Canadian base metals producer First Quantum Minerals’ (FQM’s) $2.1billion Sentinel mine, in Zambia’s North-Western province, is described by the Zambian (ZCM) as the country’s mining industry’s “most ambitious venture ever” and the single-largest upfront infrastructure investment in Zambia since the Kariba dam.
It is a blueprint for the future of mining in Zambia by virtue of its technological sophistication, as it has proven that mining a low-grade copper deposit can be economically viable, ZCM outlines.
“The Sentinel mine puts Zambia at the forefront of global mining technology,” says FQM commercial manager John Dean.
He explains that it sets new standards in efficiency, productivity and training, and is a benchmark for future copper mining ventures in Zambia.
The low-grade, openpit Sentinel mine, which started operating in September 2015, is often referred to as the Kalumbila mine, primarily because of the town it gave birth to – Kalumbila.
The mine is currently producing around 150 000 t/y of copper and is expected to reach full production of up to 300 000 t of both concentrate and plated copper in 2017.
Sentinel’s ore contains only 0.51% copper, yet the mine is anticipated to produce a long-term return on investment, as it has been designed from scratch, carries no legacy issues and uses sophisticated technology.
Big drill rigs allow explosives to be placed at greater depths, trucks are “gigantic” and carry heavier loads, explains Dean.
The mine’s steel-ball mills are considered the world’s largest, grinding large quantities of ore, while the conveyor belts carry more material further. In addition, the mine’s semimobile rope shovels scoop out 120 t of ore at a time from the pit and can fill a 250 t truck in less than a minute.
The operation runs 24/7. “The openpit resembles a massive amphitheatre where people, machinery and payloads move in a seamless, nonstop dance,” comments Dean.
He explains that it is all about speed, efficiency and economies of scale. “The mine would not be viable without this level of technology.”
The technology is expensive and requires proper training for effective, safe operation. For example, the drivers of the heavy haul trucks learn their craft in simulators that use virtual reality to replicate real-world conditions. In one simulator session, for instance, drivers learn to drive in heavy rain and muddy terrain.
As the rain beats down on the windscreen and the truck struggles up a hill, the system records the driver’s movements, offers advice through screen prompts and records the driver’s score.
The rest of the team is able to watch the session in real time on a bank of computer screens from a room adjacent to the simulator.
All drivers have to do recurrency training every two years. A refresher course is also needed if they have been away from work for more than one month and when their daily driving reports show too many errors.
“Sentinel is not just about sophisticated technology. It’s also about operations, maintenance, working practices, employee productivity and having access to affordable and reliable energy,” notes Dean.
Despite having built nearly 600 km of power lines, energy remains an emotive issue at the Sentinel mine. It has yet to be fully connected to the national grid by Zambia’s State-owned power company Zesco. The mine is currently running on a reduced energy supply and needs about 30% more energy to operate at full capacity – especially as most of its sophisticated machinery and equipment uses electric power rather than diesel fuel.
Nevertheless, even at current production levels, Sentinel’s contribution to national output confirms the North-Western province’s reputation as Zambia’s largest copper-producing region. Its three mines – Sentinel, FQM’s Kansanshi and Toronto, Canada-headquartered mining company Barrick Gold’s Lumwana – together produce nearly 500 000 t/y of copper, which is about 70% of Zambia’s yearly production of 711 000 t.
Sentinel’s development took five years, with thousands of contractors employed. More than 265 000 t of equipment was transported to the site in 14 500 truckloads.
There was no existing power grid, and the more than 600 km of power lines it erected, run halfway across Zambia to the west of the capital Lusaka.
About 7 000 ha of woodland had to be cleared. However, instead of burning the timber, FQM used it to build a sawmill at which 120 people are employed. The wood is used to make fence poles, furniture and other products and, eventually, timber will be exported.
The Sentinel project consumed prodigious quantities of cement, fuel and food, launched both large and small local businesses, created employment and kick-started an entire local economy.
The town of Kalumbila has more than 5 000 inhabitants, boasts the country’s second-longest airstrip and has a bold plan to become a thriving, diversified economy by the time Sentinel reaches the end of its commercial life in 25 years.
“Fifteen years ago, there was no mining industry to speak of in North-Western province. “Today, several billion dollars of investment later, that has changed completely. The province has become the new Copperbelt. Sentinel is the most recent example of that shift,” Dean concludes.