The Search for Innovative Material Hauling Technology
Since the early 20th century, engineers have been searching relentlessly for new and innovative mining technologies that can improve the health and safety of the workers, while preserving the economic viability of the operation.
In recent decades, the growing awareness of the adverse environmental and ecological impacts of mining has contributed to this effort.
As a result, recent engineering advancements are making mining equipment more efficient and sustainable. Let’s look at some of these recent advances in material hauling and handling for the mining industry:
Larger, Safer Equipment
As a result, engineers are now beginning to integrate location sensors, obstacle-detection sensors, and automatic controls, to make material hauling equipment as safe as it is productive.
In addition, enhanced communication technology, including mobile internet, is significantly improving mine site safety.
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In an effort to reduce the total amount of material hauled from mines, ore-grade analyzers are being developed to quantify the metal and mineral contents in rock faces.
Clearly identifying the waste and ore components at the mine face can result in both energy and cost savings, as well as a reduction in the amount of waste generated. Selective mining practices can then be used to leave the sub-grade material in place.
According to John Disharoon, sustainable development director for Caterpillar, Inc. Global Mining, with less waste and even less degradation, more mining firms are hauling only material that’s useful to the end customer.
New Hauling Mechanisms
Patented gearing and heat-treating technologies allow mechanical-drive mining trucks to operate efficiently, even in sloppy conditions, and when moving up to 400 tons of materials.
In addition, surface-mining equipment (such as rope shovels, hauling trucks and loaders) can now be powered by electricity from the grid or a diesel generator. They are “the most efficient in the world” according to Disharoon, loading and hauling more payload than ever before.
Other companies, such as Atlas Copco and GE Mining, have also developed the electric-powered LHDs (load, haul, dump machines) in an attempt to reduce fuel costs as well as decrease the mine’s environmental footprint. “With these new products, we are ready to be part of the global solution for reduced environmental impact,” said David Shellhammer, president of Atlas Copco’s underground rock excavation division.
Sustainable Use of Methane
Mining companies are now making better use of the methane and natural gas that occurs in coal mining. Instead of burning or venting it into the atmosphere, the methane is piped, cleaned, and run through natural-gas generators located at the mine site. The electricity created there is then used to power material hauling machines in the mine.
Some mining companies are choosing to replace trucks with more environmentally friendly conveyor belt systems. The Brazilian mining company Vale recently replaced its in-mine trucks with 23 miles of conveyor belts at its iron ore mine, connecting the ore deposits to the company’s processing plant.
According to Vale project director Jamil Sebe, the conveyor belts are expected to reduce fuel consumption by an estimated 77%, while decreasing emissions by the equivalent of 75,000 small cars. (See related article, “Trucks or Conveyor Systems: Which Is Better?“)
Underground mining operations are also increasingly opting for mine rail cars for material hauling. Because of the uneven surfaces of underground passageways, maintaining the trucks and other equipment required to carry heavy loads can be very costly and time-consuming. Although tracked haulage systems typically require a substantial initial investment, they are often much less costly to operate, as mine rail cars are not likely to be affected by rugged terrain.
In addition, some materials, such as coal, are much more energy-efficient to haul by rail than by truck.
Simon Walker, European editor for Engineering & Mining Journal, recently endorsed railway haulage, “With mines getting deeper, investment financing harder to come by, and energy prices rising, operators need to choose an underground haulage system that will help them cut costs and reduce their environmental footprint…. Although expensive to install, rail networks are relatively cheap to maintain….”
Most mining firms will still rely on trucks for heavy material hauling in some capacities, whether they’re powered by electricity or other fuel. The video clip below highlights the latest vision and sensing technologies for refueling diesel-powered equipment:
National Research Council, Evolutionary and Revolutionary Technologies for Mining