From virtual reality to programmable bacteria: innovation on display mining

Programmable bacteria, a gold-sniffing camera and a virtual reality tool

TORONTO — Programmable bacteria, a gold-sniffing camera and a virtual reality tool for taking investors underground were among the innovations on display at the world’s biggest annual mining convention in Toronto this week.

Their makers say these and other technologies have the potential to reshape the mining industry at every stage — from financing and exploration to extraction and cleaning up sites once the metal is gone.

Some veterans of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention say such innovation is badly needed in an industry traditionally resistant to change.

“There’s a lot of inertia in our business,” said George Salamis, chairman of Vancouver-based Integra Gold Corp. (TSXV:ICG).

“There’s this mindset that, ‘We’ve been doing this for 100 years, why would we change?’ With new blood coming in, that is changing. But change is slow.”

The mining industry has been on the mend as commodity prices recover from a protracted slump. The downturn made many executives more focused on pruning budgets than investing in technology that might increase efficiency.

But even a small implementation of such products can have a huge effect on margins and operating costs, Salamis noted.

“Mining is certainly ripe for that,” he said.

Encouraging innovation was Integra’s chief aim when it partnered with Goldcorp Inc. to create Disrupt Mining, a Shark Tank-style competition held during the opening day of the convention last Sunday.

Among the five finalists was Sudbury, Ont.-based Bio-Mine Ltd., a company that has spent the past 13 years working with bacteria that can be programmed to break down different types of rock, either to help extract valuable metals or neutralize harmful byproducts when remediating old mines.

While micro-organisms have been used in mining for nearly a century, Bio-Mine CEO Kurtis Vanwallegham says the bacteria previously used were static — “one trick ponies” that can only break down one type of rock in a particular environment.

Bio-Mine’s technology is more versatile, Vanwallegham says. By feeding their bacteria a very specific diet and depriving them of certain things, a process referred to as metabolic engineering, the company is able to program the micro-organisms to target specific substances, regardless of what environment they’re in.

“When you have a programmable technology, the opportunities are limitless,” Vanwallegham says.

Another technology on display at PDAC is the Gold Sniffer. It uses a digital camera, a macro lens, a specialized light source and custom-built software with a sophisticated algorithm to detect gold’s unique optical signature, says Jim Kendall, president of Waterloo, Ont.-based Gold Sniffer Inc.

He first came up with the concept while working at a gold mining company in Toronto in 2009.

“My colleague and I were talking and I went to his desk, picked something up and said, ‘If this was a rock in northern Ontario, how could I tell if there’s gold in it?”’ Kendall recalls. “He said, ‘You can’t.”’

Gold particles are often too small for a geologist to see with a hand lens, so the only way to know if a rock sample contains gold is to ship it off to a lab — a process that can take weeks or even months to get results. Kendall says the Gold Sniffer shaves the process down to minutes.

Headsets that allow potential investors to tour a mine site without boarding a plane also proved popular at the convention.

Metaverse, a Toronto-based consulting firm specializing in virtual and augmented reality, says the technology can have vast applications in the mining industry, from training employees on safety protocols to visualizing data on ore deposits.

To date, uptake of the relatively new technology has been slow in the mining sector, says Alan Smithson, the co-founder and CEO of Metaverse.

“It’s a very old business,” Smithson said. “People have been digging stuff out of the ground for thousands of years. It takes time to change that.”

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