Tuesday, September 20, 2011

4000 metres deep and counting.

A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Colin Farrelly and I travelled to Johannesburg in South Africa to participate in a "Technology Innovation Consortium" with AngloGold Ashanti - http://www.aga-tic.com/agatic/.

The idea of this group of invited participants is to redesign the mining process, from the ground down (if you like). We have a marvellous time brainstorming solutions to really hairy problems The fundamental issue facing AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) is that at depths of greater than 4000 metres the working environment and the logistics and energy requirements to operate become very difficult indeed. Col and I went to the bottom of the mine, 4000 metres below the surface and I have to say the trip was an eye-opener. I've been to a few underground mines before, and they pretty much look the same once you are below the surface, but this one is a doosy. Just the thought of all that rock above you makes you take a pause for reflection.

For a start the temperature of the rock down there is 65C (160F), and at 5000 meters, where the company hopes to be able to mine in the future, the rock temperature is 85C (200F). In the presence of up to 100% humidity, people cannot work at these temperatures. Enormous amounts of energy are spent on making the environment livable for the workers, and at greater depths, even more energy will be needed if current methods are continued.

In addition, the logistic challenges at these depths are enormous. Large amounts of water are pumped from the top to the bottom of the mine, and even more is pumped out (groundwater leaks in). Thousands of tonnes of ore are lifted out of the mine every day. On my visit it took me nearly 2 hours to get to the working face, and the same to return. Its like that for every miner as well so of their 9 hour shift, 4 hours is spend travelling underground.

AGA have decided that they will not be able to mine at greater depth safely (only a week after we were there there was a fatality in the mine) nor will they be able to use current methods economically. This consortium is a real expression of their desire to change with new ways of mining, automation, innovative use of energy etc. Its pretty exciting and all of this innovation will fundamentally depend on robust, reliable, and safe IT and communications systems.

Have a look at the website to get more of an insight into where the mining industry is going in the future.
Mponeng underground
Mining underground in Mponeng Mine, South Africa

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