The possibility of an upturn in commodity prices and news of cost-saving innovations for mines as they struggle to remain profitable were the highlights of the yearly BME Drilling and Blasting Conference, held in Pretoria last month.
Mining production volumes have shown signs of stabilising this year – particularly in the platinum and iron-ore sectors – according to economist Dr Roelof Botha. He added that, during the first quarter, demand for gold reached its second-highest quarterly level in history. “What is good for gold is, as a rule, good for the South African economy.”
Reflecting on activity in the exploration sector, BME MD Joe Keenan pointed out that there were signs that confidence was returning to commodities, and it was unlikely that prices would worsen beyond current levels. However, he suggested that a global economic recovery might still be a couple of years away.
Notwithstanding the cyclical difficulties, Keenan noted that BME – part of the JSE-listed Omnia group – was still forging ahead in terms of cost-saving innovations and opening up new markets. “BME has become very much an international company, operating in more than 23 countries, while pursuing business opportunities in large markets like the US and Canada.”
BME’s first delivery of Axxis products to Colombia, and a contract for an expanding rail system in Singapore, materialised in 2016, he added.
The conference focused on technological innovations in blasting that could reduce costs in mining in the short term, while improving safety levels and productivity. A key advance was using emulsions in underground mining – BME, in partnership with gold mining company Gold One’s Modder East operation, in Springs, Gauteng, had implemented the world’s deepest emulsion long-drop pipeline and developed the infrastructure to use emulsion explosives in the narrow- reef environment.
Modder East explosives and technical manager James McArdle told delegates that the system at Modder East was the result of three years’ “hard work”, thereby achieving something “never done before”.
Prior to the new long-drop system, the mine had been using underground trucks to transport emulsion explosives in development operations. The rapid reloading emulsion system extends from the surface to 318 m underground, with the emulsion being pumped into storage tanks.
Addressing the risk of lightning to mines’ blasting activities, BME technical director Tony Rorke pointed out that lightning strikes posed significant dangers to South Africa’s opencast mines.
He highlighted the potential of especially positive cloud-to-ground strikes to induce the unplanned detonation of explosives, and outlined the advances made in the second-generation Axxis GII electronic detonation system to mitigate the risk of lightning-induced initiation of explosives.
The cellphone was another focus of innovation at the conference, with BME senior software developer Nicky Klacar illustrating the power of mobile applications in drilling and blasting.
“Tablets and phones can help monitor aspects of operations – even underground – and improve efficiencies [by making it possible to know] how well plans were turned into action,” she said, adding that even a simple photograph of a drilled round on a stope face – taken with a tablet underground – could provide valuable data to be measured and analysed as part of continuous improvement practices.
Klacar explained that BME’s Blastlog Reporter mobile application was a suitable solution through which mine-related data could be stored and presented to the explosives operator without a deluge of unnecessary information.
“For an operation to run optimally, staff need to be aware of anything exceptional that is taking place,” she said.
The BME conference, held yearly for the past 24 years, attracted more than 450 delegates from 15 countries, including Poland, Singapore, Australia, Canada, the US, the Czech Republic, Zambia and Botswana.