Tag Archives: emulsion

North sets Ferrexpo on a course for ‘carbon neutrality’

Ferrexpo is used to setting trends. It was the first company to launch a new open-pit iron ore mine in the CIS since Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 and has recently become the first miner in Ukraine to adopt autonomous open-pit drilling and haulage technology.

It plans to keep up this innovative streak if a conversation with Acting CEO Jim North is anything to go by.

North, former Chief Operating Officer of London Mining and Ferrexpo, has seen the technology shift in mining first-hand. A holder of a variety of senior operational management roles in multiple commodities with Rio Tinto and BHP, he witnessed the take-off of autonomous haulage systems (AHS) in the Pilbara, as well as the productivity and operating cost benefits that came with removing operators from blasthole drills.

He says the rationale for adopting autonomous technology at Ferrexpo’s Yeristovo mine is slightly different to the traditional Pilbara investment case.

“This move was not based on reduction in salaries; it was all based on utilisation of capital,” North told IM. While miners receive comparatively good salaries in Ukraine, they cannot compete with the wages of those Pilbara haul truck drivers.

Ferrexpo Acting CEO, Jim North

North provided a bit of background here: “The focus for the last six years since I came into the company was about driving mining efficiencies and getting benchmark performance out of our mining fleet. This is not rocket science; it is all about carrying out good planning and executing to that plan.”

The company used the same philosophy in its process plant – a philosophy that is likely to see it produce close to 12 Mt of high grade (65% Fe) iron ore pellets and concentrate next year.

Using his industry knowledge, North pitted Ferrexpo’s fleet performance against others on the global stage.

“Mining is a highly capital-intensive business and that equipment you buy has got be moving – either loaded or empty – throughout the day,” North said. “24 hours-a-day operation is impossible as you must put fuel in vehicles and you need to change operators, so, in the beginning, we focused on increasing the utilised hours. After a couple of years, I noticed we were getting very close to the benchmark performance globally set by the majors.

“If you are looking at pushing your utilisation further, it inevitably leads you to automation.”

Ferrexpo was up for pushing it further and, four years ago, started the process of going autonomous, with its Yeristovo iron ore mine, opened in 2011, the first candidate for an operational shakeup.

“Yeristovo is a far simpler configuration from a mining point of view,” North explained. “It is basically just a large box cut. Poltava, on the other hand (its other iron ore producing mine currently), has been around for 50 years; it is a very deep and complex operation.

“We thought the place to dip our toe into the water and get good at autonomy was Yeristovo.”

This started off in 2017 with deployment of teleremote operation on its Epiroc Pit Viper 275 blasthole drill rigs. The company has gradually increased the level of autonomy, progressing to remotely operating these rigs from a central control room. In 2021-2022, these rigs will move to fully-autonomous mode, North says.

Ferrexpo has also been leveraging remotely-operated technology for mine site surveying, employing drones to speed up and improve the accuracy of the process. The miner has invested in three of these drones to carry out not only site surveys, but stockpile mapping and – perhaps next year – engineering inspections.

“The productivity benefits from these drones are huge,” North said. “In just two days of drone operation, you can carry out the same amount of work it would take three or four surveyors to do in one or two weeks!”

OEM-agnostic solution

It is the haul truck segment of the mine automation project at Yeristovo that has caught the most industry attention, with Ferrexpo one of the first to choose an OEM-agnostic solution from a company outside of the big four open-pit mining haul truck manufacturers.

The company settled on a solution from ASI Mining, owned 34% by Epiroc, after the completion of a trial of the Mobius® Haulage A.I. system on a Cat 793D last year.

The first phase of the commercial project is already kicking off, with the first of six Cat 793s converted to autonomous mode now up and running at Yeristovo. On completion of this first phase of six trucks, consideration will be given to timing of further deployment for the remainder of the Yeristovo truck fleet.

This trial and rollout may appear fairly routine, but behind the scenes was an 18-month process to settle on ASI’s solution.

“For us, as a business, we have about 86 trucks deployed on site,” North said. “We simply couldn’t take the same route BHP or Rio took three or four years ago in acquiring an entirely new autonomous fleet. At that point, Cat and Komatsu were the only major OEMs offering these solutions and they were offering limited numbers of trucks models with no fleet integration possibilities.

