TORONTO (Reuters) - Canadian start-up ColdBlock Technologies Inc will launch its new ‘digestion’ technology on Wednesday that cuts the time to test mineral samples to minutes from hours, innovation experts say is long overdue in a mining industry often resistant to change.
ColdBlock, which did development work with the government, academia and Barrick Gold, will launch the technology at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada conference in Toronto.
The process simplifies and accelerates the analysis of gold, silver and base metals samples, said Peter Kondos, head of technology solutions at Barrick, the world’s biggest gold producer.
“If this technology proves valuable, then we will equip our technology center, as well as our analytical labs in our operations throughout the world with these instruments,” Kondos said.
The 10-minute to 15-minute process uses short-wave infrared radiation to rapidly heat sample particles, which quickly dissolves, or digests, the solids into an acid solution for analysis. A decades-old hot block process, in contrast, heats the acid solution to dissolve the sample, which takes hours.
Because the new technology uses less acid, it has lower operating and capital costs, and productivity can improve because the process can be automated, the company said, though it did not specify the amount of savings a user would accrue through by using the process.
Even though new technology typically produces savings for miners over time, it requires up-front capital which the companies are reluctant to commit amid an industry downturn that is stretching into its fourth year.
Also, because miners face a raft of risks outside their control - everything from extreme weather to political turmoil - they typically avoid uncertainty, such as untested technologies.
The mining industry “is ripe for change” as a lack of investment has slowed the adoption and development of new technology, according to Goldcorp Chief Executive Chuck Jeannes.
“It’s hard to explain what has stood in the way, other than things were working the way they were and the margins weren’t particularly high, so it was hard to justify big investments,” he said.
But as ore grades decline and costs climb, “companies must overcome their traditionally conservative tendencies,” a recent Deloitte global mining report said.
Hardware has advanced, said Ernst & Young’s Canadian mining operations leader Theophile Yameogo, pointing to sensor-loaded autonomous trucks, automated mills, and remote-operated drills.
Miners now need updated and more advanced software and computer platforms that integrate and analyze the wealth of data from operations, he said.
But many companies may delay that decision until metal prices improve and stabilize, experts say.
Gold producers, which already have difficulties with volatile prices, may be wary about investing in new technologies at this time, said Yameogo.
“Miners per se don’t like uncertainty, it’s an uncertain world to start with.”
Reporting by Susan Taylor; Editing by Alan Crosby