Right direction

Technology is changing mining in ways that benefit both safety and productivity

Right direction

The hunt in mining is not only for new deposits but technologies that can access them quickly and cheaply as well as extend the lives of existing operations. For SA’s gold and platinum group metals miners, the challenge of keeping production levels steady beyond a decade is a pressing one, with forecasts of a dramatic decline in future output.

While SA’s fading gold industry may not be revived to any great extent, there are vast tracts of unmined gold resources left behind in pillars and geological formations that technology could unlock. The traditional drill and blast technology has arguably reached the end of its usefulness as grade dwindles and SA mines push deeper to follow ancient shorelines and river deltas. Drilling and blasting puts stresses and forces into the surrounding rock, raising the level of risk in already seismically active areas. People simply should not be hurt in extracting minerals and, for this reason, this old technology must fall away.

The quest is for a mechanised way to extract ore bodies. AngloGold Ashanti for years trialled a method of drilling out tubes of ore and pumping in tough concrete to maintain the ore body’s integrity. Since AngloGold has sold all but one of its SA mines, that work has stopped. At the Mandela Mining Precinct, meanwhile, the CSIR has teamed up with the government and the Minerals Council South Africa to find safer, more productive and cheaper ways to mine.

One company that has machines at work in test phase is JSE-listed Master Drilling. It is pushing technology hard to move away from time-consuming and dangerous drill and blast development. It is trialling a flexible mobile tunnel boring machine to work at Northam Platinum’s newly acquired Eland mine near Brits. The machine will expedite horizontal development, opening access to ore bodies much faster.

Master Drilling CEO Danie Pretorius says that stepping into an underground SA mine is akin to stepping back 100 years, in that very little has changed in the way people work. It’s a salient observation from an industry veteran.

Master Drilling’s work entails accessing ore bodies as quickly as possible with as few people as it can in the safest way. Northam has a big mining project outside Eland where a successful horizontal boring machine would be perfect. The Booysendal deposit is shallow and Northam is using the most modern mechanised methods to mine it as efficiently as possible. The machine would open the ore body to the south, adding attack points and setting up a large mining operation quickly. Other miners are watching the tests carefully.

Master Drilling is lucky to find a miner willing to test new technology. Miners are generally conservative, favouring the tried-and-tested over the new. As industry players put it, everyone wants to be the first one to be second, rushing into a useful technology once it has been proved to work by someone else.

Anglo American is rolling out technological solutions to address mounting social opposition to environmental degradation and the use of scarce resources by mining companies. The work ranges from using less water; building safer tailings dumps; cutting electricity use from national grids; and reducing the mining footprint to an absolute minimum.

As Patricio Chacana, GM of Anglo’s Los Bronces mine, says: ‘People don’t want to see a mine. That’s the challenge. How do we make a mine that’s invisible?’ In a world of greater climate-change awareness and growing difficulties in finding large, new mineral deposits that are economically feasible to mine, miners are launching smart new ways to operate. Some efforts will fail, but the trajectory is headed in the right direction and, in the next century, mining will be unrecognisable.

By Allan Seccombe