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Smart and sustainable detonation

Published by , Editor
Global Mining Review,

Ralf Hennecke, Nishen Hariparsad, Neil Alberts, D Scott Scovira, and Christiaan Liebenberg, BME, examine how smart technology can be successfully leveraged to improve sustainability and safety in the field of blasting and explosives.

Smart and sustainable detonation

As mines prioritise the agenda of responsible mining with sustainable impacts, they draw on the positive disruption achieved by technology partners in their value chain. An important early stage activity in mining, blasting is bringing its fair share of innovation to the table.

The mining sector is certainly becoming more complex and demanding by the year, as a combination of factors – from rising industry standards and national regulations to community expectations and climate change – become part of the evolving mining landscape. However, as was apparent from the positive energy at this year’s Investing in African Mining Indaba in Cape Town, the sector and its stakeholders are boldly embracing the many challenges and finding solutions.

There is a recognition that positive disruption is indeed underway, and supply partners in the industry are consciously driving this trend. In many respects, mining companies are in fact relying increasingly on their supply chain to develop and prove the solutions they are looking for. This is underpinning closer partnerships in the field of blasting and explosives, as companies like BME tackle key priorities with their customers such as safety, sustainability, operational efficiency, business continuity, and people development.

Walking the digital path

Digital technology is vital to this process; not only does it facilitate greater efficiencies of process and productivity of equipment, but it makes the whole mining operation more transparent and controllable. Based on detailed real-time monitoring, distinct activities in the mining cycle can be fine-tuned and aligned to create greater value.

An area where digital progress is generating exciting benefits is the leveraging of smart technology in mobile manufacturing units (MMUs) – the specialised trucks that deliver bulk emulsion explosives into blastholes. Digital solutions, such as Xplolog and Xplocharge, can make real-time data available to operators and management, allowing aspects of blasthole charging to be automated.

An example of the data collected in real-time tracking is the volumes of emulsion being pumped on the bench by smart trucks. This allows quick action to be taken if any situation is time-sensitive, and also injects quality data into a mine’s efforts to investigate shortcomings over the longer term or to check compliance with contract requirements.

Comparing planned volumes with actual volumes

By accurately monitoring emulsion volumes using on-vehicle equipment, the system can also make comparisons between the planned volumes per blasthole and the actual volumes pumped. Connectivity and communication technology allows the data to be transmitted wirelessly – so that it can be stored and analysed in cloud platforms.

The data lends itself to ongoing cost optimisation, and to ensuring that there is no wastage of resources in achieving the optimal blast result. Truck performance can also be measured by digital telemetry through internet-of-things (IOT) devices. This functionality improves productivity, maintenance control, product quality, and asset utilisation.

Such is the nature of digital solutions – and customer expectations – that these technologies are constantly evolving and improving. The performance of these solutions can be continuously enhanced as hardware and software capabilities improve.

Controlled, quality blasts

Installing this technology on MMUs allows mines to monitor their block progress in real time and continuously improves the quality of blasts. This in turn paves the way for safe and sustainable outcomes. The smart MMUs can be seamlessly integrated with other on-bench digital technology and electronic initiation systems, so that mines achieve blasts that are more controlled.

From a safety perspective, this means that risks such as vibration and fly-rock are avoided – an important factor where mines are adjacent to communities or other built environments. In terms of sustainability, digital technology is also allowing larger blasts; electronic detonators and the associated digital blast planning and initiation tools ensure the necessary accuracy and reliability to give mines flexibility and confidence in large blasts.

The larger the blast, the fewer blasts are required to move the same amount of rock – and the fewer disruptive stoppages for blasting are necessary. This streamlines mining operations and makes them more efficient, thereby reducing the mine’s energy consumption and carbon footprint. Quality blasts, which rely on good planning and detonator accuracy, also generate better fragmentation. This means more efficient loading, hauling, and crushing, which are all among the most energy-intensive aspects of the mining cycle.

Skills factor

Of course, the rapid advance of digital technology in blasting is bringing new skill demands to the sector. Recent research shows that over 70% of mining leaders found that talent shortages held them back from delivering on production targets and strategic objectives. This issue was highlighted again at the African Mining Indaba, where BME contributed to an important panel discussion in the Indaba’s Young Leaders session. With the topic focusing on ‘New knowledge, new mining: the research and technology that drives innovation’, it was clear than the mining sector needs to make itself more attractive to young talent.

For a start, this should involve more effectively showcasing the strides that have already been made in developing and applying digital technology in the mining space. This has created exciting career opportunities for young professionals in fields such as data science and software development – but this fact is not yet well-known or accepted in the public domain.

The blasting and explosives segment, like the rest of the mining sector, can do more to publicise its achievements and its potential. Younger entrants to the market could be inspired by the progress to date, especially when they realise what a central role mining will continue to play in the global energy transition to forge a lower carbon future.

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