SustainabilitySeptember 14, 2023

Building efficient and ESG-compliant mines with virtual twins

Avatar Minming CHEN

By Gustavo Pilger, Director – Worldwide GEOVIA Research and Development Strategy and Management, Dassault Systèmes 

Fossil fuels currently meet about 75% of global energy needs. To transition to renewable energy sources by 2050, significantly larger quantities of minerals, especially copper, must be mined.  The current rate of production will not suffice to meet demand. With only 800 million tons of known copper reserves, is it possible to supply this demand? If it is possible, can it be done it with minimal environmental impact while adhering to ESG norms and public scrutiny? 

In order to supply demand, the mining industry must discover more copper deposits, increase inventory, and accelerate production. The challenge lies in developing mines quickly while adhering to ESG norms, environmental regulations, and community stakeholder buy-in. Integrating technology across the mining value chain can reduce uncertainty and expedite this process. 

Avoiding silos in mining sub-processes with technology

Processes and sub-processes in mining typically occur in silos, leading to frustration among stakeholders due to inefficiencies that often lead to disruption and rework. Engagement is key to foster collaboration that can break down silos and bring teams together toward achieving common goals. It is important to communicate effectively in order to take stakeholders on a journey that results in common understanding of contexts, objectives, constraints, risks, planning, and risk mitigation measures to achieve a given target. This could be greatly facilitated if all stakeholders work in a collaborative manner on a unified platform with consistent data models and user experience. 

Mining could be seen as a series of interconnected systems, or a ‘system of systems,’ that includes several processes from securing permits and exploration down to development, production, beneficiation, sales and distribution, decommissioning, and site rehabilitation. How do you connect systems, technology and people to ensure this system of system “machine” works in a synchronized and harmonious manner while constantly chasing value and common KPIs? A first logical step is to clearly delineate the boundaries of these systems and identify how data flows or how it should flow within them.  

These system of systems framework must recognize a constellation of systems and must understand that the output of one system is the input of an adjacent one. This framework must also be aware of the decisions made within each system’s boundaries as well as the implications or consequences to upstream and downstream processes. Virtual twin experiences provide this framework.  

“Dassault Systèmes’ solution for sustainable, energy-efficient mining that meets environmental norms and revenue targets centers around virtual twin experiences.” 

Virtual twins help embed sustainability in mining operations

The virtual twin provides a live, virtual replication of the real world, where processes and systems are interlinked and associated with one another. This includes the underlying data that informs and describes these processes, all interconnected from a multiphysics, multiscale, and multidisciplinary perspective. 

With virtual twin experiences, associated data and intelligent methods help mining organizations pursue value throughout their operations, adapting to uncertainty and unplanned events of technical, mechanical, or market origins.  

Can you change the way you operate by designing mines that extract more minerals more efficiently, while minimizing energy use, and complying with ESG standards and environment norms? Yes, the virtual twin can assist in this transformation. It can model and simulate many possible outcomes, environmental and social scenarios, balancing efficiency and costs with ESG norms, and while maximizing safety and value. 

“By connecting various data and systems, the virtual twin creates a unified collaborative environment, allowing stakeholders to identify priorities and measure performance against benchmarks for responsible and sustainable growth.” 

The virtual twin also enables the management to control permit status, asset agreements, asset licenses, and associated cost analysis to ensure that everything proceeds according to plan. 

The virtual twin ensures continuity between the natural environment, claim boundaries, and built infrastructure. Users can leverage immersive visualization with spatial contextualization to gain a comprehensive view of data for actionable insights. This ensures sustainability concerning energy and emissions, water, and biodiversity. Environmental, social, regulatory, and sustainability KPIs can be measured against benchmarks using the virtual twin.  

The virtual twin also provides visibility into data with powerful integrated analytics and geospatial data. It allows the aggregation and propagation of data on land stewardship in line with company, compliance, and regulatory frameworks.  

“Digital communities created through the virtual twin facilitate two-way data and model sharing, ensuring a unified user experience for all stakeholders.” 

Why virtual twins are essential for energy efficiency in mining 

Mining is one of the most power-intensive industries. Collectively, mining consumes about 11% of the world’s energy, primarily from fossil fuels. Therefore, powering mining and related infrastructure with renewable energy sources is essential for sustainability. Renewable energy also offers opportunities for cost savings, innovative mine designs, and resilience against uncertainties. 

“With the virtual twin, mining energy systems can be designed as a single platform, allowing for the design and simulation of energy supply and sources.” 

Many mine operators are likely to adopt a hybrid approach to energy. The virtual twin supports a hybrid approach to energy efficiency in mining by using advanced controls that enable miners to design, simulate and visualize optimal energy configuration regimes while reducing overall operating costs, therefore de-risking the electrification process.

In short, virtual twin experiences should play a major role for building the next generation of copper mines and to attract an ever-increasing digital-native workforce in order to achieve sustainability goals and ESG mandates. Virtual twins are not only essential for de-risking mining projects from a multidisciplinary perspective but also for navigating business complexity while ensuring sustainability. Ultimately, virtual twin experiences are a fundamental communication tool for engaging communities where mines operate as well as governments, regulatory agencies, shareholders, and employees from the outset while fostering sustainable mining projects with shared interests.

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