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Mining innovator to speed up underground construction

A $10-million investment in one of Sudbury’s major mining research nodes by Rio Tinto in December may well benefit other mining operations in Sudbury and around the North, according to project leaders. The U.K.
Rio Tinto Northparkes
A $10-million research effort funded by Rio Tinto and coordinated through the Sudbury-based Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation will first be tested at the mining giant's Northparkes Mine in New South Wales, Australia.

A $10-million investment in one of Sudbury’s major mining research nodes by Rio Tinto in December may well benefit other mining operations in Sudbury and around the North, according to project leaders.

The U.K.-based company’s partnership with the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) will target the high-speed construction and development of underground mines and the development of ground support systems.

As the company seeks to rapidly move away from open pits to these new underground environments, Rio Tinto will focus on its own mechanized tunnelling and shaft sinking systems, whose issues are common across many Sudbury-area projects, said CEMI president and CEO Peter Kaiser.

“While this is a real game-changing technology that’s developing, we still need to do drill and blast conventional advances, and that has to happen at a higher speed too,” said Kaiser.

“That of course is of interest to us, whether it’s for developing the Victoria (project) for Quadra FNX, developing Totten for Vale Inco, so many of our mines would benefit hugely. So there’s a win-win situation where we’re helping (Rio Tinto), but by helping them, there are going to be spinoff benefits.”

Although CEMI’s approach to research involves drawing upon resources from all over the world, the Rio Tinto project will also stand to provide Northern Ontario’s small businesses with any number of opportunities. This could be in additional research, sensing or monitoring technology, data gathering products, or any number of other related products and services, he added.

The project will involve full- scale, real-world testing at Rio Tinto’s various global operations, beginning in 2012 at its Northparkes copper and gold mine in New South Wales, Australia. It’s an

approach also being adopted by CEMI, which now has a policy of using mines as living geoscience laboratories, or “deep mine observatories” of sorts.

This means that the various underground mines of the North – Creighton, Nickel Rim, Kidd – may one day be able to act as research test spaces, with the type of work depending on the unique properties of each mine.

This makes the CEMI centre the fifth such long-term research centre established by Rio Tinto worldwide, with others in Sydney and Perth in Australia, as well as London.

“It’s part of our strategy to collect the world’s experts and develop mutually beneficial partnerships to develop technologies which address the future requirements of Rio Tinto,” said John McGagh, Rio Tinto’s head of innovation, in a release.

“Put simply, there is no other mining operation in the world attempting to take the approach that we are on this scale.”

Kaiser says the Rio Tinto project provides a platform of large-scale credibility which opens the door to approach other major global mining leaders such as Anglo-American.

It’s in keeping with CEMI’s approach to steady growth, which has also recently included addition of new staff.

It’s also due to mesh well with the other projects in the research pipeline at CEMI, such as finding ways to minimize risk to workers and investors alike in underground mines, and determining how to plan and design a mine to achieve the maximum value.

In partnership with Queen’s University, the University of Toronto and Laurentian University, CEMI is also putting in applications for a new project focusing on “smart engineering technology for mining.”

Similar approaches have been used in California, where sensors are installed in buildings to detect seismic activity. Once movement is detected, actuators kick in to stabilize the building and prevent damage.

With proper research and application, much the same kind of technological approach could be used in the mining industry, particularly in underground environments, said Kaiser. “Our projects feed into each other rather nicely. They’re all about making mining better.”