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The use of new technologies in diamond industry

24 december 2018

Across the world

New technologies in diamond mining (and in the mining industry as a whole) are mainly represented by robotics in the production process. Robotic devices based on artificial intelligence can perform a variety of tasks, including drilling and blasting, loading and transporting ore, sampling and even rescuing miners from underground workings in emergency.

Rio Tinto Group is most pro-active in introducing innovative robotization technologies in mining. The company is using autonomous load haul dump trucks at its underground Argyle mine in Australia developed by several research centers and manufacturing enterprises (Australian Centre for Field Robotics; ACFR, Sandvik Mining, Atlas Copco). Autonomous (unmanned) loading dump trucks are controlled by a dispatching system with a central control panel. They use pre-entered GPS tracks to automatically move to their destinations based on optimal speed.

In 2018, Petra Diamonds (based in Jersey) introduced a centralized blasting system at its South African underground mine Cullinan based on the electronic detonator GII developed by BME and AXXIS (which is part of Omnia Group). This system allows blasting operations in underground workings from a safe place on the surface. In addition, it provides local monitoring in real time with a possibility of remote access to the cloud data storage, which makes the decision-making process much easier before and after the explosion.

The emergence of such technologies was made possible due to the development of a method for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). RFID tags are analogous to bar- and QR-codes, at the same time having higher strength, longer life and the ability to detect moving objects, including over long distances. They can be attached to a block of ore before explosion, thus providing a possibility to monitor and control the behavior of ore at all stages of mining operations up to transportation to the processing plant.

For mining companies that are not yet ready to robotize production processes at their operations, but wishing to ensure the safety of their employees, there are also innovative technologies being developed. For example, Canada-based Fatigue Science has developed wristwatches for drivers, which measure the level of their concentration / fatigue and transmit data to the coordination center.

Lockheed Martin Corporation (which designed the InSight Mars landing gear for NASA) has developed and successfully tested the MagneLink Magnetic Communication System, which allows miners to freely communicate with people on the surface, which is very important in the event of an emergency. MagneLink is a communication system based on magnetic waves (instead of radio waves) using mobile devices. It provides voice communication at a depth of 450 m and transmission of text messages up to 600 m.

Along with the use of innovative technologies, original engineering solutions can be effective in particular while selecting the optimal method of mining.

As a rule, primary diamond deposits are initially developed by the open-pit method, and after the reserves for open-pit mining are exhausted, operating companies may switch to the costlier underground method. However, in some cases, underground mining operations are more effective compared with open-pit mining operations. Thus, Britain-based Gem Diamonds decided to develop the kimberlite pipe of Ghaghoo in Botswana, covered with an 80 m thick layer of Kalahari sands, going underground with a sloping tunnel to access the ore and then use the block and sublevel caving methods. The mine was commissioned in the fall of 2014 and became the first underground diamond mine in Botswana. Despite the fact that Gem Diamonds transferred the mine under care and maintenance in early 2017 (due to a drop in demand for diamonds prevailing in the ore of Ghaghoo) and then put it on sale in 2018, the company’s experience can be described as innovative and relevant, as the number of hidden diamondiferous kimberlite bodies will only grow in the future.

In Russia

The Russian diamond-mining giant, PJSC AK ALROSA started to introduce high-load road trains - which is a new technological approach in Russia - while searching for effective solutions to develop the new Verkhne-Munskoye diamond field located 170 km from the Udachny diamond mine. The Scania and Volvo road trains with a lifting capacity of 95 tons were first used in 2014 for transporting ore from the quarry on the Zarnitsa diamond pipe to the processing plant. After a series of improvements that allowed using this technique in the harsh climatic conditions of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), the advantages of road trains were confirmed in practice - the cost of transporting ore was significantly reduced due to lower fuel consumption. In 2016, ALROSA ordered a unique domestic auto train with a lifting capacity of 130 tons developed and produced by the Tonar Machine-Building Plant near Moscow.

Innovative technologies are pro-actively introduced by AGD Diamonds (part of Otkritie Group), which is currently the only diamond miner in Russia that is not dependent on ALROSA. In record time, the company built and commissioned a mining and processing plant on the Grib Kimberlite Pipe in the Arkhangelsk Province in 2014. The effective solutions of AGD Diamonds include the use of a quarry combine to mine for kimberlites and tuffits as an alternative to drilling and blasting operations, which makes it possible to reduce the cost of ore mining, for which the company was awarded the top prize at the Minex Russia Forum in the “Breakthrough Solution of the Year" nomination. In 2016, the company completed the installation of the Automated Modular System to manage the whole array of open-pit vehicles. The system allows the company to monitor and organize mining operations online facilitating higher productivity, lower fuel consumption and reduced downtime for vehicles. In addition, AGD Diamonds has successfully introduced software products from Micromine, the world's leading developer and supplier of innovative software solutions for the mining industry.

Russia’s diamond-mining businesses are quite pro-active in introducing innovative technologies into the production process. It is noteworthy that the need for new technological solutions initiates the development of domestic technologies. Nevertheless, there is hope that this innovative development will first of all be focused on the safety of workers at mining enterprises, and not just on higher productivity and lower costs.

Anastasia Smolnikova, Chief Specialist, Solid Minerals Section at All-Russia Research Institute of Mineral Raw Materials