Emerging technologies may be set to change the way Australian mines are powered, but diesel fuel and large-scale fuel farms are likely to remain key to many operations for years to come.
RENEWABLE energy and the concept of the electric mine have been touted as among the biggest changes ahead in mining, and while many miners have begun to adopt these technologies, researchers were also looking to diesel-powered automation that could change traditional fuel farms.
The remote nature of most mines meant access to reliable power was a challenge for most, making up a large portion of overheads on a mine.
To overcome this issue, many miners have developed large-scale fuel farm facilities on site.
However, many Australian mines, such as Rio Tinto, were now moving to automated systems, including autonomous trucks, with new fuelling technologies emerging to fully integrate automation on mines.
Among the new technologies being examined were automated or robotic refuelling, which would be performed by a robotic arm that would open the vehicle’s flap, unscrew the cap, pick up the fuel nozzle and insert it into the tank opening.
This would remove the need for any manual intervention, freeing up the operator to complete other tasks.
It would also make the process of refuelling safer, and could increase productivity and reduce costs by allowing miners to construct fuelling stations closer to operations.
In one example, Roy Hill has been trialling an in-pit robotic re-fueller since 2016 to reduce the amount of time spent going to and from fuelling stations.
Speaking to The Australian Mining Review, Queensland University of Technology Professor and Mining3 automation program technology leader Michael Milford said robotic maintenance was also being examined.
He said automation and automated refuelling agricultural projects that have been undertaken by researchers at QUT could also have applications in mining, given the amount of technological crossover between the two sectors.
“The big appeal of robots is in dull, dirty and dangerous conditions,” Professor Milford said.
“Mine sites often fulfil two or three of those criteria simultaneously.
“Refuelling is obviously potentially quite hazardous, so that’s an area which is under active research in terms of automating it.”
Impact of Electric
Professor Milford said other technological advancements, such as the move from traditional fuel-based mines to electric mines could theoretically do away with the need for fuel farms altogether, however that was a long way from becoming a reality.
“There’s this whole concept of the future electric mine, which may or may not have people in it at all,” he said.
“I imagine that would have an effect on the propulsion systems, because if you can make a mine entirely electric you can do away with fuel completely, but that doesn’t sound like that’s anywhere near on the horizon.
“A large infrastructure-reliant industry, it doesn’t just have to be mining, will take a long time to transition over, and that is probably especially true when mining is filled with very large-scale vehicles.
“A lot of the move to electric vehicles in other areas, like consumer cars, has involved small, neat, clean, light cars, which have the kind of requirements that electric nicely meet, but that doesn’t necessarily carry over to mining.”
Professor Milford said much of the technology being examined and rolled-out now, was still largely dependent on diesel fuel, including his own research project, which involved developing new technologies to improve the capability, efficiency, or even the cost of systems such as autonomous positioning systems for autonomous vehicles on mine sites.
The project was in partnership with Caterpillar, Mining3, and the Queensland Government.
One example the team were trying to develop were systems that were primarily dependent on cameras as the sensors that would go on autonomous vehicles, as opposed to traditional laser or radar-based systems.
The systems could be retrofitted on vehicles.
“In a lot of these new automation technologies, they’re just an automation kit that gets bolted on, on top of the truck or vehicle,” Professor Milford said.
“In that case, the underlying propulsion system wouldn’t change at all.”
Case Study: Cadia
On the ground, miners such as Newcrest Mining have been exploring a number of innovative ways to power mines, but challenges with electric and autonomous vehicles have meant fuel farms would still be necessary for the foreseeable future.
In November 2018, Newcrest announced it had commenced studies on a solar farm for its operations at Cadia, 20km south of Orange in NSW.
Newcrest head of investor relations and media Christopher Maitland said energy represented about 20 per cent of Cadia’s operating costs, and given the rising costs of electricity on the east coast of Australia, the miner had deemed it prudent to invest time and money to better understand renewables.
“The farm under study is targeted to supply approximately 5 per cent of Cadia’s electricity,” Mr Maitland told The Australian Mining Review.
However, Newcrest would continue operating fuel farms for diesel at Cadia and Telfer, which was in the Pilbara region in WA.
Newcrest had previously examined using automation at its mines but found it did not increase productivity.
“Back in 2013, Newcrest trialled automated underground loaders at its block cave mine, Ridgeway mine, just outside of Orange in New South Wales,” Mr Maitland said.
“The trials were technically successful, yet the autonomous loaders were found to be significantly slower than manned vehicles.
“The technologies to automatically dig and hail at Ridgeway’s high performing manned rates, were not advanced sufficiently to compete.
“As a result, it took longer for the autonomous loaders to perform each load cycle than what human operators could achieve.”
Mr Maitland said large battery electric loaders were currently in development by equipment suppliers, with smaller battery electric loaders becoming available now.
However, commercially available cable-based electric loaders were not suitable for Cadia’s cave layouts.
Aside from automation and renewable energy, fuel farms have already become safer and more effective in recent years, with the rise of self-bunded tanks, according to WA Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety director of Dangerous Goods and Petroleum Safety Ross Stidolph.
“In the past, the spill containment of some above ground fuel installations has not been maintained properly, resulting in poor spill containment if there was to be a fuel spill,” Mr Stidolph told The Australian Mining Review.
“However, the last to 10 to 15 years, has seen the introduction of self-bunded tanks, tanks with integrated spill containment, into the mining industry.
“Use of these tanks has ensured that spill containment for these fuel facilities are of a high standard.”
He said there were currently about 200 fuel storage depots in WA alone, and about half of them were in the mining sector.