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Goodby miners!

Published by , Editor
Global Mining Review,

Hearing the traditional German miners’ greeting ‘Glückauf’ (roughly equivalent to Godspeed or simply good luck) will soon be a thing of the past. Mining production will be fully automated in the foreseeable future. Virtual construction site planning and commissioning, automated work processes, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, augmented reality and virtual reality. Digitalisation and automation technologies are intended to make our working lives easier, faults more predictable, processes more efficient, and be used to develop new drives to make mining operations more environmentally friendly. The VDMA Mining Technology Days, which were held as a web conference between 7 and 10 September 2020, provided comprehensive information on current trends in mining, as well as impressions of the future of the sector.

Collecting and evaluating data is a topic that concerns everyone, with the buzzword ‘big data’ on everyone’s minds. However, it will not be enough to just collect data. Only when that data can be evaluate data and actions and forecasts derived from this data is it of value to mining companies and the on-site employees. A time when machines function autonomously and can make their own decisions, not to mention learn independently, is still a long way away. This is the subject of research conducted by the Institute for Advanced Mining Technologies at RWTH Aachen University. The scientists equipped a mobile device with the respective technology so that it does not need natural light to find its way through a cave system, where it detects cracks in the rock by means of infrared thermography and differentiates between coal and surrounding rock using acoustic signals. This experimental set-up was used to determine initial conditions. Another task was to develop interfaces which transfer the results to the machines involved in the work process. Once this technology has matured, the miner no longer has to be physically present at inaccessible sites.

Digital solutions for all

Research in this sector is looking at more than just the impact on human beings; it is also looking at geological requirements in the deposits. The hunger for raw materials has been growing for several decades. Consequently, the best sources have already been exploited and the ore contents are becoming poorer. Irregular geological conditions, declining mineralisation and low-volume deposits are obstacles which mining companies need to overcome. The smaller these companies are, the more difficult this becomes. The Faculty of Geosciences, Geoengineering and Mining at the TU Bergakademie Freiberg is researching solutions for small and medium-sized companies.

One project, for example, is a central mine control room with a test bed for Through-the-Earth communication (TTE). One conclusion is that there is no standard solution for data transfer, but rather that every mine requires a specific network structure with small, intelligent devices. Based on the range, transfer rate and the medium, scientists have developed a manufacturer-independent SCADA system – MoSC. This system works with .NET Core, a Firebird database, OPC UA and a web-based front-end with Angular and Web GL. All elements are flexible, freely accessible and platform-independent. The central mine control room can be extended to include M2M communication. The ‘Reiche Zeche’ research mine is using Wi-Fi optimisation, whereby the signal is fed in simultaneously at two separate points. The system monitors target and actual values, visualises processes, guarantees a secure environment and optimises machine capacity utilisation.

Industry is also driving digitalisation with its product developments. Assistance systems and semi-automated or fully automatic plants intend to guarantee safety, speed, continuity, information and, of course, productivity. Geostatistics alone provides a permanently up-to-date deposit model thanks to the data models calculated daily. This minimises the need for core drillings and chemical analyses. Radio transmission, automated machines and plants as well as digital central mine control rooms assist the plant manager in controlling the mining activities. This has also resulted in a complete change in the training profiles in the mining sector.

Eco-friendly and affordable

Despite all these advances, mining remains a difficult business. The machines require high-performance drives that are also eco-friendly. The climate goals have set the bar. Combustion engines out, batteries in – sadly, it is not that simple. Fire and explosion protection, the durability and operational capability of the battery systems and the deployment location underground are all points which must be considered. One option to prevent the complete elimination of combustion engines for suitable applications is to combine them with hydrogen produced from renewable energies. Scientists at the Institute of Internal Combustion Engines and Thermodynamics at Graz University of Technology are researching some of the options. During their work, they were able to determine that hydrogen concepts have full-load and efficiency potential similar to that of a diesel engine, while producing no carbon dioxide emissions. And the technology is mature and affordable. These engines could primarily be used in distribution vehicles.

Dr Paul Althaus, Chairman of the Steering Committee Research and Technology, sums up the VDMA Mining Technology Days as follows: “The companies and research institutes that granted us an insight into their developments during the four days clearly show that fully digitalised mining will soon become a reality. We must accept this and completely adapt our operational procedures and especially the training of our employees to the new developments. This will allow of us to benefit.”

Mining technology, with its export rate of 96%, is one of the most export-intensive branches of the German mechanical engineering sector. VDMA Mining represents renowned, mainly medium-sized companies in the areas of surface and underground mining, treatment technology as well as consulting, research and development. 145 companies are members in VDMA Mining and together they represent over 90% of the total sales volume.

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