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The next frontier in open-pit mining

The energy transition relies on materials and minerals that are frequently mined in open pits. Sandvik develops equipment for surface mining to help mine operators contribute to net zero along the entire value chain.

The electrification of surface mining is speeding up.To many people, mining conjures up images of underground pits, shafts and tunnels, when, in fact, 80 percent of the world’s excavated materials are mined in open pits or surface mines. Whether a deposit is mined from the surface or underground obviously depends on the location of the ore. “Many mines start out as open-pit operations and move on to underground mining at a later stage, depending on the location and grade of the ore deposit,” says Lauri Laihanen, Vice President, R&D and Product Management, Surface Drilling Division at Sandvik in Finland. “It’s more expensive to extract material underground, so it has to make sense financially, either because it’s a valuable material such as gold, or because you need such vast amounts you have to go deep, like for iron and copper.”

Innovative surface mining solutions

Already a market leader in equipment and software solutions for underground mining, Sandvik now aims to build on that expertise in developing new solutions for surface mining. And there is no lack of demand, since the transition away from fossil fuel-based technologies and towards electric alternatives will depend on a huge increase in the mining and processing of, for example, nickel, rare earth elements, lithium and cobalt. “Minerals that are critical to the energy transition are mined in large quantities in surface mines,” Laihanen points out.

Aiming for net zero emissions

The goal for Sandvik is to have net zero emissions in the value chain, including the impact of products and equipment in use. “The majority of our emissions are in our value chain, specifically coming from the use of products,” says Laihanen. “Accelerating the development of more sustainable solutions to reduce the emissions of our customers is crucial and electric equipment is the most viable way to reach net zero.”

Sandvik aims to support mining operators on their journey towards more sustainable operations, above as well as underground, adds Laihanen. “Electrification, automation and digitalization unite our offering. Putting all these three together gives you maximum leverage in terms of safety, service, sustainability and lower OpEx (operating expenditures), all in one package.”

New test pit validates the equipement

The recent opening of a new test pit outside Tampere offers Sandvik and its customers an authentic operating environment where the performance of the products can be verified in actual operating conditions. The test pit is another indicator of how serious Sandvik is about becoming an open-pit drilling leader, says Laihanen. “If you look at the peak capabilities that have enabled our successes underground, one of these is the test mine. This has been helpful for testing and developing not only the drill rigs, but also rock tools, digital solutions and automation. Now we have a similar capability for surface mining.”

From a strategic and technological point of view, it makes sense for Sandvik to grow in surface mining. Laihanen explains: “The drilling technology required on the surface is pretty similar to underground mining. To the customer, it makes sense to use the same equipment vendor above and underground, particularly from a service and maintenance perspective.”

Advances in surface drilling technology

Laihanen believes Sandvik enjoys a competitive advantage in surface equipment. “We are ahead of the competition in many of the higher-end features, such as automation, and we’re heavily focused on safety and reliability. We don’t start from scratch but come with decades of experience in electrifying underground equipment whereby Sandvik has unique, patented features such as the charging-while-drilling feature.”

Electric surface rigs for enhanced flexibility

Electric surface rigs have long depended solely on a tethered cable as the power source. With its second battery-electric surface concept, Sandvik pushes the potential of more sustainable surface drilling. The intelligent DTH (down the hole) rig’s battery pack, for example, provides power for up to one hour of drilling or up to seven hours of tramming.

The battery offers greater freedom and flexibility and more efficient use of time, as the rig can drill immediately while the cable is being set up.

In the past two years, Sandvik has unveiled two new concept drill rigs for mobile applications above ground. “With the industry shifting towards intelligent, autonomous and emission-free equipment, surface drill rigs need to adapt,” he adds.

This development appears to have been well-received by the market. Last year, Sandvik received its largest-ever order for surface drill rigs, from US-based Sandvik dealer Country Boy. The order consists of 34 surface drill rigs to replace the current contractor fleet in Georgia and Tennessee. Automation is a key feature in the fleet upgrade as part of the equipment will be equipped with Sandvik AutoMine® readiness. The intelligent surface drill rigs from Sandvik will be used for production drilling in various large quarries or open pit mines, as well as construction work sites.

Looking ahead, Laihanen believes that the mining sector has a crucial role to play. “Metals and rare earth minerals are necessary for components and storage media used in renewable energy production and in EVs (electric vehicles). But unless the materials used in these applications are mined and processed in a sustainable way, where’s the net gain?”

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