Workers spray shotcrete onto the face of a future mine portal in the construction of what will be the newest underground access in Barrick Gold Corp.’s Cortez District operations that could possibly sustain the site for decades.“This is about as new as it gets,” said George Fennemore, growth manager for Barrick Nevada, which includes the Cortez and Goldstrike operations, in late January. “There is nothing quite as exciting as being able to do something new and different.”
The portal, pending permitting approval, will tunnel into the Cortez Mountains, chasing the Goldrush deposit. Goldrush has the potential to become Barrick’s newest underground mine in Nevada, with first production expected as early as 2021, and sustained production by 2023, according to the company’s year-end report. The project lies in a silver, copper, gold and turquoise mining district that is more than 150 years old.
Nearby, the ground opens up into a maturing Cortez Hills open pit, expected to have about a year and a half of life remaining. Below, the ruins of the area’s 1870s-era four-story mill crumble downslope. Down the canyon in Crescent Valley, one of the world’s first full-size heap leach sites now rests in reclamation.
Like the successive benches in an open pit mine, the layers of history illustrate advances in methods that led to the industry’s continuation, not just in the Cortez District, but in the state and world.
Through a focus on digital technology and automated processes, Barrick Nevada is embarking on what could be the next bench in mining history. In 2017, the company laid the foundation for digital transformation through a series of pilot projects, primarily focused on Cortez, Barrick reported in its year-end results.
“The mine operators here in Nevada have a history of innovation,” Fennemore said. “What we are doing now is simply the next step in a long run of innovative thinking.”
Mining in transition
Barrick Gold Corp. has invested millions into the digital transformation of Barrick Nevada since partnering with Cisco Systems in fall 2016. The pilot project aims to increase efficiency and save money to help sustain mining operations in Northern Nevada. If successful, said Barrick communications manager Leslie Maple, digital applications could be implemented at Barrick operations around the globe.
“You can control [costs] with automation and information flow,” Fennemore said, explaining that controlling costs makes operations less dependent on the price of gold.
The effort involves operating Cortez and Goldstrike under one management team, and providing data analysis through the Analytics and Unified Operations Center, or AUOps, at the Barrick Shared Business Center in Elko.
“Part of the digital transformation is mainly to get the right information to the right people at the right time,” said Emrah Yalcin, digital implementation manager at Barrick Nevada. “So what is the motivation behind the AUOps or, in general, digital transformation? Barrick is, like most other companies, we want to generate additional free cash flow.”
Barrick leadership recognized the potential in continuing to develop its resources in Northern Nevada but observed the challenges presented by maturing mines and aging infrastructure, Fennemore explained.
“You really do have mining in transition,” he said. “I think that’s what triggered all the digital and automation in the work that we do.”
The company’s mills at Cortez and Goldstrike are decades old, Fennemore said, and building new ones could cost about $1 billion each. To run properly, the mills must run a blend of high-grade and low-grade ore together, and the material could come from any source in Barrick Nevada — from Cortez’s or Goldstrike’s surface or underground operations. Data capture and analysis helps the Barrick team understand how to maximize the efficiency and lifespans of the mills already in existence.
“That’s how you optimize these mines,” Fennemore said.
He explained that projects under Barrick Nevada must be brought on in groups so that low quantities of high-grade ore from underground can be blended at the appropriate mill with high quantities of low-grade ore from open pits. At Cortez, the underground project is being developed at about the same time as the new Crossroads open pit, which also corresponds roughly with the phasing out of the Cortez Hills open pit, which has about 18 months left in operation. Material from the Crossroads open pit could be processed at Cortez’s or Goldstrike’s mills, Fennemore said.
Mining and milling at multiple locations adds a level of complexity that data-based decision-making helps unravel.
At AUOps, superintendent Frank Carr, shows how sensors in the mills report the quantities of chemicals being used for processing. Meanwhile, GPS tracks the location of trucks bringing fresh chemicals and ore. Having all the data allows the team to understand variances and take action to reduce losses. Digitization also lets the mill do part of the response, eliminating lag time.
“We can actually interact with our data,” Carr said.
As Barrick Nevada works toward bringing the “digital visualization” to reality, AUOps is just part of the program that will include digital technology at surface, underground and support operations.
“What we are doing here is collecting data from sites, and this data we are converting then into meaningful data,” said Yalcin, who explained that AUOps is not a command center. “What we do here is support our operations to make better decisions by using this data converted to meaningful information.”
Hard-wired internet and wi-fi at mine sites, and high-powered data storage at Switch near Henderson and on servers at Barrick help facilitate information processing.
Digital tools to be incorporated include smart technologies, machine learning, predictive analysis, data analytics and automation — including the implementation of automated underground drills and the use of autonomous haul trucks, which Barrick plans to test in surface operations in the near future.
“This will be a continuous process: visiting our operations, understanding their needs and trying to find a solution here – keeping the data at the center of this,” Yalcin said, explaining that ideas for digitization projects come from Barrick Nevada employees.
The projects “allowed the company to validate the viability of its digital solutions and their potential economic returns in a controlled environment with rigorous oversight,” the company stated in its year-end report, including a summary of digital efforts.
One of the projects recently converted to digital includes automatically generating production reports and making them available in real time. Engineers previously created production reports weekly, and now they have more time to dedicate to other responsibilities.
“Once the data is available in real time, we are going to act quicker,” Yalcin said. “We are going to make recommendations based on data to our people.”
At AUOps, senior analyst Robert Bellman demonstrated another aspect of digitization. The analyst showed how incidents related to safety, the environment or production are judged on an escalation metric that determines when something should be shared with an operator or the CEO.
“It’s a mine-wide thing. We can look at the whole district,” Bellman said as he navigated among charts and messages on his computer screen at the back of a room filled with monitors. “This is so cool. It’s like driving a star ship.”
Despite all the changes in mining techniques over the past 100-plus years in Northern Nevada – including at the Cortez District — people remain an essential part of operations.
“We can’t run the digital transformation without people,” Yalcin said. “It’s just a matter of shifting the talent.”
To help people adapt, Barrick offers its employees and their dependents free technology training through Cisco Net Academy at Great Basin College. The company has also been conducting sessions on the psychology of change to keep the workforce engaged, Fennemore said.
“You need people to operate this equipment or analyze the data,” Yalcin said. “Data itself, without our data analysts, have no meaning. We need someone to make sense of it.”
Making sense of data at the operations center at Cortez was operations supervisor Juan Sandoval. Among his tasks, he monitors the positions of workers and equipment on computer screens in an office outside the mine’s first underground portal. Systems for mapping and tracking, and an app for tablets and equipment increase the efficiency of the crews by about 5 percent, Fennemore said.
“You actually get more work done,” Sandoval said, explaining how he can line out equipment from his office then send orders via tablets to workers underground.
Just as advances in technology led the way to growth in mining over history, Barrick leaders and operators hope that the next step in innovation will allow them to continue operations in Northern Nevada. The estimated potential resource encompassed by Barrick Nevada is about 20 million ounces of gold.
There is a “good opportunity to run this industry in Nevada for a very long time based on this endowment in this country,” Fennemore said, referring back to Barrick’s 100-year plan. “When you think about it, 100 years is not really undoable.”