“If you had a mixed fleet – which we do – then you were looking at a multi-hundred-million-dollar decision to change out your mining fleet. That is prohibitive for a business like ours.”

Ferrexpo personnel visited ASI Mining’s facility in Utah, USA, several times, hearing all about the parent company’s work with NASA on robotics. “We knew they had the technical capability to work in tough environments,” North remarked.

“We also saw work they had been doing with Ford and Toyota for a number of years on their unmanned vehicles, and we witnessed the object detect and collision avoidance solutions in action on a test track.”

Convinced by these demonstrations and with an eye to the future of its operations, Ferrexpo committed to an OEM-agnostic autonomous future.

“If we want to get to a fully autonomous fleet at some stage in the future, we will need to pick a provider that could turn any unit into an autonomous vehicle,” North said. It found that in ASI Mining’s Mobius platform.

Such due diligence is representative not only of the team’s thorough approach to this project, it also reflects the realities of deploying such a solution in Ukraine.

“It is all about building capability,” North said. “This is new technology in Ukraine – it’s not like you can go down the road and find somebody that has worked on this type of technology before. As a result, it’s all about training and building up the capacity in our workforce.”

After this expertise has been established, the automation rollout will inevitably accelerate.

“Once we have Yeristovo fully autonomous, we intend to move the autonomy program to Belanovo, which we started excavating a couple of years ago,” North said. “The last pit we would automate would be Poltava, purely due to complexity.”

Belanovo, which has a JORC Mineral Resource of 1,700 Mt, is currently mining overburden with 30-40 t ADTs shifting this material. While ASI Mining said it would be able to automate such machines, North decided the automation program will only begin when large fleet is deployed.

“When we deploy large fleet at Belanovo and start to move significant volumes, we intend for it to become a fully-autonomous operation,” he said.

Poltava, which is a single pit covering a 7 km long by 2 km wide area (pictured below), has a five-decade-long history and a more diverse mining fleet than Yeristovo. In this respect, it was always going to be harder to automate from a loading and haulage point of view.

“If you think about the fleet numbers deployed when Belanovo is running, we will probably have 50% of our fleet running autonomously,” North said. “The level of capability to run that level of technology would be high, so it makes sense to take on the more complex operation at Poltava at that point in time.”

Consolidation and decarbonisation

This autonomy transition has also given North and his team the chance to re-evaluate its fleet needs for now and in the future.

This is not as simple as it may sound to those thinking of a typical Pilbara AHS fleet deployment, with the Yeristovo and Poltava mines containing different ore types that require blending at the processing plant in order to sustain a cost-effective operation able to produce circa-12 Mt/y of high-grade (65%-plus Fe) iron ore pellets and concentrate.

“That limits our ability in terms of fleet size for ore mining because we want to match the capacity of the fleet to the different ore streams we feed into the plant,” North said.

This has seen the company standardise on circa-220 t trucks for ore movement and 300-320 t trucks for waste haulage.

On the latter, North explained: “That is about shovel utilisation, not necessarily about trucks. If you go much larger than that 320-t truck, you are talking about the need to use large rope shovels and we don’t have enough consistent stripping requirements for that. We think the 800 t-class electric hydraulic excavator is a suitable match for the circa-320 t truck.”

This standardisation process at Poltava has seen BELAZ 40 t trucks previously working in the pit re-assigned for auxiliary work, with the smallest in-pit Cat 777 trucks acting as fuel, water and lubrication service vehicles at Poltava.

“The Cat 785s are the smallest operating primary fleet we have at Poltava,” North said. “We also have the Hitachi EH3500s and Cat 789s and Cat 793s, tending to keep the bigger fleet towards Yeristovo and the smaller fleet at Poltava.”

In carrying out this evaluation, the company has also plotted its next electrification steps.

“Given we have got to the point where we know we want 220 t for ore and 300-320 t nominally for waste at Yeristovo, we have a very clear understanding of where we are going in our efforts to support our climate action,” North said.

