Gold prices have plummeted in the past six months, forcing miners to implement tough spending regimes which squeeze every last drop out of capital expenditure budgets and go in search of operational efficiencies.
On the back of uncertain market conditions, looking for the elusive ‘game changing’ technology is now more important than ever.
Gold miner AngloGold Ashanti is one player piloting a new automated drill and blast project which purports to stop all blasting activities and creates unmanned stopes at its Tau Tona mine located in South Africa, west of Johannesburg.
The automated technology isn’t an entirely new invention, but rather it utilises advances around drilling and backfilling processes in an innovative way.
But for real value to be achieved, AngloGold said the challenge going forward is to amalgamate all the activities into a consolidated system, Creamer Media reported.
Launched in 2010, the program’s initial aim was to unlock about 100 million ounces of gold that could not be mined conventionally.
Almost three years on the program is showing promise and is expected to allow the company to realign its focus on revenue whilst keeping the site open year-round.
“There’s been very good progress made in the last six months,” AngloGold Ashanti executive director Tony O’Neill said.
Already the pace of tunnel boring has increased almost seven fold, from three metres a day to 20 meters and the advancements are designed to eradicate the need to leave large pillar areas unmined in order to assure safety.
Although the automated operations have not been without its critics, AngloGold chief executive Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan (Venkat) explained.
“A number of people were sceptical about the ability of technology to improve the long-term viability of the South African mines and we have started to prove them wrong,” he said.
O’Neil added that the new technology is also well suited for platinum mining operations and the company will be looking at implementing it across a number of additional sites.
“We’re able to get a good tonnage of gold from the areas where we are using the new technology and we’re currently expanding the technology to other areas within the South African mines,” Venkat said.
“We believe getting that right is not just going to benefit AngloGold Ashanti in the future, but it is going to benefit the mining industry generally and, importantly, provide employment for longer for our South African workforce.”
To date the company has spent between $30 to $40 million on the new non-blast technology, which automates activities and also enhances the safety of underground operations.
Putting the numbers into perspective, the new technology is expected to add another 30 million ounces to the company’s South African reserve base.
AngloGold Ashanti executive VP Mike MacFarlane recently told the Investing in African Mining Indaba in Cape Town, that the technology opens up "mouth-watering grades" of 25 g/t from depths of 5 kilometres.
It also speeds up the process, with no additional infrastructure investments required the automation allows mining to be done in one fifth of the time.
“We could be turning what appears to be a sunset industry into a sunrise industry. We believe that if we get this right, we could actually change the mining paradigm for deep hard-rock underground mines globally,” MacFarlane said.
South Africa has some of the largest and deepest gold deposits globally, but significant amounts have had to be left in shaft and stability pillars because blasting disturbs ground conditions and creates seismicity.
Eradicating blasting and taking people out of the danger zones with automated technology not only mitigates risk it also delivers a hefty return to investors.
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