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Old mine set to become tech vanguard for Sudbury-based corporation

Onaping Depth touted by Glencore as future of deep mining with all battery-electric operation

The Craig Mine-Onaping Depth Project is not only becoming a reality, but it will also have the distinction of being the first mine to be completely battery-electric, even if it means building equipment that doesn't exist, yet.

It's also a melding of old and new, with the previous mine's infrastructure being used to transport equipment and personnel to the deposit.

Peter Xavier, vice-president of Glencore's Sudbury Operations, gave an overview of the company, with a focus on the company's mine project, at a Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Nov. 6.

The project, located about an hour's drive north of Sudbury, will be a reflection of the company's mandate to make mining cleaner and safer, to drive innovation, and to maximize opportunities to profit from the entire process.

“We are not trying to reinvent the wheel, but find existing solutions being used elsewhere and see if we can apply them to mining at depth,” he said in his presentation.

“The other side of that is mines are getting deeper, and we have to ask ourselves if we can keep applying procedures we use at higher levels as we go deeper.”

The mine is the perfect place to apply new technologies because the previous Craig Mine only closed in 2009.

The infrastructure in the two shafts that were sunk in the 1980s are still viable, he said. 

The project sits right in one of the largest nickel deposits in the Sudbury Basin, about 2,600 metres below surface. Along with nickel, they are also planning to mine copper and other minerals, like cobalt.

“In many cases, we are getting more copper than nickel,” Xavier said. “Glencore is the largest producer of copper in the world, so it is on our schedule.”

Cobalt is a key element used in the production of electric batteries.

Xavier said the company isn't actively chasing cobalt, but it's found naturally in nickel deposits.

To prepare for a shaft, a 725-metre raise-bore has been completed with a three-and-a-half metre diameter hole. Plans are to sink the shaft in 2022 and set up an underground headframe.

Because the mine is so deep, Glencore is going to have to install its first-ever cooling system in one of their mines.

Temperatures at those depths reach 40 to 50 degrees Celsius, which is not safe for humans and makes it difficult to run machinery.

That challenge is being met with plans to make it an entirely battery-electric run operation.

“Right now we are trying everything to build education and understanding of the logistics before we go forward,” Xavier said. “We don't need it immediately, but we will need it for when we are off-shaft.”

Glencore is working with numerous companies to build viable equipment, including Hard-Line Solutions, who sponsored the event.

A year ago, Xavier said, it was a nervous beginning for the project due to low nickel prices. Since then, nickel prices have rebounded, corresponding with an upswing in mining exploration in the region, which has helped fuel the project.

Aside from the immediate benefits for the project, Xavier expects this mine will drive innovation in equipment across the industry, particularly battery technology.

The health and safety benefits alone will drive down costs and make mining more economically attractive, he said.

Eventually, Glencore is looking at making operations autonomous. Deep mining is becoming too dangerous for humans to be in the mines, but that does not mean humans are being eliminated from the process.

The company will have people monitoring the machines and overseeing operations from offices at surface.

But fewer humans being used will mean less down time as they wait for gasses from blasts to clear, thus keeping operations running consistently and keeping profits at a steady pace.

“Mines are smaller, their operating lives are shorter, resources are deeper and the grades can be lower,” Xavier said.

That being said, Xavier believes the Sudbury Basin still has a lot of geological potential for deep mining with plenty of mineral resources left to be extracted.