precisely knowing the composition of the rock or the waste, or even the very idea that waste can represent an opportunity

Is this list exhaustive? Is there anything else we should consider a barrier to solving the problem of mining waste? Is anything on our list actually not a barrier at all?

In addition to the barriers above, another challenge we have been considering is the lack of collaboration within the mining ecosystem. There seems to be distinct silos inside and outside the industry that make innovation and scaling the innovation challenging.

Downstream: Waste could be reused valorized, and if required, reprocessed (decontaminated), following flowsheets that must be optimized. Many economical benefits could becomes evident

When looking to replace traditional materials (e.g. sand, cement, limestone) with waste materials (tailings, slags, ashes), an important challenge is the composition of these wastes, as they frequently contain leachable metals, and some even contain radioactive elements and asbestiform fibers.
Different jurisdictions have different regulations regarding re-use of waste materials (e.g. leaching standards), which further complicate technology development and dissemination across borders.
Another important barrier is location of these wastes. In many mining-intensive countries (Canada, China, Russia, Brazil), mines are far from large urban centres (where the materials could be used), so transportation costs (large masses of low value) limit innovative possibilities (e.g. application in concrete or as soil amendment).

Thank you Rafael and Mostafa! @rsantos @MostafaB Our newest discussion has been posted about zero-footprint mining, based on results from our workshop at the CESCO conference - do you have any potential input on that subject? Any thoughts would be appreciated! We’re excited about the possible direction.

I think we may consider the “Anchorage trap”: it is really difficult to imagine a completely new way to do something that have been stablished for so many years and at such great scale. I believe that one of the main challenge in the design of the prize is to avoid the anchorage of some techniques and “specialist knowledge”. We need to question how to do mining without produce tailings, not about treating them. In my personal opinion, we need to question how to extract valuable materials from a rock with zero-waste thinking thinking that we are inventing mining.

@alexhazbun I think you’re aligned with the current thinking at XPRIZE. We are preparing parameters for a prize that we hope will create a paradigm shift in mining technology and change the way we think about the process. It’s ambitious, be we hope also achievable. We’ll be posting some more details soon…

@alexhazbun This goes back to the type of ore that is being mined. If the mineral can be separated, at the grain boundary from the host, without additional comminution, and this can be achieved at the mining face, then the volumes that must be transported and further treated is significantly lowered. This is possible, for eg with galena in sandstone and dolomite, and with some copper ores from Poland, but then one gets into the issues of sensing where the ore is, gaining access, and dealing with the material around the ore that is required for that access (though this can be reduced where people are no longer used in the vicinity of the face, or even underground).

Thank you @DaveSummers @alexhazbun @santosr and @MostafaB! Is there anything else you would like to add?

The problem that you currently face is that the levels of expertise that existed when I graduated with my doctorate (1968) are no longer around. The bodies of knowledge, whether institutional or personal, are gone. The schools of mining that used to exist and which focussed on hands-on, rather than computer model driven, education are much diminished. Sadly, without that experience, there are many pathways to failure.

I remember when JPL was asked for innovative ideas for increasing coal production when the Saudi and other governments raised the price of oil in the 1980’s. Brilliant minds, but with little hands on experience we had to explain why some of their ideas would not work. Skip forward almost four decades and who is there with the expert knowledge over the broad field to guide innovation (which was never much encouraged).