Electrification of the company’s entire operation – both the power generation and pelletising segment, and the mobile fleet – forms a significant part of its carbon reduction plans.

A 5 MW solar farm is being built to trial the efficacy of photovoltaic generation in the region, while, in the pelletiser, the company is blending sunflower husks with natural gas to power the process. Fine tuning over the past few years has seen the company settle on a 30:70 sunflower husk:natural gas energy ratio, allowing the company to make the most of a waste product in plentiful supply in Ukraine.

On top of this, the company is recuperating heat from the pelletisation process where possible and reusing it for other processes.

With a significant amount of ‘blue’ (nuclear) or ‘green’ (renewable) power available through the grid and plans to incorporate renewables on site, Ferrexpo looks to have the input part of the decarbonisation equation covered.

In the pellet lines, North says green hydrogen is believed to be the partial or full displacement solution for gas firing, with the company keenly watching developments such as the HYBRIT project in Sweden.

On the diesel side of things, Ferrexpo is also charting its decarbonisation course. This will start with a move to electric drive haul trucks in the next few years.

Power infrastructure is already available in the pits energising most of its electric-hydraulic shovels and backhoes, and the intention is for these new electric drive trucks to go on trolley line infrastructure to eradicate some of the operation’s diesel use.

“Initially we would still need to rely on diesel engines at the end of ramps and the bottom of pits, but our intention is to utilise some alternative powerpack on these trucks as the technology becomes available,” North said.

He expects that alternative powerpack to be battery-based, but he and the company are keeping their options open during conversations with OEMs about the fleet replacement plans.

“We know we are going to have to buy a fleet in the next couple of years, but the problem is when you make that sort of purchase, you are committing to using those machines for the next 20 years,” North said. “During all our conversations with OEMs we are recognising that we will need to buy a fleet before they have probably finalised their ‘decarbonised’ solutions, so all the contracts are based on the OEM providing that fully carbon-free solution when it becomes available.”

With around 15% of the company’s carbon footprint tied to diesel use, this could have a big impact on Ferrexpo’s ‘green’ credentials, yet the transition to trolley assist makes sense even without this sustainability benefit.

“The advantages in terms of mining productivity are huge,” North said. “You go from 15 km/h on ramp to just under 30 km/h on ramp.”

This is not all North offered up on the company’s carbon reduction plans.

At both of Ferrexpo’s operations, the company moves a lot of ore internally with shuttle trains, some of which are powered by diesel engines. A more environmentally friendly alternative is being sought for these locomotives.

“We are working with rail consultants that are delivering solutions for others to ‘fast follow’ that sector,” North said referencing the project already underway with Vale at its operations in Brazil. “We are investigating at the moment how we could design and deploy the solution at our operations for a lithium-ion battery loco.”

Not all the company’s decarbonisation and energy-efficiency initiatives started as recently as the last few years.

When examining a plan to reach 12 Mt/y of iron ore pellet production, North and his team looked at the whole ‘mine to mill’ approach.

“The cheapest place to optimise your comminution of rock is within the mine itself,” North said. “If you can optimise your blasting and get better fragmentation in the pit, you are saving energy, wear on materials, etc and you are doing some of the job of the concentrator and comminution process in the mine.”

A transition to a full emulsion blasting product came out of this study, and a move from NONEL detonators to electronic detonators could follow in the forthcoming years.

“That also led us into thinking about the future crusher – where we want to put it, what materials to feed into the expanded plant in the future, and what blending ratio we want to have from the pits,” North said. “The problem with pit development in a business that is moving 150-200 Mt of material a year is the crusher location needs to change as the mining horizons change.”

It ended up becoming a tradeoff between placing a new crusher in the pit on an assigned bench or putting it on top of the bench and hauling ore to that location.

The favoured location looks like being within the pit, according to North.

“It will be a substantial distance away from where our existing facility at Poltava is and we will convey the material into the plant,” he said. “We did the tradeoff study between hauling with trains/trucks, or conveying and, particularly for Belanovo, we need to take that ore to the crusher from the train network we already have in place.”

