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Sudbury’s future exciting - and electric - Vale COO

Delhi News-Record 2019-01-11 11:14:51

A station for electric vehicles. Postmedia Network File Photo Megan Stacey / Megan Stacey/Sentinel-Review

 

When asked recently if he thought Sudbury could expect another five good years of mining, the answer Ricus Grimbeek gave was ‘no.’

It wasn’t, however, because the chief operating officer for Vale’s North Atlantic Operations feels activity will dry up sooner than that.

“I had my poker face on,” he told a crowd gathered for a Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Thursday. “I believe there’s an amazing future here in Sudbury for the next couple of decades, not just the next five years.”

Driving that confidence is an expected boom in electric vehicles, which require copper and nickel for their batteries.

Grimbeek, who hails from South Africa but now lives in Sudbury, said part of the reason he joined Vale was the opportunity “to absolutely impact the climate-change work we need to do as a society.”

In 2018, there were two million electrical vehicles produced, he said, but over the next half-dozen years that number is expected to climb to 15 to 20 million.

“There’s going to be an explosion in the need for nickel and for copper,” he said.

Vale actually mines more copper than nickel at present, he noted, but demand for the latter will grow considerably as more battery-powered cars are built and sold.

“The beauty of the nickel that we produce is that it’s Class 1 nickel,” he said. “To make a battery you need nickel sulphide and to do that you need Class 1 nickel to dissolve the nickel into the acid. We are the world’s biggest producer of Class 1 nickel and Sudbury has the ore bodies that will absolutely be able to produce this over the next 10, 15, 20, 30 years.”

Ricus Grimbeek, COO of Vale’s North Atlantic Operations and Asian Refineries, addresses an audience at a Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Sudbury, Ont. on Thursday January 10, 2019. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network John Lappa / John Lappa/Sudbury Star

 

Grimbeek said Sudbury is also poised to become “the global hub for digital underground mining,” offering expertise and training for other Vale operations across the hemisphere.

The COO oversees Canadian mines in Thompson, Man. and Voisey’s Bay, Nfld., as well as refineries in Wales and Asia.

“The intent of the North Atlantic business is that it will be run from Sudbury,” he said. “We’re creating what we call the central node, or hub.”

Grimbeek likened this setup to “a NASA centre,” with staff based in Sudbury coordinating activities across several continents.

The COO said he personally had the option of living in Toronto, but it was an “easy choice” to move to the Nickel City. “Sudbury is such an inviting place,” he said. “You’ve got some amazing universities and infrastructure. We need to be proud of Sudbury and talk to the world about what can be done here.”

He admitted he’s had to dodge a few potholes — and had to invest in “a couple new bikes” — but said he’ll take that over the kind of traffic jams he’s experienced getting in and out of the GTA.

Grimbeek said he also had the option of keeping a private office at Vale but quickly swapped that for a desk in an “open-plan setup,” where North Atlantic managers and support staff work together.

“It’s so much fun,” he said. “You get to see one another; there are no silos; and you can actually make decisions a lot faster. And that’s the start of the central hub that over time we will be running all the operations from.”

With seven mining operations and three milling sites, Vale has “many levers to pull in terms of feed to the mills and a host of different products we can produce depending on what the market wants,” he said. “But this is also why you need to use digital, because it’s a super complex flow sheet and there are so many options. You need really big computing power to help work out what the best scenarios are and link to the markets.”

With automation and robotics, the workforce for mining is changing, said Grimbeek, and it’s important to have a diversity of people at all levels, including leadership.

Incorporating digital technology is essential, as it allows for more efficient, real-time planning, but so is engaging the workforce in decision-making, he said.

“A lot of people think digital and technology is about the gadgets and the programs,” he said. “It’s actually not. It’s everything to do with people. What we have to do is put people in the right spots so they can use data effectively.”

Grimbeek said he sees Sudbury in five years becoming “a place where people can come to learn mining in a digital world,” although to get there requires a change in approach.

The mining industry “is very well-known for being an ego system — very hard to break into, very siloed, very opinionated,” he said. “What we need is an ecosystem — and that means totally different relationships between mining companies, suppliers, governments, workers, management. All that needs to shift, because the old systems aren’t going to work.”

For those who argue “mining is so physical it will never be impacted by digital, or in any case not in the next couple of years,” Grimbeek points to the experience of other sectors.

“I think the taxi industry also thought that before Uber,” he said. “The same with hotels and Airbnb.”

Aerial view of Vale operations in Copper Cliff on June 22, 2018. John Lappa/Sudbury Star file photo

 

Change is already happening in mining, he said, but Sudbury has a great opportunity to not only keep pace, but be a global leader in the new world of mineral extraction.

He pointed to a recent deal between Vale and Glencore to co-develop an ore body as one example of “stepping beyond the same old, same old.”

Sudbury can draw on excellent academic institutions and research organizations, as well as a vibrant supply sector, he said, while its mineral resources are unparalleled.

“We have the best ore body in the world,” he said. “And we have a community that supports mining. We have everything here. What we need is to create a clear vision that we want to be the digital hub for underground mining in the world.”

He said that will take effort and collaboration, but five years from now he envisions people “coming to Sudbury to learn, and also sending people from here to take the knowledge we’ve built up and work in other parts of the world.”

jmoodie@sunmedia.ca