November 2009


Improving long-term sustainability: Research in mining and the Canada Mining Innovation Council

By A. Blancarte

Finding mineral resources, mining them and extracting the values within are all technology-intensive endeavours. Innovation supports our industry by developing new technologies that produce efficiency and safety improvements; address current and emerging challenges, including environmental issues; and produce the step changes needed for continuous evolution.

As mineral resources are found at increasing depths and at lower grades, as water and energy become limiting in some regions, and as energy costs rise and public demands for environmental protection increase, mining companies need to continuously innovate to remain competitive and to improve their long-term sustainability.

The mining industry in Canada has a long tradition of innovation in geology, mining and processing.  New and redesigned processes as well as new techniques and equipment have been developed in-house using both public and private research capabilities. Three things are changing that require a new approach — capacity, cost and complexity.

Research capabilities in Canada, both in the public and private sectors, have decreased — large industrial research centres have closed, experienced university researchers are retiring, and mining and metallurgy programs are competing with other fields to attract talent. Additionally, the cost of research continues to increase as more extensive installations, equipment and experimental setups are required. This is directly linked with the increasing complexity of the problems and topics under investigation that require a multi-disciplinary approach. As well, because of cost and complexity, companies’ in-house or self-funded research tends to be more narrowly focused on those areas that are proprietary, or have a direct impact on the companies’ functional expertise and operations. Supporting and enhancing research efforts is needed to ensure Canada continues to innovate, and to develop highly qualified people for the exploration and mining sectors. 

Pre-competitive research is an area where there is opportunity for collaboration. Some of the most exciting research is taking place in this space. However, collaboration is not a self-starting proposition; rather it requires facilitation, communication and incentives.

The Canada Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) has been established as a network of industry, government and academic leaders working collectively to enhance the competitiveness of a responsible mining industry through excellence in research, innovation, commercialization and education.

The Pan-Canadian initiative developed by CMIC represents an opportunity to gather support in expanding research and innovation, engaging industry to ensure that research is relevant and applicable, and meeting industry’s needs now and in the future. Incremental improvements and breakthrough innovations require long-term investments, and collaborative efforts can ensure resources are applied more effectively to both areas.

Moving forward, the goal is to create a Canada-wide system that can serve the interests of industry, academia and government. One would argue that the benefits of innovation are expansive and benefit the country as a whole by creating a more competitive and responsible industry sector and a stronger tax base. Through innovation, the benefits derived from our natural resources are maximized, creating opportunities for exports in technology and innovation, attracting and retaining talent, and strengthening our institutions, to name a few.

Clearly, shared and overlapping interests create an opportunity for CMIC to facilitate and catalyze the development of industry-supported projects that advance deserving research ideas and maximize the effectiveness of government funding. This can create a cascading effect of collaboration, talent development and retention, innovation and improved public perception, all leading to a more sustainable mining industry.

As an impetus to this potentially positive research effort, CMIC is working on a three-pronged strategy comprised of:

  • Improved access to funding
  • Generation of new ideas
  • Cultivating new research capacity

Supporting tactical actions include:

  • Directing existing resources to needs and priorities by streamlining access to existing funding, and working on developing new sources of leveraged funding for industry-supported projects.
  • Creating opportunities for needs and priorities analyses by engaging industry and academia through workshops and other interactions that generate new research ideas.
  • Working to catalyze researchers’ partnerships, to create cross-disciplinary think tanks and interactions that can lead to the creation of new project teams, and eventually to the development of virtual or real centres of excellence in processing, mining and exploration.

The next few months will provide an opportunity to meet with key high-level executives from industry and academic institutions, to inform them on the initiative, elicit their ideas, priorities and support, and invite them to become active members of the network. From discussions and workshops with the academic sector, industry and industry associations, CMIC will work on advancing our strategy around three priority areas: tailings, energy and deep exploration.

Stakeholders will be able to stay up-to-date on CMIC’s activities through a website currently being developed and hosted by CIM  and through regular contributions to publications and conferences.

For more information, contact

Alicia Blancarte is the executive director of CMIC. As a professional engineer, she has practiced engineering in Canada and overseas in the mining, chemicals, oil and transportation sectors. Her areas of expertise include mining, environment and sustainability, and her interests include intelligent design, change and organization management, knowledge integration and technology transfer.

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