Times of crisis and chaos necessitate introspection, creativity and adaptation, and while the Covid-19 pandemic is a challenge that is unprecedented in recent human memory, it highlights how essential continual research, innovation and planning are for the sustainability of society.
Challenging periods also tend to reveal or reaffirm people’s raison d’être, and for public– private mining industry collaboration, the Mandela Mining Precinct, its objective of advancing the industry through targeted research and development (R&D) to improve productivity and, importantly, mine health and safety, seems increasingly relevant.
Born from the 2015 Mining Phakisa, and officially launched in 2018, the Mandela Mining Precinct seeks to ensure the long-term sustainability and efficacy of South African mining.
University of Pretoria (UP) mining engineering head Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman explains that, prior to its establishment, mining research in South Africa had been neglected, and thus the very creation of the precinct “should be applauded”.
Mandela Mining Precinct co-director Navin Singh notes the enormity of the task facing the precinct but adds: “At the outset, we stated that R&D is a long-term journey. There are certain targets that we set, such as achieving modernised stopes in which we operate safer . . . we reduce costs and increase efficiencies.
“Over the last three years, we have completed 91 projects that focus on, among others, digitalising the mining industry, modernisation and people.”
Singh notes that, despite the long-term focus, there have been some short-term gains. “Initially, the [bulk] of the work was in the form of baselines; this was necessitated by the erosion in R&D capabilities in the country.”
In 2017, UP’s Mining Resilience Research Centre (MRRC) became involved in the South African Mining Extraction Research, Development and Innovation (Samerdi) programme under the auspices of what would become the Mandela Mining Precinct.
Samerdi, jointly funded by Department of Science and Innovation and Minerals Council South Africa, is a collaborative initiative that facilitates research between science councils, academia and industry.
MRRC director Professor Francois Malan explains: “The key initiative to which the MRRC contributes is a project on mechanised drill and blast (MDB), involving aspects ranging from new mining layouts and methods, equipment selection and optimisation of metallurgical plants. This work is still ongoing.”
He says that the Achilles heel of the deeper South African gold, platinum and chrome mines is the nature of the thin tabular orebody, which dips at a small angle. This means that the ‘massive’ mechanised mining methods used in many other countries are not an option.
“A key initiative of Samerdi is to conduct research on innovative methods to mechanise these operations. Part of this work is to look at the beneficiation of the mined ore and whether the metallurgical plants can be moved underground to save on costs.”
Webber-Youngman adds that the MDB project advances the large-scale implementation of mechanised equipment suitable for confined spaces and is, therefore, of considerable importance to the mining industry.
Malan cites a study into the use of electric- vehicle fleets. “Currently, large fleets of diesel machines are not thermally efficient and produce a large amount of heat that has to be removed by the mine ventilation system. Further, diesel particulate matter found in the exhaust emissions of these vehicles has been declared a carcinogen by the World Health Organisation.”
He says the development of better battery chemistries, such as the lithium-ion battery cell, has enabled the use of battery technology in applications previously reserved for diesel engines. These technologies also offer lower running costs, as electrical motors have “fewer moving parts”, compared with diesel engines.
“The MDB study analysed a shallow, hard-rock, bord-and-pillar mine that employs a large fleet of medium-sized – 149 kW, 6 t-carrying-capacity – load haul dump (LHD) machines to load and haul material from the stope face to the conveyor tips. The objective was to determine whether it would make sense to replace the existing fleet of diesel LHDs with battery-powered LHDs.”
Malan notes that the results indicated that a large reduction in air flow for ventilation purposes would be possible, and that the operating cost could potentially be reduced by up to 15%. Moreover, emission levels were expected to decline by a factor of 4 after implementation of the battery LHDs.
“This preliminary study indicated that the health benefits of battery equipment in an underground mine present a compelling case for implementing the new technology,” adds Malan.
The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Mine Health and Safety Working Group chairperson Professor Raymond Durrheim tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly that the group was initiated to promote cross-faculty collaboration in mining-related research. Its members represent several entities in the Wits community that are engaged with the mining sector in the broadest sense.
Currently, the institution’s main link to the Mandela Mining Precinct is through several projects conducted under the auspices of Samerdi. “I am involved in projects related to the nonexplosive rock breaking and advanced orebody knowledge themes,” Durrheim states.
Singh, meanwhile, cites the Isidingo Drill Challenge, which was aimed at creating a drill that was lighter, faster, easier to set up, quieter and developed by South African original-equipment manufacturers (OEMS).
He explains that the new drill enables an operator to set up and operate the machine faster, which reduces the time exposed to an area of high risk in the stope face. It is quieter, so the risk of noise-induced hearing loss is reduced, and it is lighter, which translates into less strain on the operator.
