Mining expert says companies need to invest in new technology

Materials World magazine
5 Jan 2016

Rhiannon Garth Jones talks to Mike Battersby, MIMMM, about his career and ideas on how to reduce energy use in the mining industry.

Mike Battersby is a Chartered Engineer, has been a member of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining since 1985 and has more than 35 years' experience in the minerals industry. In 1997, he co-founded Maelgwyn Mineral Services based in Cardiff, Wales, where he is currently the Managing Director. He is a UK based Director of the Coalition for Eco Efficient Comminution (CEEC) and also sits on the Board of Directors of Welsh Triathlon Cymru and the British Triathlon Federation.

Tell me about your background in the industry.

I have a family background in the minerals industry. I was born on the Zambian copper belt where my father was a mining engineer and my mother a mine nurse. During my early childhood, we moved to south Wales when my father took a job with Thyssen GB. He did a lot of work with the UK Coal Board and then in Cornwall, with the re-emergence of the tin mining industry in the 1970s. With this background, it seemed natural that both my elder brother and I would go into the mining industry. We joined Cardiff University’s Mineral Exploitation department (MINEX) and emerged with degrees in mineral processing. I then followed an interesting career path that took me around the world, first emigrating to work on the South African gold mines with Anglo American and then diamond mining in Angola with De Beers. After a period of time working with Billiton in Australia, I made the jump from the operational side of mineral processing to the equipment technology field. This change led me to Germany, where I met flotation expert and inventor Dr Rainer Imhof. We had many ideas for new technology and development in the minerals industry that we thought would work. I therefore returned to Wales and, 18 years ago, set up Maelgwyn Mineral Services (MMS) to try to commercialise those ideas by combining my operational experience with Dr Imhof’s research background.

What would you say has been your career highlight so far?

I’ve experienced working life on the mine operator side in remote locations and also the supplier side, so there are quite different highlights. Certainly, my time working on the diamond mines in Angola in the early part of my career was an experience I will never forget. The country at that time was in the middle of the civil war. It was an extremely demanding job trying to keep the diamond recovery plants working with limited resources, knowing the conflict was going on around us. Luckily, I didn’t have any major personal safety issues. It was a time of excitement for me in a beautiful and interesting country and it resulted in many lifelong friendships forged under those harsh working conditions.

My personal highlight must be the recognition MMS has had for the development and success of one of our flagship products – the Imhoflot G-Cell. We had an idea of how to improve froth flotation, which is by far the most common unit process in the minerals processing industry. We were awarded a SmartWales grant from the Welsh Assembly government to develop the concept, which allowed for the G-Cell to be patented and prototypes developed. It is now an accepted mainstream technology with many flotation plants installed around the world and sales continuing to increase. 

What is the biggest change you have seen in the industry during your career?

I would say, and quite rightly, our industry’s acknowledgement of sustainable development and social and environmental responsibility. As a young process engineer working on a mine site, I always thought it was a natural thing not to do anything that might harm the environment. Certainly, my colleagues – geologists and mining engineers – as individuals were probably more aware of such matters than the general population. However, in those days, there was little or no corporate guidance from above, whose focus was perhaps more on profitability and other such matters. Nowadays, companies are in no doubt that you cannot operate in any manner unless you pay attention and prioritise your social and environmental responsibilities.

What will be the most significant challenges to face the industry over the next decade?

Without doubt it will be the dearth of experienced technical personnel in the industry. A lack of desire by companies to invest in R&D to take the industry forward will result in very challenging times. I’ve been lucky in my career to have maintained gainful employment in the industry through the many cycles of boom and bust we have been through. But many of my peers through the years have not been so lucky and the vast majority were lost to the industry. It appears far easier for a CEO to reduce staff numbers to increase profitability rather than investing in the staff to reduce costs and improve productivity and performance. As part of my job, I get to visit many operations around the world and, where possible, I ask to have a look around the process plant. This is not always easy – with the requirement these days for hours of health and safety inductions before you step foot in the plant. Time and time again I see poor operating practices that could result in huge savings, if rectified. I’m normally accompanied on these walkarounds by relatively junior or inexperienced metallurgists and, when I question the operating practice, the usual response is, ‘That’s the way we’ve always operated’. We’ve lost the experience from the industry and, in the present downturn, we are not getting enough young people entering the industry via the universities because they can see no job at the end of it.

What drove your interest in energy efficiency? 

I moved to Germany in the early 1990s to work for KHD Humbolt Wedag, an equipment company who had a licence for the relatively new comminution technology of High Pressure Grinding Rolls (HPGR). HPGRs had been invented and patented by Professor Schonert about 10 years previously and had received early and wide acceptance in the cement industry, where it yielded large energy savings in grinding. By then, there were hundreds of HPGRs installed around the world in cement plants but none in minerals applications. I was given the job to try and introduce them to the minerals industry, which was a tough ask. While all the R&D work indicated that energy savings of about 30–40% could be realised in most HPGR circuits over a conventional tumbling mill type circuit, the higher capex and the unknown nature and associated perceived risks of new technology resulted in mining companies being unwilling to embrace this new technology. Eventually, this hurdle was overcome by the HPGR's use in some niche areas such as diamond liberation, where the HPGR is thought not to break large diamonds, and then the grinding of iron ore pellet feed where it gives a preferable size distribution – two areas not really related to energy saving, which should have been the driving force for their use. Hard rock mineral applications started to trial units because, with lower metal prices and increasing power costs, these operations would not be making profits without the technology.

I realised that, in the mining industry, having the most energy efficient and best performing technology did not necessarily count because it is a capital intensive, risk-averse business. Also, at the time, I was working with pre-concentration technologies like froth flotation and various sorting technologies, where the idea is to reject waste early in the process to limit the mass of material you needed to grind further to liberate the economic minerals. Again, this was an energy saving concept in the mining environment.

My experience led to my joining the Coalition for Eco Efficient Comminution (CEEC), which was founded a few years ago in Australia by some like-minded industry leaders who did not understand why our industry, time and time again, overlooked new technology and known improvements in existing processes to install and operate high energy usage systems. They believed education and knowledge transfer to the relevant engineers was missing. So, CEEC was formed as a non-profit organisation to try and rectify this situation. It is unique in our industry as not being an advocate or representing any particular vested interest group. The mission at CEEC is simple – to raise awareness of research findings, alternative comminution strategies and installed outcomes, accelerate information, knowledge and technology transfer with the objective of lower processing costs and raising shareholder value as a result of improved comminution practices.   

What more can be done to reduce energy use in the industry? 

One of the exciting projects CEEC is currently undertaking is the Energy Efficiency Curve Programme. Essentially, with the help of comminution experts and data provided by actual operations, the aim is to benchmark all the comminution plants in the world. To generate these curves, operators measure the energy intensity of their operations and contribute anonymously to the database on which the tool is based. This allows comparison of comminution energy consumption of your site against the industry and across different mine sites. The applications of this are many – the curves can be used to map the position of the mine as production progresses with year on year analysis. Operational efficiency improvements can be mapped on the curves to visually assess the magnitude of energy reductions achievable through various strategies. The efficiency with which various comminution devices achieve size reduction can be mapped down a circuit to identify opportunities for improvement and the magnitude of achievable gains.

Already, the CEEC energy curve contains over 50% of world copper production together with over 20% of the world's gold, zinc and molybdenum production and these percentages are increasing at a steady rate
as more operators provide data from their operations. This really is a global industry wide endeavour that can only be beneficial for all stakeholders and the environment in general.