Rio Tinto ramps up automation efforts
Rio Tinto is working on ways of improving rates of ore recovery from mature and complex deposits. The giant miner will also spend US$518m on driverless trains and initiate a second tunnel boring trial.
A jumbo tunnelling at Northparkes mine.
As part of its mineral recovery programme, Rio Tinto is taking a cue from non-mining industries by forging a new partnership with TOMRA, a leading global supplier of automated sensor-based systems used in recycling and food processing.
The partnership with the Norwegian company is aimed at developing commercial-scale systems for separating minerals from rock waste. This work will include scaling up Rio Tinto’s iron ore and copper sorting technologies, which extract saleable ore from waste rock, to sort up to 1,000 tonnes of rock an hour.
Rio Tinto is also partnering with UK-based e2V to develop machines to improve the efficiency of mineral recovery from previously discarded ore. The machinery uses large-scale microwave and radio frequency generators.
The partnership will enable Rio Tinto to scale up its mineral recovery technologies such as Copper NuWave, which is expected to be trialled later this year at Kennecott Utah Copper in the United States.
Rio Tinto head of innovation, John McGagh said “We are developing machines that use digital and sensing technologies to detect and separate the mineral from rock waste so that we can improve rates of recovery from what is currently being treated as waste rock. This technology has the capability of being a potential game-changer in the mining industry.”
In underground mining, Rio Tinto is expanding trials of new shaft and tunnel boring systems, aimed at significantly reducing the time taken to excavate underground.
Rio is working in partnership with Atlas Copco on a second tunnel boring trial, which will start in 2013 at Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC) mine in Salt Lake City.
The Atlas Copco Tunnel Boring System at KUC is expected to allow Rio Tinto to tunnel more than 10 metres a day, nearly twice the rate of conventional methods.
The first tunnel boring trial, run in partnership with Aker Wirth, will begin this year at the Northparkes copper and gold mine in New South Wales. Locations are currently being considered for a shaft boring system trial.
McGagh said “More mining is moving underground as deeper ore bodies are identified and open pits come to the end of their lives. Constructing underground mines can be technically challenging, expensive and a slow process. These trials mean we can test the technology to allow us to mine deeper and more safely, with the potential benefits of greater efficiency and speed of underground mine construction which would increase the value of the projects.”
In other news this week, Rio is to invest US$518m in driverless trains, with the company set to run the world’s first automated long-distance heavy-haul rail network, commencing in 2014.
AutoHaul, Rio’s automated train programme, is scheduled for completion in 2015, a year after the first train appears. AutoHaul is part of the automation component of Rio’s Mine of the Future initiative that also includes driverless trucks and autonomous drills.
On its 1,500-kilometre rail network, Rio Tinto currently runs 41 trains from mines to ports, comprising 148 locomotives and 9,400 iron ore cars.
The company says that automating train operations allows it to expand Pilbara production capacity without needing to make a substantial investment in additional trains.
It will also allow greater flexibility in train scheduling and the removal of driver changeover times, creating extra capacity in the rail network