Technology: answering challenges in mining

Peter Carter, global lead for GE Mining Solutions, and Ruben Gonzalez, Latin America lead for GE Energy Industrial Solutions, share highlights from GE Energy’s Latin America EPC Summit

Home to an abundance of copper, silver, nickel, zinc and other metals and minerals in high global demand, leaders in the mining industry view Latin America as a region with great potential and opportunity for growth. In fact, the Center for Copper and Mining Studies (CESCO) estimates that approximately US$250 billion will be invested in Latin American mining projects by 2020. The significant number of new projects, site expansions and increased global investment in the region are all evidence that the Latin American mining industry is going through a highly dynamic time – and a valuable growth opportunity exists for countries in the region excelling in this industry, especially Chile, Peru and Brazil. However, mining in the region’s variety of landscapes – from the vast deserts of Chile to the mountain peaks of the Andes – is not without its challenges. Every day, Latin American miners face challenges related to power, water and productivity that require new thinking and advanced technologies to overcome.

With more than 115 years of experience in the region, more than 18,700 employees working in 31 countries in Latin America and a dedicated Mining Solutions business organization, GE serves as a strategic business partner to many of the largest mining companies in Latin America. On March 13, GE Energy brought together some of the top influencers in the industry – from mining company executives to local government officials to consultants – in Santiago, Chile with the purpose of collaborating and sharing knowledge to help define a way forward for Latin American miners. In this post, we’ll summarize conversations that took place at the Summit related to power generation and distribution, water management and productivity challenges and share examples of how GE is working with its Latin American mining customers to overcome these obstacles.

Delivering reliable power

Mining requires an extraordinary amount of energy, and delivering reliable and efficient power to ensure uninterrupted operations was a hot topic at the Summit. Richard Aylwin, director of sustainable energy and climate change for Codelco, one of the world’s leading copper mining companies (and a GE customer), shared with attendees that powering Codelco’s operations requires 6.6 terawatt hours per year.  This figure corresponds with 40 percent of the total energy consumed by the copper mining industry in Chile and nearly 12 percent of the country’s total annual energy consumption.  With 18 percent of the corporation’s annual operation budget spent on power generation and distribution, Codelco is always looking to implement advanced technologies that will help reduce energy consumption. At the Summit, Codelco CEO Diego Hernandez shared, “We’re looking very carefully at power and water – these are key for the competitiveness of our industry in the medium and long term. We’re working hard on that, and I think we have a very good partnership with GE on those particular matters where innovation is key.”

Today, GE Energy’s Industrial Solutions business delivers electrical distribution and control products – including switchgear, transformers, power management systems, motor control centers, circuit breakers and control components – to Codelco mine sites that address the corporation’s energy efficiency issues.  Recognizing their Latin American mining customers’ need for technology that provides a reliable electrical infrastructure, GE Energy’s Industrial Solutions business recently opened a manufacturing plant in Santiago that assembles these technologies and ships them out to customers in the region, including Codelco.  By localizing these operations, GE is able to reduce delivery time and costs for their customers.

Meeting desalination needs in water scarce regions

The processes for mining, transporting, and processing metals and minerals all require a substantial amount of water. In Chile alone, the mining industry consumes approximately 11.9 cubic meters of water per second. With an over exploitation of traditional water sources and variable availability of water in dry mining locations in Latin America, such as the deserts of Northern Chile, water management was a popular topic of discussion at the Summit. Karen Poniachick, former minister of mining, Republic of Chile, commented, “Access to water is perhaps the biggest challenge facing mining companies in Chile today. While the mining sector has been reducing its water footprint throughout the years thanks to new technologies, it’s still a major issue we must face moving forward.”

Raymond Philippe, director of Hatch Water, presented on the utilization of a non-traditional source of water that he believes may be one of the most sustainable options for the mining industry – seawater. Some of the advantages of treating seawater for mining operations are that it replaces “traditional” water resources; diminishes social and environmental impacts by reducing the use of fresh water; provides a sustainable source of water despite natural constraints (e.g. droughts); and has a manageable environmental impact.

With the mining industry facing continued shortages of clean water, industry players are increasingly investing in water desalination and water reuse technologies to create a new supply of water for operations. Transporting water from the sea over vast areas of land to remote mine locations poses a significant challenge.  GE’s portfolio of pumps can provide the industry with the technology it needs to ensure the sea water required for a mining operation can consistently be transported from the ocean to these locations. Another critical component of a seawater supply project that GE touches is the seawater desalination technology that turns seawater into “fresh” water through reverse osmosis.  GE has more than 50 years of membrane and process design experience and our seawater reverse osmosis platform products are installed on site at customer locations around the globe. We offer customers customized solutions that produce anywhere from 100 cubic meters of water per day to up to 100 million liters of water per day.

A collaborative approach to productivity

Today’s industry-wide challenges require an unprecedented level of cooperation among industry players. “There’s a consensus in the industry on the challenges we face, and we have to work together to overcome the situation,” said, Fernando Garcia, SVP Latin America & Copper Global M&M at SNC-Lavalin. Through a collaborative approach, GE empowers customers to tackle energy and operational efficiency challenges head on.  GE and Foster Wheeler Chile S. A. recently announced a partnership in which, together, the companies will be able to offer innovative solutions to the mining sector, combining equipment and technology from GE Energy with the technical expertise in mining and metals and the project execution capability of Foster Wheeler Chile S.A. This joint offering will include mineral processing, power generation and water desalination facilities, providing solutions to address processing issues and to improve productivity, water and waste management and power utilization.

The conversations we had with customers and partner companies at the Summit confirm our belief that for Latin America to continue to grow and keep pace in the market, mining executives must remain at the forefront of system innovation and application of advanced technologies.  At GE, we’re proud to be able to work together with Latin American mining companies to implement these advanced technologies, empowering them to overcome the toughest power, water and productivity challenges.


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