Mining Equipment Manufacturers of South Africa (MEMSA) CEO and programme manager Ossie Carstens adds that the challenge links well with the precinct’s Successful Application of Technologies Centred Around People programme.
Singh adds: “This is a strong link to the whole modernisation drive that we have here. We are not changing the nature of work – we are improving the manner in which work will be done.”
Further, the precinct demonstrated the capabilities of two OEMs and is now progressing to the next phase, which comprises underground testing in a mining environment to demonstrate the drill’s true capabilities, and a subsequent demonstration to mining companies.
There is also the Technology Availability Readiness Atlas (Tara), notes Carstens.
“The intent was always to provide an inexpensive platform for local manufacturers to display their goods, and provide an easy search platform for the industry’s procurement players looking for locally produced goods,” says Carstens.
Tara was developed during the course of last year, when the first beta version was launched. Carstens notes that some MEMSA members were asked to populate it, and that test results and outcomes were recorded, with the intention of progressing to a full roll-out this year.
He adds that MEMSA is also part of a task team set up by the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition to define the battery limits of the local content setup, and, as such, participates in several localisation programmes.
An important point to consider, Malan states, is that many of the older gold mines are “deep and dangerous” and many face closure in the near future.
“Mechanisation may save jobs, as it will extend the lives of these mines. For example, many remnants and pillars are currently considered too dangerous to mine and are left behind. If suitable remote-controlled equipment can be developed to enable the operators to work away from the working face, these blocks may be safely extracted. This is another key objective of the MRRC’s research.”
Singh adds that the concept that mechanisation can save jobs must also be conveyed more widely and more frequently. “Very often, when we talk about modernisation, people think that it’s about job replacement through mechanisation.”
He also points to the Isidingo Challenge as an example of how modernisation works for the betterment of the mining industry without necessarily displacing jobs. “In fact, it actually creates more jobs because we are now involving local manufacturers.”
Singh adds that Phase 3 of the Isidingo Challenge – that is, the testing and live demonstration aspect – has not yet started, but that the precinct is finalising preparations.
Carstens reiterates the importance of Tara and its continued development, as it also demonstrates the development and inclusion of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies as directed and steered by the precinct’s Real Time Information Management Systems programme.
He also notes that MEMSA, through its proximity to developments within the precinct, and as part of the Samerdi steering committee, will ensure that local manufacturers are afforded “a first bite at the cherry” in terms of technology development.
“The medium-term goal for MEMSA is to understand the upstream and downstream supply and value chains so that members can exploit the opportunities underpinning these chains. Further, MEMSA needs to understand the capacity of its members to further understand and capitalise on the opportunity created by Mining Charter III in terms of local manufacturing and new, possible synergies.”
MEMSA has several planned programmes for 2020, with the overarching aim being to increase its value offering for current and future members. “[However], the most exciting part is probably the commissioning of the Mandela Mining Precinct Test Mine.”
Carstens notes that MEMSA members will have access to the test mine to test new technologies in an environment that is safe from industrial espionage, while demonstrating capabilities in a real-world situation, without production pressures.
The organisation will also refine its value proposition through clearly articulated communication across all media platforms. “Our government has several good incentives and grants to assist local manufacturers – from proof of concept through to commercial stages. The challenge is for members to access these incentives, and it is MEMSA’s intent to develop simple tools for access.”
Meanwhile, Durrheim says he hopes that Wits’ link to the precinct will become more prominent in future, as it is “vital” for students to engage in relevant research work, gain practical industry experience and develop scientific and professional networks. He adds that there is great potential for further synergy between the precinct and Wits.
He avers that Wits is constantly pursuing partnerships with local and international mining companies through the ongoing Wits Future of Mining initiative, linked to the Wits 100 Centenary Campaign, which will kick off in 2022.
The themes will range from mineral exploration and improving the efficiency and safety of the mining process to mine closure.
Notably, the initiative also seeks to tackle other crucial factors such as mitigating the impact of Covid-19 on the mining industry, in which the Wits Mine Health and Safety Working Group is heavily engaged.
Carstens says that the Covid-19 pandemic will change the global landscape forever. “Some mines might not survive the pandemic, but others will blossom, depending on how they address the challenges presented. Our unbalanced reliance on imported goods will change, as we will be forced to look inward and become more self-sustaining.”
He concludes: “It is in times like these that we need institutions like the precinct, where new and modern thinking is nurtured.”
To reinterpret a Lewis Carrol classic: the world cannot go back to yesterday; it was a different place then.