Minerals Council South Africa has reasserted the need to modernise deep-level mining technologies as part of its people-centred modernisation drive to extend the life of deep-level mines and, subsequently, ensure that the workforce is maintained.
The South African mining sector has, for more than 100 years, been considered a labour- intensive industry using physically demanding manual drilling methods, according to the Minerals Council’s 2018 fact sheet, titled Modernisation: Towards the Mine of Tomorrow.
Modernising the local mining industry involves turning to account South Africa’s mineral resources in the safest, most efficient, cost-effective and sustainable manner possible. The Minerals Council also states that people are at the heart of the industry, which must focus on improving employee skills, health, quality of life and fulfilment.
Additionally, contributing to the development of local and labour-sending communities, as well as transformation and growth, are key imperatives of the mining industry and nation, notes the Minerals Council.
The conservation of natural resources, preservation and restoration of the environment, as well as recognising that metals and minerals are valuable, useful and necessary, is needed in the modernisation of mines.
The South African deep-level mining sector is a tough environment, which runs on a continuous stop-start basis, predominantly in narrow-reef, hard-rock mining for gold, platinum and chrome.
Working conditions are generally characterised by abrasive rock, steep gradients, seismicity and, with increasing depth, rising temperatures.
Further, travel times to the face of most deep-level, underground ageing mines can reach an hour or more. Consequently, with increasing depth and distance from the shaft, actual drill time at the workface has contracted, accounting for greater health and safety challenges, shrinking production and, subsequently, burgeoning costs.
Modernisation will help to improve safety and health, facilitating the quest for zero harm. It will also contribute to increased skills development, employment, exports and revenue, not to mention the knock-on effect on local communities. Ultimately, without a shift in mining methodology, the industry will fail to mine South Africa’s deep-level complex orebodies profitably, the Minerals Council suggests.
This could result in the sterilisation of resources, accelerated and premature mine closures and job losses. Research suggests 200 000 job losses by 2025 could affect two-million people indirectly.
The Minerals Council has created a new senior executive position to champion modernisation throughout the organisation, with an innovation team, consisting of senior company representatives, having been established to steer the Minerals Council’s efforts.
The Minerals Council has also conducted extensive research into mine modernisation, and developed a strategic framework for modernisation to indicate how the mining sector could achieve its objectives while contributing to National Development Plan objectives of higher growth, employment, exports and government revenue.
While a number of individual products have been developed by mining companies and manufacturers, the Minerals Council suggests that an integrated suite of locally manufactured products with real-time monitoring and control is needed.
The industry has set a milestone for the implementation of a cyclical drill-and-blast suite of equipment that mechanises all activities in the stoping and development cycle, including remotely operated equipment. Key research areas have been identified as critical to the development of research and development needs in the mining industry.
Minerals Council South Africa notes that work done to date indicates that such modernisation significantly extends mine life, preserves mining employment, improves safety and health, and allows for the mining of lower-grade orebodies and deeper resources. This also creates an environment conducive to 24/7 operations until 2045 and beyond in the gold sector.
With new equipment, which allows for the conventional drill, blast and clean cycle, employees skilled in the use of remotely controlled equipment can fulfil the tasks 24/7 from safe, healthy sites.
While all mines are different, it is possible to predict the effect that this might have on a mine with a low-grade gold ore resource totalling 400-million tons, which is amenable to profitable extraction using mechanised techniques. In addition, there is about 160-million tons of high-grade ore locked in underground support pillars, accessible from current infrastructure. At least double could be mined below current infrastructure using appropriate technologies.
A low-grade mine with a current conventionally mined life expectancy of some four years using semi-mechanised methods could extend operations to 15 years and, with full mechanisation and 24/7 operations, to as many as 25 years.
If modernisation and the manufacture of high-technology, robust and specialised mining equipment are to be achieved, an ad hoc approach is not feasible. The industry, manufacturers, researchers and developers will need to collaborate fully, sharing their knowledge and skills for the common good.