Fossil fuel businesses have long been criticized for their environmental impact and are seeking to adapt in a world where sustainability policies are an increasingly urgent priority for governments around the world, as can be seen from the more than 35,000 people who attended the 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. However, it's important to remember that these industries are also essential to our way of life. They still provide much of the energy that powers our homes and businesses, and they play a vital role in many aspects of the economy. As such, it's important to find ways to make fossil fuel production more environmentally friendly — and safe — while pursuing the transition to other forms of energy.
One potential way to do this is through the use of 5G and AI technologies. And while there are many good ideas, practical applications are important if real progress is to be made. Huawei's new MineHarmony OS represents an example of how ideas are being quickly turned into reality to make coal mining safer and more environmentally friendly.
Coal has been used as an energy source since the early days of human civilization with the first recorded use of coal dating back to the first century AD, when the Chinese used it to smelt bronze. By the 13th century, coal was being mined in England and used to fire furnaces for glass-making and iron production. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries saw a dramatic increase in the use of coal, as it became the main fuel for powering factories, steamships and trains. Today, coal is still an important energy source for several reasons. First, it is abundant and relatively easy to extract. It is also cheap, which makes it a viable option for countries with limited resources. With growing geopolitical uncertainty, domestic supplies of coal help contribute to energy security. Additionally, coal can be used in a variety of ways. It can be burned to generate heat or electricity, or it can be converted into gaseous or liquid fuels. Moreover, coal mining is an important source of employment. So, balancing employment security with the global transition to a new energy mix is another issue that must be considered. Addressing the related safety and environmental issues is important for countries around the world.
While the use of coal has grown dramatically, what has not changed over the centuries is that coal mining has remained a dangerous and dirty job. But, with the advent of 5G and AI technology, that is now changing, and some of the most noteworthy developments in making coal mining safer and more environmentally friendly are happening today in China — a country that mined 4.01 billion metric tons of coal in 2021 with 207.9 billion tons of proven reserves, according to China's Ministry of Natural Resources.
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about the potential of 5G and AI technology to transform various industries. In the mining sector, these technologies are seen as a way to improve safety and efficiency. For example, because 5G offers high speeds and low latency, it can be used to transmit data from sensors in real time. This information can be used to detect things like gas leaks or structural issues before they become dangerous. AI can also be used to analyze data and identify patterns that could indicate problems if left unchecked. In addition, these technologies can be used to track the location of workers and automatically route them around hazards. By using 5G and AI technology, coal miners can work more safely and efficiently, reducing the risks of accidents and injuries.
Huawei Mine OS is a real-world example of how 5G and AI can be integrated to make coal mining safer and greener. 5G allows a wide variety of equipment to be connected in real-time through unified standards, frameworks and data specifications while AI ensures that better decisions are made. Jointly developed by Huawei and China Energy Investment Corp, this system has been deployed on 3,300 sets of equipment in 13 mines and one coal washery throughout the entire Wulanmulun mine in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region.
While Huawei has gained the most attention in applying 5G and AI technologies to traditional industries such as coal mining, it is not alone. China's No 2 telecom gear maker — ZTE Corp — has launched a comparable effort in partnership with State-owned China Baowu Steel Group Corp to deploy 5G-enabled autonomous mining trucks at an open-pit iron ore mine in Anhui province. Meanwhile, Alibaba is working with Shaanxi Coal and Chemical Industry Group to provide cloud computing, big data, AI and blockchain technologies in order to enhance enterprise management, online operations and international business development. All of these initiatives represent efforts to realize President Xi Jinping's call for "New Infrastructure" to bolster the country's economy under the country's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25).
As the world looks ahead after COP27, China's contributions in advancing both global energy security and sustainability will grow. Despite misgivings in some circles, fossil fuels still have a role to play with both opportunities to be seized and challenges to be overcome and an integrated system incorporating 5G and AI technologies can play a positive role. Ge Shirong, president of the China University of Mining and Technology-Beijing, and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said: "The industry needs an operating system enabling ubiquitous interconnectivity for coal mines. Intelligent coal mining has been promoted rapidly in China. Digital technology is key to helping coal mines achieve this goal but still has a long way to go."
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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization where he focuses on technology and its impact on great power relations.