How Can Drill & Blast Operations Make Mining More Sustainable?

Jon Lawson

Mining is a hugely energy-intensive business. The drill and blast part of the process is very important in so far as how it influences other downstream processes.

For example, the Coalition for Eco Efficient Comminution (CEEC) group of industry experts has recently compiled some thought-provoking figures. Comminution of gold and copper in Australia alone consumes 0.2% of global energy; that’s 1.3% of the country’s energy. And in the USA it consumes 1.3% of the electrical power.

For the world as a whole, comminution uses 1.8% of electricity generated. Obviously drill and blast significantly impacts how process ore and gangue  is transported and separated.

The Move To Smarter Mining

Taking advantage of the latest technologies and smart drilling and blasting approaches can offer planners and leaders a critical lever to smarter mining and procession, considerably lifting productivity as well as reducing the footprint including energy, emissions, water and its actual physical footprint.

Those things are very important to senior executives now, for shareholder value and community support. It is crucial for leaders in this industry to consider the whole of asset net present value gains by approaching their improvements, starting with smarter drilling and blasting designed to maximise value of their product and output.

So How Is Technology Being Used Here?

One way is to look at these downstream processes and see what improvements can be made. So taking the fragmentation as an example, improving modelling can help here.

Steven Putt is director of Mining Software Solutions at DataCloud. He says, “The key to better blasting is better orebody knowledge and better feedback from downstream processing. You need to know the rock to blast correctly, and also know how that blast did at the mill to perfect operations further. For example, there are many hard rock cases where continuing to load more explosives in the extremely hard zones will diminish your return. Using data and analysis for true measurements and continuous feedback loops will enlighten you to a better way forward.

“It’s similar to using GPS on a phone. I know how to get to downtown Denver from my house, but I do not know the quickest way to get there based on the current traffic or road works. I use GPS because I do not want to waste my time, money or gas. This is what I work on at DataCloud. Our software, MinePortal, integrates geology and downstream data to achieve the most efficient fragmentation without overspending on explosives or hauling.”

Putt is convinced everything in a mine is closely connected. “They all affect one another,” he continues. “If you blast better, shovels digs better, trucks take the right material to the right place, rocks are the best size for where they are going, and mine sites achieve optimal blending and processing results. Advances in drilling and blasting affect energy consumption overall in the mine, for example, you can recover more material with the same amount of energy at the crusher. If fragmentation is correct, it will end recycling material through crushers. And with extremely hard rock, teams will know to blend it so performance and recovery remain high.”

Machine learning, AI and cloud computing can all assist. Putt says: “Here we are witnessing faster and better geological reconciliations, interpretations and visualisations analysed with algorithms in the cloud. For example, MinePortal runs on Azure to supply mining firms with easy access to a digital twin of their operations. It integrates data sets and applies geostatistics and machine learning techniques to spot patterns and anomalies, provide reliable predictions of structure between the blast holes, and detect rock properties that inform teams how to blast more efficiently.”

Improved Links From Drilling & Blasting Process

Using new technology can create a better link from the drilling and blasting process to other aspects of mining. Putt points out that where safety is concerned, improvements can be made by detecting preconditioned material, highly fractured zones and underground voids in real-time.

Offering further detail, he says, “We can now improve how we share knowledge with a single source of truth for all critical operations. So we can optimise mine-to-mill operations by correlating D&B, excavation, crushing performance and mill throughput data. Also we can use crusher and mill performance data to remove bottlenecks, reduce recycle rates and anticipate the incoming rock’s impact to overall throughput. We can improve recovery by correlating geology and assay data to blast hole drill data.”

Focusing on the explosives, Putt observes, “We are seeing more electronic detonators offering the flexibility to infinitely change timing – so that harder rock and softer rock can be matched to their appropriate burden relief. Knowing your soft and hard zones is even more important with advancements in technology. Those technologies require this data input to be accurate. Also differential energy for explosives, different energies of explosives as they load down the blast hole based on what the geology requires to fragment correctly.”

Combining Cloud Computing With Geostatistics

Emmanuel Schnetzler is vice president of Geoscience at DataCloud. He says, “Recent advances in cloud computing may be allowing geostatistics to crunch more data, faster, but its merging with machine learning techniques that will continue to be the most exciting development in the next decade. This opens an entirely new landscape for applications in the mining sector.

In simplified terms, geostatistics are a set of model-driven algorithms, and machine learning can be seen as a data-driven approach. Combining them to get the best of both worlds is the holy grail of geological modelling. This is what we are doing at DataCloud, especially when a client asks us to integrate massive datasets and visualise their orebody in new ways to gain new insights.

“A mine site is full of orebody knowledge, evolution of rock, geochemistry, mineralogy, hyperspectral, geometallurgy and more. All this data collected is challenging to incorporate into a consistent spatial model: geostatistics can struggle with large amounts of disparate data types. On the other hand, it can be difficult to incorporate spatial constraints in machine learning models. Now they can support each other: model-driven geological features incorporated into machine learning frameworks that explicitly consider spatial correlation as well as uncertainty. There is no silver bullet here. Geostatistics and machine learning are powerful tools on their own, but building a framework that takes advantage of the strength of both approaches is the best way forward to invent powerful new algorithms and workflows.”

Maintenance Supports Sustainability

Gary McGuire is contract drilling & blasting manager at Skelair International. He believes sustainability extends to the end user. He notes this starts with the basics: “Operators can make drilling more sustainable by making sure that the drilling machines are well serviced and maintained. From a shotfiring point of view making sure that each blast is marked out correctly to give you the best results and optimise the rigs use.”

Improvements in survey techniques are also helping. He continues, “Surveying has come on a long way in the past 12 years I have been in the industry, and I’m sure others who have been in longer have seen even more changes. Today you have a vast range of modern surveying equipment that all have their uses and I’m sure with the speed technology is progressing there will be more to come on the market. And we are seeing more use of drones for surveying. This will all have benefits for great blast optimisation.

“High-resolution subsurface visualisation is improving to the point where we are not just seeing what we have on the surface and rock face but what is also happening within the rock itself to give us a greater understanding of how to improve our blast design. Regarding the programmes on the market to help us understand the fragmentation of each blast, the more we use them the better we understand what changes are needed in the drilling, blast design and blasting process.”

There are other technologies that are currently evolving that can be taken advantage of, such as 5G, VR and AR. “It is all a plus in my opinion” he says. “With these technologies available you will be able to make drilling more accurate therefore being able to design better blast specifications to get better results with blasting.

“Blasting can be made sustainable by using all the current technologies so that you are optimising each blast and getting right first time rather than having to deal with any problems that may occur with a bad blast. With the drilling rigs, how they are today, we are able to get a better understanding of how the holes have drilled. With this technology we are able to use it to our advantage when creating a blast design.”

With the explosives themselves, McGuire says, “With the technology available today we are able to understand where the explosives are to be positioned within the blast to give us the best results. Modern explosive trucks are improving the way the explosives are mixed leading to more power creating better results. The changes made by using all this technology we are seeing better results with fragmentation and this means the productivity of the quarry increases. This has a knock-on effect for downstream processes such as transport, separation and processing.”

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