Oyu Tolgoi goes underground, autonomous
Rio Tinto leverages advantages offered by Sandvik AutoMine Metal Tech News – May 25, 2022
Last updated 7/12/2022 at 2:07pm
Rio Tinto is leveraging the safety and productivity advantages of Sandvik's autonomous mining equipment as it heads underground at the enormous Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine in the South Gobi Desert region of Mongolia.
Oyu Tolgoi, which began operations as an open pit mine in 2013, produced 359.4 million pounds of copper, 468,000 ounces of gold, and 977,000 oz of silver last year.
Turquoise Hill Resources, a company that is majority-owned by Rio Tinto that operates Oyu Tolgoi, is developing an underground operation that is expected to churn out more than 1 billion lb of copper per year by 2030, making it the world's fourth-largest producer of this metal that has been dubbed the "new oil" due to its importance to renewable energy and electric mobility.
Once up to full operation, the underground mine at Oyu Tolgoi will produce enough copper to build 1,580 wind turbines or 16,400 electric vehicles every day.
The massive Mongolian mine will also be one of the most advanced autonomous operations due to the introduction of the Sandvik AutoMine system.
Turquoise Hill is using block cave mining, a highly efficient underground mining technique that involves digging under an orebody and allowing the deposit to progressively collapse under its own weight. Underground mining equipment will scoop up ore from designated draw points and bring it to the surface for processing.
With roughly 55 miles of tunnels already dug at Oyu Tolgoi, most of the underground development in preparation for block cave mining is complete, and two Sandvik LH514 loaders equipped with AutoMine will soon be autonomously digging under the orebody.
Andy Curtis, senior production manager at Oyu Tolgoi, says the implementation of Sandvik's AutoMine technology promises to optimize production and improve safety.
One of the major productivity advantages is a driverless loader can keep digging immediately after a blast. Typically, all personnel are removed from the mining area after a blast until the ventilation system has cleared the dust and fumes from the mining area. With autonomous equipment, mining can continue during this time.
Working from the comfort and safety of a control room on the surface, Sandvik AutoMine loader operators typically only need to assume control of the loaders at the loading point, with the rest of the load and dump cycle undertaken autonomously.
"The process still requires operator support for loading the bucket of the machine, although the operator will be positioned at a remote operating station on the surface during this shift change automation period," said Curtis.
In addition to still needing operators – albeit in a much more comfortable environment – the introduction of autonomous equipment is creating more technology-oriented jobs at Oyu Tolgoi.
"The introduction of new high technology requires maintenance and technology support and is therefore creating opportunities and increasing the skill level of the maintenance workforce," the Oyu Tolgoi production manager added.
"The project will enable us to conduct the mucking of the undercut ore throughout the shift change period when no one is underground due to blasting," said Curtis. "We can reduce the amount of interaction between heavy mining equipment and personnel during the course of the shift as well as allowing the business to be more productive."
AutoMine, which is the first automation technology to be used at Oyu Tolgoi, had to be introduced and commissioned at the emerging underground mine at a time when travel was restricted due to COVID-19.
"The fact that the AutoMine system installation and commissioning was performed so well with no overseas travels is a big credit especially to the local team at the mine site in Mongolia," said Riku Pulli, president of the digital mining technologies division at Sandvik Mining & Rock Solutions. "I am looking forward to seeing how the use of digital and automation technologies will expand at Oyu Tolgoi as the production levels continue ramping up."
In January, the Oyu Tolgoi board gave the green light for underground operations to begin, and by the first half of 2023, autonomous Sandvik equipment will be delivering ore from the enormous block cave copper-gold mine in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.