* Master Drilling sees uses beyond mining
* Faster drilling seen as safer, cost-effective
* Other miners also trying new methods
By Tanisha Heiberg and Barbara Lewis
CULLINAN, South Africa, Feb 7 Engineering
services company Master Drilling will next month
complete a diamond mine pilot project aimed at roughly doubling
the drilling rate and cutting costs, as miners turn to
technology to maximise output from depleted reserves.
Although they have recovered from a deep downturn in 2015,
miners face the challenge of rising exploration expenditure
after the easiest resources have been extracted.
Many companies are experimenting with new ways of cutting
into mineral deposits to improve profit margins.
Master Drilling, working with diamond producer Petra
Diamonds at the Cullinan mine, northeast of
Johannesburg, is near the end of a three-year trial that
accelerates drilling by using a giant drill-cum-vacuum cleaner
to power horizontally through diamond-bearing kimberlite.
It says the test-phase should end in March, offers the
prospect of increasing drilling speeds from around 3 metres to
up to 6 metres per day and has applications beyond mining.
"We see this trial as an opportunity to establish a
reference for ourselves in getting involved in tunnelling and
building knowledge and expertise," Koos Jordaan, a director at
Master Drilling, told Reuters at Cullinan, famous for producing
diamonds used in Britain's crown jewels.
The result of using a drill rather than blasting is a
perfectly round tunnel, which engineers say is a more stable
shape than the irregular tunnels created by blasting stone.
Safety is further improved because miners have less exposure
to the pit face and, as more ground is covered more precisely,
the chances of striking gem-rich ore increases.
While Master Drilling says the technology can be applied to
other types of mining such as copper, using a vacuum -
eliminating the need for water to douse down the dust - is
particularly relevant to kimberlite, which dissolves in water.
The company declined to comment in detail on the cost impact
until full analysis of the pilot is completed.
Other miners are also using new methods and seeking to
replace traditional blasting.
Anglo American Chief Executive Officer Mark Cutifani
said at the Indaba mining conference in Cape Town, South Africa,
on Monday that the modern mine would be one "where continuous
rock-cutting machines safely extract the targeted ore - deep
underground - without the need for explosive blasting".
The company says the shift has safety benefits, cuts the
amount of time needed for extraction and improves the ability to
accurately target mineral-bearing ore, rather than waste rock.
(Editing by Mark Potter)