“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” – Max Planck, Quantum Theorist and Nobel Prize winner

As a sporting enthusiast, I am always rather envious of the supportive teams that professionals have at their disposal. I know how it can feel out on the football field or golf course when things aren’t going to plan, and access to a psychologist, physiotherapist or tactician would be a huge advantage.

There are parallels in how our industrial water business works with the mining sector. A mine is a complex operation with major geographical spans and highly specialised processes. Water is integral to the mining process, yet it’s just one aspect of the whole operation. While mine operators have a good understanding of water management; driving efficiency, sustainability and cost effectiveness takes an expert in the field.

Mining’s biggest challenges… and opportunities

The mining industry has been through a challenging downturn in recent years. In these testing times, mines are seeking ways to improve their efficiency and sustainability for the long term.

In South Africa, mines typically operate in water scarce regions and water is often an ongoing challenge, as is increasingly stringent legislation to control mine water discharge and Acid Rock / Mine Drainage (ARD / AMD) formation when mines cease operations.

Each of these challenges, however, also presents opportunities. Maximising the re-use of water, for example, can dramatically reduce the need for fresh water supply.

Water re-use

An example is a project with a gold miner in West Rand that pumps 50 Mega-litres of water from underground shafts each day. Our Crystalactor® technology cleans part of this hard (high calcium), dolomitic water so that it now replaces the fresh water supply to the mine, providing 3.7 Mega-litres per day at a fraction of the cost. This form of water efficiency benefits local communities too, by reducing pressure on the municipal water supply to meet local requirements.

For each operating environment we looking holistically at the water needs for each individual mine. In our WaterScan approach we look at water balances, reducing water consumption, improving water efficiency and identifying opportunities for water re-use in the mine (or across multiple mining sites). An appropriate treatment system, or systems, can then be selected based on the level and complexity of treatment required according to the needs of the mine.

Reverse osmosis (RO) and desalination methods can be typically employed to remove dissolved salts and clean wastewater for re-use. However, the brine generated by these methods is often a problem to treat or dispose of. Here we are working with an industry partner, IDE, using our Crystalactor technology in combination with RO to improve product water recovery and reduce brine volumes significantly. This approach is improving the technical and economic feasibility of employing these treatment methods.

Resource recovery

In treating and reusing mining effluent, it is also possible to recover valuable materials. We’ve recently been involved in a project doing just this for a platinum mining client that has the potential to recover precious metals from wastewater. The next step in this is a pilot, which if successful will be followed by the creation of a full-scale plant. The plant is projected to deliver a return on investment in under a year.

Not every mining client, however, is necessarily seeking to drive water efficiency or save on treatment or disposal costs. In many cases they need to comply with increasingly stringent legislation.

Acid Mine Drainage

The biggest compliance challenge facing the mining industry today is Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). Any mine operator needs to have resilient, comprehensive mine closure procedures and plans in place before mining operations even begin. This requires a profound understanding of the issues, together with the ability to assess all the available technologies and methods.

We have recently consulted with a coal mining client to select an appropriate AMD treatment system for a number of mining sites facing closure. The results of our investigations and recommendations will form an intricate part of the mine’s environmental closure plans in order to meet the demands of stringent environmental legislation. The approach takes into account all technical, economic, social and environmental aspects in defining a holistic, long term and sustainable solution for the mining site(s).

Viewing AMD as a potential water source opens up opportunities for the mine instead of treating it as a burden. We are actively working with industry partners and clients to develop new strategies, innovative technologies and ways of working to combat AMD. We are currently in discussions with a gold mining client to pilot the MaxH20 process developed in partnership with IDE that will address their long-term AMD treatment needs.

Finding the details in the bigger picture

Our team of 60 process engineers has the experience, engineering expertise and local knowledge to fully understand the challenges facing the mining industry with regards to water. We also have the advantage of being able to take a step back from the day to day running of the mining operation to look at the bigger picture.

In doing this we combine our global expertise with local delivery through the application of the latest modelling and simulation tools, water technologies and world class knowledge that Royal HaskoningDHV has developed and applied in projects throughout the world.

We add value as consultants – in the purest definition of the word – to the mining industry; we consult on an equal basis with our clients. We provide a true sounding board where different technologies, processes and solutions can be openly discussed, critically analysed and advised upon to the benefit of our clients.

Partners not salespeople

Our role as independent consultants is to give the best advice and recommendations based on a full and detailed picture of every water related process in the mine. We focus on providing holistic, sustainable and long-term solutions for our clients.

Just as a golf pro or Formula 1 driver needs a support team in order to fully reach their potential, I passionately believe that even industry leaders need a team of experts to lean on to maintain their success in such a challenging market. In the mining industry, this has never been truer.