The Sudbury Star is the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.
In an office trailer parked outside a mine shaft in a Copper Cliff Mine, operator Carolyn St-Jean leans back in her chair and monitors a machine loading nickel-rich ore into rail cars deep underground.
Once filled, the automated train will snake through a series of narrow tunnels, emerge from a rocky outcropping, then loop past St-Jean’s window and dump its payload for sorting.
Vale SA, the Brazilian company that owns the mine near this nickel-rich area, has spent nearly $50 million in two years to install and test the “ra i lveyor.” The company believes the transport system will revolutionize how it builds and extracts new mineral deposits.
The equipment is made locally by Rail-Veyor Technologies Global Inc. It is one of many mining technologies developers hope will allow future production to be run almost entirely by people safely above ground.
Such advances may prove crucial as easy-to-exploit deposits run dry and miners drill deeper in more remote places to supply China, India and other emerging economies. The technology could make mining cheaper and safer, avoiding the need to dig wide tunnels and hire large numbers of expensive, skilled workers.
“As we go deeper, if we continue to apply existing thinking and existing technologies, it’s a death spiral” for company profits, said Alex Henderson, who heads Vale’s technology team in Sudbury.
“We need to begin to look at a step-change in mining rather than just incrementally improving our existing processes.”
The rail-veyor is one such step-change. At the test site, it has halved the time to build a mine, and Vale expects a 150% boost in production rates before year end.
In Australia, Rio Tinto Ltd., one of the world’s largest miners and an automation pioneer, is rolling out a fleet of self-driving trucks and trains at its iron ore operations. Vale, BHP Billiton and Chile’s Codelco are in hot pursuit.
Gold miner AngloGold Ashanti is eyeing automation in South Africa, where miners spend hours each shift traveling up and down shafts and ounces of gold are left behind in support pillars each year.
Organized labour has made its peace with the automation drive, although there were some concerns that robots would displace humans.
“We’re OK with automation, it’s part of the changing times and it’s a good thing for p r o d u c t i v i t y ,” said Myles Sullivan of the United Steelworkers Canada, whose workers ended a year-long strike at Vale over bonuses and wages in 2010.
New challenges in mining are driving technological changes. Large, accessible deposits have all but disappeared. Resources of tomorrow are in far-flung corners of the globe or hundreds of meters beneath the surface.
Add a shortage of skilled labour — expected to worsen as the baby-boom generation retires — and mining costs have surged.
While soaring demand means higher metal prices, rising costs are crimping profits. Canada’s S&P/TSX Mining share index has fallen more than 38% since the beginning of 2011.
Experts say mining companies must change how they operate.
Making that shift is not easy for an industry steeped in tradition, especially when change doesn’t come cheap. Rio Tinto is spending more than $500 million on train automation alone.
“This is a very conservative industry that has been very productive over the last 30 years doing it the way they’re doing it now,” said Douglas Morrison, chief executive of the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI), an industry-funded research center in Sudbury.
“But is the old way going to work for us into the future? I think probably not, so we need to make some changes.”
After decades of production, the nickel mines around Sudbury are getting deeper and deeper. At Vale’s Creighton mine, the No. 8 shaft drops nearly 8,000 feet into the ground — equivalent of a 700-story condo tower.
At that depth it is very hot, around 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit), so tunnels must be pumped full of cooled air to make temperatures manageable for people and heavy machinery.
“The bigger issue is when we get much deeper we start to generate our own earthquakes — very small earthquakes — these are called ‘rock bursts,'” said Morrison.
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