Smart Mining is the future

  Smart Mining © Peter Winandy Since March 2018 Elisabeth Clausen is Professor for Advanced Mining Technologies at the RWTH.

RWTH Professor Clausen is the first woman to head an institute in the field of raw materials extraction and wants to realize responsible mining.

She is the first female professor in this field nationwide: Dr.-Ing. Elisabeth Clausen took up the university professorship for Advanced Mining Technologies at RWTH in March 2018. This entails heading the institute of the same name - AMT for short - in the Faculty of Georesources and Materials Engineering at the exellence university of Aachen. The focus of the research is on advanced, future mining, for which robust, networked and autonomous machines and processes for raw material extraction are being developed.

The core tasks of the institute also include teaching in the engineering courses "Mineral Resource Engineering", "Sustainable Resources and Energy Supply" and "Environmental Engineering" with the respective specializations. Students are supervised in numerous lectures and exercises on engineering fundamentals and on mechanical engineering in the raw materials industry.

The AMT is one of the largest institutes in Germany in the raw materials sector and currently employs 67 staff. Under the direction of Univ.-Prof. Dr.-Ing. Karl Nienhaus, the predecessor institution began operations in 2009, operating until 2016 under the name "Institute for Mechanical Engineering of the Raw Materials Industry", or IMR for short. Nienhaus currently holds an endowed professorship entitled Advanced Mining Technologies alongside his colleague Clausen. The professorship was established as a co-professorship until the end of 2020 and is funded by the non-profit Ulrich-Thiele-Foundation.

Energy transition only possible with raw materials

Elisabeth Clausen was born in Kiel in 1983 and graduated in geotechnical, mining, petroleum and natural gas engineering from Clausthal University of Technology. She then worked there for ten years as a scientific employee and academic councilor at the university's Institute of Mining. "The move to RWTH is a change due to its size, high dynamics and diverse research as well as teaching topics. Nevertheless, I find this university very personal," says the mining expert.

"We deal here with the responsible extraction of raw materials that we need for our daily lives and for the so-called future technologies. We can only talk about electromobility or the energy turnaround if we consider the topics of raw materials and raw material extraction," Clausen emphasizes. Although some raw materials return to the cycle, "if you look specifically at the raw materials that are important for our standard of living, we recycle less than one percent of them in some cases and import almost up to 100 percent into the EU."

The company also aims to create safe working conditions by developing autonomous systems: "Our goal is to be able to realize safe working conditions and responsible mining."

Autonomous mining underground

The size of mining operations today, Clausen said, still varies widely. They range from small-scale mining operations, where individual families usually mine areas by hand, to highly automated operations, where shearer loaders, for example, travel autonomously using a wide range of sensor technology. In open-pit mines in Chile, large mining trucks have already been driving fully autonomously for several years.

At the institute's own Rock Cutting Center, for example, the aim is to create the technological basis for a mining machine to be able to recognize independently where it is cutting and where the deposit is. Ideally, subsequent processing would also take place directly underground, so that worthless material would no longer have to be transported to the surface. This would also reduce the stockpiles typical of the industry, which dominate the picture above ground. "There are already mines that border on nature reserves and whose mining activities are hardly noticeable in the surrounding area. The extraction of raw materials is always associated with an intervention in nature and land use. The resulting environmental impacts must be minimized, and a livable condition must be restored following the extraction activity. Basically, tomorrow's mining will be more and more deep underground and hardly visible above ground," Clausen explains.

Mining 4.0 means smart mining

In the course of the development of Industry 4.0, it is not only the name AMT that shows the increased focus on digitalization and informatization alongside traditional mining. Back in 2015, the first forum entitled Mining 4.0 was held in Aachen with 120 participants. At the second forum in November 2017, organized in cooperation with DMT GmbH & Co. KG and VDMA Mining, already more than 190 participants from 16 countries took part. As a Smart Mining Conference, the forum addresses strategic issues and implementation possibilities of Industry 4.0 in the mining sector not only on a scientific level. The aim is to make it clear that the German mining supply industry can only survive on the international market if reliable technology is combined with high-tech and innovative business models to create new products.

A key theme here is automated and autonomous systems that prove themselves under the harsh conditions of mining. "We are investigating various fundamental aspects for the development of autonomous mining systems in deep and open-pit mining as well as in deep-sea mining: these include, for example, underground localization, positioning and navigation, material recognition and cutting technology. For decades now, our institute has been making use of sensor technology to obtain information from these data that can be used for other processes," Clausen explains.

Last year, the Aachen institute also took over the chairmanship of EUREG, the European Rock Extraction Research Group. It is a research alliance of RWTH, TU Bergakademie Freiberg, TU Clausthal and Montanuniversität Leoben in the field of rock dissolution in mining and tunneling.

In December 2018, the AMT, together with VDMA Mining, organized an international conference on the topic of "High Performance Mining" for this purpose, at which best-practice examples of productivity increases and performance improvements were presented and discussed by both operators and technology providers. This new conference format provided a platform for exchange on what high performance mining means under current socio-economic conditions and how value creation in mining can be sustainably ensured through the use of technology. The event was a great success with 175 participants from 22 countries, 21 speakers and 16 exhibitors.