Natural Resources Roundup March 2017

Natural Resources Roundup March 2017

By Kyle Gracey

It has been another exciting, somewhat nerve-wracking, month for natural resources technologies. In this Roundup, we explore drones in mines, virtual batteries, bacterial bubbles and a colossal bankruptcy.

Metals and Mining: Automation Advances

While the transportation sector races to adopt automated vehicles, mining companies have taken a more cautious approach. New breakthroughs will change all this, according to a recent report in Mining Technology. For example, dark and dusty mine environments have limited the success of camera-based automated loaders. Now, there is a different approach called Auto Tunable Robotic Loading. This technology uses pressure sensors to help the loaders “feel” the rock piles and ensure that just the right amount of rocks are loaded, even if the robots can’t see what is in front of them.

Meanwhile, Atlas Copco and others are testing high-speed automated driving in underground mines. They’re testing two models of automated scoop loaders by programming them to drive between mining sites. Researchers from Örebro University are making strides above the ground by deploying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in underground mines. Previously, UAVs were used for surface mining, but a new scanning technology will hopefully make it easier for them to sense and navigate the more complex and claustrophobic conditions below ground.

Fossil Fuels and Renewables: Technology Keeps Shifting Jobs

While the prospects for automated mining looks rosy, advances in renewable energy continue to spell trouble underground. A recent analysis of U.S. Energy Department data suggests the clean energy industry employs two and a half times the number of people compared to fossil fuel companies. Earlier analysis suggested that Canada has experienced a similar shift, with renewable energy providing more jobs than the oilsands. U.S. coal mining saw particularly large drops, losing almost half its direct employment since 2011.

Technology is the largest driver of job shifts in both industries. The fossil fuel industry is a mature sector and coal mining companies, among others, have for decades embraced technologies that require less labor. New renewable technologies are driving down costs and reaching new markets. Tesla will take orders for its solar roof technology in April. Germany’s largest aluminum smelter now  turns its electrolysis cells into a virtual battery capable of storing and releasing renewable energy. This helps minimize the use of peak load power plants, which are often more polluting than plants that run continuously. Will technology eventually lead to declining jobs in clean energy, too? Probably. But, for now it is fueling a hiring boom.

Wastewater Treatment: Making Aeration Four Times More Efficient

Wastewater treatment plants are also transitioning into the carbon cutting game. Turns out they use a lot of electricity—almost 1% of U.S. electricity consumption, in fact. Bacteria actually treat most of this wastewater at modern plants, but blowing in the oxygen they need to do their work isn’t cheap. General Electric Water & Process Technologies hopes to cut that big utility bill by giving those bacterial helpers better bubbles. Many of the oxygen bubbles supplied to bacteria are not distributed efficiently in wastewater, causing these bubbles to rise up and out of the water.

GE’s technology, ZeeLung, uses giant cubes filled with porous tubes. The bacteria form a film on the tubes and a low pressure fan moves air through the tubes. The low pressure fan uses less electricity than the standard process. As the bacteria suck up oxygen from the tubes, they create a pressure gradient that drives the air toward them, complementing the fan. By turning the bacteria into their own fans, aeration could become four times more energy efficient.

Nuclear: Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy

Finally, the nuclear sector faces a setback as industry stalwart Westinghouse just filed for bankruptcy. The technologies embedded in their new AP1000 were expected to help the nuclear industry regain its shrinking foothold in U.S. electricity production. The move may also leave four new planned reactors unbuilt. The bankruptcy will affect more than the U.S., since Toshiba purchased Westinghouse’s nuclear business more than a decade ago. Whether other companies can pick up where Westinghouse’s innovations left off remains to be seen.

Check back next month as we explore how these and other developments are changing the natural resources industry.

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