These internal ‘green’ initiatives are representative of the products Ferrexpo is supplying the steel industry.

Having shifted away from lower grade pellets to a higher-grade product in the past five years and started to introduce direct reduced iron pellet products to the market with trial shipments, Ferrexpo is looking to be a major player in the ‘green steel’ value chain.

North says as much.

“We are getting very close to understanding our path forward and our journey to carbon neutrality.”

BME keeps supply up amid lockdown as it prepares for COVID-19-related business changes

COVID-19 lockdown restrictions around Southern Africa have thrown the spotlight on mines’ supply security, with key inputs like explosives and blasting services among these.

According to Albie Visser, General Manager at blasting specialist BME, mines have relied heavily on the flexibility and ingenuity of service providers to keep the supply chain functioning.

“The first weeks of the lockdown were challenging, especially regarding the logistics of moving our emulsion product across national borders from South Africa into other southern African countries,” Visser said. “Different countries – and even different border posts – applied different rules, making it difficult to know what the exact compliance requirements were.”

Albie Visser, General Manager at BME

He noted the pandemic had caught most authorities unaware, leading to regulations being hurriedly developed and enforced.

“In some cases, the regulatory requirements were not practical,” he said. “At one border, for instance, drivers were required to have a COVID-19 test not older than three days – but in South Africa it took nine days to get results from a test through normal channels.”

This meant that innovative thinking was called for, and BME worked closely with its own suppliers and the mines themselves. While some deliveries were initially delayed by border issues, the company’s responsiveness and agility kept up its deliveries to site, it said.

National lockdowns in the region affected the mining sectors differently from country to country.

“South Africa’s lockdown saw demand for emulsion drop sharply at first, but this has almost returned to normal as mines ramped up to full production where possible,” he said. “While mining in Botswana has slowed, Namibia’s mining industry has been more resilient and our supplies to Zambia are almost unaffected.”

Site precautions

In South Africa, BME is working on many mine sites, with an average of three teams per site. By conducting risk assessments and adapting its existing safety systems, BME quickly developed its own COVID-19 protocols in line with national safety regulations – even before some of the mines finalised their own systems.

Among the measures BME has applied is to divide staff into small groups to keep closer control of movements and restrict infections. For example, each group will stay together for transport purposes, and will use only one specified bus.

“Each bus, which has a thermometer for daily testing, will collect staff from their homes,” Visser said. “We know exactly who they live with, for purposes of future contact tracing.”

It does mean more buses arriving at the work site, but any infection picked up can then be controlled and traced within that group. There is also another screening test at the mine site when staff arrive, and the necessary social distancing is observed.

“To date our measures have been very effective, with no COVID-19 infections at any of our operations,” he said.

Overcoming barriers

Outside of South Africa, there have been some notable achievements in the face of COVID-19 related lockdowns.

Joe Keenan, Managing Director of BME, relayed a few of these.

Joe Keenan, Managing Director of BME

“Among the logistical achievements, for instance, was the timeous shipping of resources to customers in Australia and West Africa – which was done in anticipation of the lockdown,” he said.

BME was also able to continue satisfying the requirements of one of Zambia’s largest copper producers, despite the difficulties of negotiating border regulations.

At the same time as this, the company is continuing to roll out large projects for major customers, while keeping most of its staff working remotely. This includes the recruitment of about 170 people for one key project, and the continuation of on-site testing.

Automation, remote optionality

From the manufacturing perspective, BME’s facilities are also well positioned to keep feeding the supply chain even under lockdown conditions, according to Ralf Hennecke, BME’s General Manager: Technology and Marketing.

“Most of our production plant processes are highly automated, so we can readily apply the necessary social distancing and minimise staff without affecting production,” Hennecke said. “This applies to our explosives facilities as well as our factories for non-electric and electronic detonators.”

Ralf Hennecke BME General Manager: Technology and Marketing

BME has put in considerable investment in the automation of its manufacturing plant at Delmas in Mpumalanga, South Africa, for instance. While the driver for this process was primarily the quality of its emulsion product, the effect has been to enhance security of supply while applying strict social distancing protocols, it said.

