Codelco and Rio Tinto to put heads together on underground copper mining innovation from block caving to electric fleets

The largest copper producer in the world, the Chilean state-owned Codelco, and the Anglo-Australian multinational Rio Tinto have signed a collaboration agreement that will focus on the accumulated experience of both companies in the design, construction and operation of underground mines, with the objective of sharing knowledge about security, technology, operational performance, productivity and advances in environmental, social and governance matters (ESG).

“The renewed commitment to open innovation that we are promoting to enable our next 50 years of life is reflected in this initiative in which two large companies assume the common points of their challenges, value their mutual experiences and decide to exchange knowledge within the framework of an agreement that establishes transparent mechanisms for the exchange of information,” comments the Corporate Manager of Innovation at Codelco, Felipe Lagno. The statement adds that the decreasing ore grade of the deposits currently being exploited near the surface and the technological advances that allow operating at greater depths, indicate that the future of mining will be mainly underground. Added to this is the lower impact on the underground mining environment where access is now possible thanks to block caving, which is based on the use of the natural forces of gravity to carry out the extraction.

Codelco has accumulated extensive and valuable experience in the implementation of this method in Chuquicamata and El Teniente. For its part, Rio Tinto has started underground mining at its Oyu Tolgoi copper project in Mongolia. Copper has a fundamental role in the energy transition and the decarbonisation of the global economy. “It is estimated that the world will need as much copper in the next 25 years as has been mined in the last 6,000 years. This agreement brings together the deep industry-leading operating experience of Codelco and Rio Tinto, to share best practices and accelerate the innovation that allows to satisfy said demand both in quantity and quality, according to ESG criteria,” said Soledad Jeria, Country Manager of Rio Tinto in Chile.

Another aspect of the agreement consists of the mutual recognition and commitment of each company to decarbonisation through the transfer of technologies around ESG initiatives. Codelco and Rio Tinto have ongoing programs to support initiatives against climate change, so the electrification of underground mining equipment could also be incorporated under the agreement. In terms of electromobility, Codelco has been a pioneer in the industry by starting pilots since 2018 with production equipment (LHDs), construction (concrete transporters) and personnel transport (buses and light trucks).

Most recently, Codelco took delivery of an Epiroc 14 t ST14 Battery LHD which is being trialled at El Teniente, while Rio Tinto at its Kennecott operations in Utah is trialling both a Sandvik LH518B 18 t battery LHD and Z50 50 t battery haul truck.

The statement said that exchanges will take place, mainly, through mutual technical visits, which will take place from this year, in addition to internships for specialists who will learn about processes and projects for 12 months in an operations centre or in construction sites. The agreement also contemplates the possibility of carrying out joint projects with a limited scope, initiatives that are currently in the process of being defined by each company.