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THE DRIFT 2020: Rollercoaster for ore moving rock around the globe

Success has been long time coming for Sudbury’s Rail-Veyor Technologies

As modernization efforts continue to push the mining industry into the future, a raft of new buzzwords is circulating. Electrification, automation, sustainability – they all signify endeavours by the industry to become leaner, safer, greener, and more profitable.

But that’s all old news for Rail-Veyor Technologies.

“Everybody else is trying to convert to (electrified, automated, sustainable), but the Rail-Veyor was built that way from the get-go,” said Jim Fisk, executive chairman of the Sudbury-headquartered materials-handling company.

A light rail hauling solution, the Rail-Veyor is comprised of a series of connected, open-topped rail cars that carry ore along a track. Propelled by an electrified drive network, the remote-controlled system can climb a grade of up to 22 per cent, and it works in both surface and underground applications.

Think a rollercoaster for ore.

“We’ve taken a whole different bent, a whole different transportation solution,” Fisk said. “It’s not a conveyor and it’s not a truck.”

It’s energy-efficient, produces no diesel emissions, boosts productivity, and increases safety by removing workers from its operation.

Rail-Veyor didn’t invent the concept; that credit goes to a French railroad company, which first introduced the technology in the 1960s, but later abandoned the idea.

It was picked up again decades later by American inventors Mike Dibble and Joe Capers, who secured a sole South African client before selling the distribution rights to Sudbury entrepreneur Risto Laamanen in 2006.

A civil engineering technologist with years of industry experience, Laamanen saw potential in the technology, and by 2010 a demonstration rail system was being constructed on the site of Vale’s Frood Stobie Mine in Lively just outside of Sudbury.

Laamanen didn’t get to see his company reach that milestone, as he died in 2009. But his family remained involved in operations, and it was a family member who recruited Fisk to a board position a year later.

“When he took me to the test site, I was doing energy calculations as we were driving around, and the more I did the calculations the more I was convinced I had it wrong,” chuckled Fisk, who still does a lot of the engineering on the Rail-Veyor.

“I did the calculations three times, and I had the same answer all three times, and went, ‘Oh my god; this is unbelievable,’ and that was the hook. Since then, I’ve been involved at every level.”

The Sudbury headquarters is now supported by a tech centre in Michigan, where a team of engineers and project managers continuously work on improving the Rail-Veyor’s design.

After years of research and development, the Rail-Veyor finally became commercially viable around 2015.

Each system is unique, Fisk said, as each is fully customizable to a client’s purpose.

Rail-Veyor installed its first full-scale system at Agnico Eagle’s Goldex Mine in Val d’Or, Que., in 2017.

The three-kilometre-long track begins at the gold mine’s 1,250-metre level below surface and ends at the 730-metre level. It’s used to carry ore to a crusher before being carried by skip to surface.

Agnico Eagle has been so impressed with its efficiency, the Rail-Veyor is credited prominently in the company’s quarterly reports as helping to both decrease production costs and increase gold production.

Additional systems have been installed at Doe Run’s Casteel underground lead mine in Missouri, U.S., and a petroleum coke mine in Venezuela, and the company is currently in the process of creating a system for a mine in Kazakhstan.

Fisk said there’s also been growing interest from nations in the Commonwealth of Independent States (former republics of the Soviet Union).

“It’s been starting to gain some traction,” Fisk said.

Last March, the company got a welcome endorsement when it came third out of 12 competitors in the annual Mining Cleantech Challenge in Colorado.

But, as with any emerging technology, skepticism in the risk-averse mining industry remains the biggest challenge for getting companies to come on board.

Fisk urges firms to take the chance.

“If you keep doing the same thing the same way you’ve always done it, well, you know what the result’s going to be.”

The Drift magazine features profiles on the people and companies making important contributions to the Northern Ontario mining service and supply sector. It is published annually and distributed at the Northern Ontario Mining Showcase during the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference in Toronto.