Keenan said: “At our facility in Losberg, Gauteng, where we manufacture our AXXIS™ equipment and non-electric detonation systems, there is also a high level of automation. We can therefore accommodate the COVID-19 regulations without affecting the value chain.”

Even the company’s remote bulk emulsion plants – often located on customer’s mine sites – can be operated with minimal staff.

Hennecke highlighted that BME’s technology, including planning and reporting platforms like BLASTMAP™ and XPLOLOG™, also assist mines to reduce opportunities for COVID-19 transmission.

“Our technological innovations allow data to be digitally captured, stored and transferred to the mine’s operational and administrative systems,” he said. “This can be done safely with only a few human touchpoints, and also in real time for greater efficiency.”

The future

While the current efforts are to keep mining operations running normally, the future will see considerable changes in how suppliers like BME support customers, according to Keenan.

“The leveraging of technological innovation to keep mine sites safe and efficient becomes an even more vital imperative for technology providers,” he said.

Operationally, there will be ongoing focus on social distancing and digital processes to reduce proximity between employees.

With strict requirements limiting face to face interaction, more communication with customers will also have to be conducted digitally.

These communication systems will also have to be adapted to streamline the sales process and keep contracts flowing, according to BME.

“Creative solutions will need to be found for how to manage tenders, for example, especially where site visits are required,” Kennan said. “There are still various practical issues to be resolved so that normal procurement can continue.”

In terms of further expediting the shift to non-contact interaction with customers, BME’s new enterprise resource planning system enhances its shared services capacity, allowing less paperwork and more electronic documentation and processing.

Mining3 makes emulsion breakthrough on alternative explosives project

In November, Mining3 says it achieved a significant milestone with the successful detonation of a world first hydrogen peroxide-based emulsion explosive as part of its alternative explosives project.

Using proprietary formulations, a series of trial blasts confirmed its ability to detonate, and provided early steps into the characterisation of this improved product, Mining3 said. “The new formulation is a major achievement in superseding water-gel/hydrogel formulations and a crucial advancement in product stability and sleep-time,” the company said.

Mining3 and the School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering at the University of Queensland are testing alternative explosive formulations, which eliminate the nitrogen component and replace it with hydrogen peroxide as the main oxidising agent. By removing the nitrogen component of the explosive formulation, it eliminates any NOx fumes generated after blasting, the partners said.

Back in January, Mining3 reported that detonation performance tests, conducted in December 2018 using new materials in the formula – physical sensitisation materials based on glass and polystyrene materials – had delivered improved explosive performance, reliability and product stability.

In its latest report, Mining3 reported on its emulsion developments: “Gums and emulsifiers, are the binding agents in water-gel and emulsions, respectively. Importantly, gums have a low-level organic contamination which leads to hydrogen peroxide degradation and limited current water-gel technology for manufacture-and-immediate-detonation applications.

“With synthetically produced emulsifiers, the material can be inert-to-hydrogen peroxide, lengthening the product stability to a significant period and enabling broader applications in the mining industry.”

Considerable effort has been invested in the pursuit of compatible emulsifiers, Mining3 said, and, with recent successes in detonation trials, it has made the past year of research “worthwhile”.

It continued: “Not only do we have a formulation with advanced oxidiser/fuel intimacy but also considerable advances in stability. Manufacture techniques have also maintained the ambient temperature methodology that gives the hydrogen peroxide-based explosives technology a distinct advantage in production cost.”

Over five days at RUREX, Australia’s only professional independent detonation testing range, upwards of 60 detonation tests were fired. Several other formulations were tested that will advance in the technology pipeline, but it is the confirmation of emulsion tests that was the most immediate success, according to Mining3.

This research has been supported by ACARP from its inception and transfer of this technology to the industry is eagerly anticipated, Mining3 added.

Dr Andrew Kettle, Senior Experimental Scientist and Project Executor, said: “These blasts have confirmed that we are pursuing the right pathway forward. We have invigorated enthusiasm going forward to further characterise the new emulsions in preparation for mine site trials in 2020. We are indebted, of course, to the ongoing support of ACARP and RUREX, and the vision of Mining3.”