Research areas and capabilities

The appointment of industry experts as part-time lecturers has contributed to the Department’s postgraduate research outputs. Many collaborative and cross-cutting research initiatives have been created.
 
Rock mechanics and undergraduate mine design
Pillar design and extraction methodologies have featured in the mining industry for a long time. A huge body of research has been focused towards the establishment of a design methodology with regard to the stability of pillars, especially in the coal mining industry. In recent years hard rock mines adopted these methodologies with some adjustments to the input parameters with varying levels of success. The research is directed at understanding the complex loading environment of pillars at various depths and dip angles, as well as establishing how mining layouts and rates affect these loading conditions.
 
Adopting a pillar layout as a means of primary support in a working environment results in lower extraction ratios where pillars are over designed.
 
As the mineral is ‘locked-up’ as a supporting system, potential revenue becomes unrecoverable. Millions of tons are left in-situ as pillars in the coal mining industry alone and if not managed, this would be the future scenario in the hard rock mines.
 
Optimisation of mineral resources is imperative when considering the future and sustainability of the South African mining sector. Optimised pillar layout could play a prominent role in achieving sustainability and can be applied to all underground mines.
 
Rock breaking and surface mining
The importance for improved safety standards, cost-effectiveness and productivity has driven technical mining personnel to examine all facets of their operations. Through technically advanced projects, efficient drilling and blasting programmes impact positively throughout the mining operation and invariably leads to an increase in overall profitability. The safe, efficient and innovative use of explosives for rock breaking contributes positively to the overall mining operation.
 
As part of a research project conducted in the Department, a device (which has been available for many years) has now been trialled at a deep-level gold mine. This device has mainly been used on surface civil projects. At this stage the results are promising. Although this tool is used within a niche market, it could be applied to remnant areas where selective rock breaking is required with no negative effects to the environment, compared to explosives.
 
Traditionally, gold mines leave large sterile areas underground to create a safer environment for the workforce. These pillars contain gold that remains underground. Due to the violent nature of explosives, seismicity is a real problem during blasting. With the mechanical breaking of the rock the seismicity could be reduced. A further advantage is less dilution of the grade, thus reducing the milling costs and increasing the grade.
 
Management and leadership
The Mine Design course also requires students to design a rudimentary management system for their new operation. Their knowledge of fundamental management systems and procedures can be integrated in their overall design. The four traditional functions of management — planning, organising, leading and controlling — are included in the fundamentals of management course. Students are exposed to different real-world management issues.
 
With this knowledge they can appreciate the dynamics of any system and critically consider their merits.
 
Through this course, students develop a critical appreciation for the strengths and weaknesses of management systems. They compare alternative systems and are taught not to accept the first draft. Later on, as graduates with limited experience, they can sensibly evaluate and judge the merits of a management system or proposed changes to the system. They can enter into the debate with confidence and contribute ideas.
 
This course also impacts industry in that it offers a sound framework for project management and getting to grips with early stage, first line supervision. It provides students with a solid introduction to the subject which will, once they have graduated, give them a flying start when attending more advanced courses on the subject.
 
Mine Ventilation Engineering
Providing adequate ventilation to dilute pollutants such as gases, dust and diesel particles in mines, remains the primary focus of a ventilation engineer.
 
In recent years the importance of providing a healthy and safe environment in which workers can perform their duties has grown within the legislative framework, as well as in the media. Areas requiring continued focus and research efforts include:
 
• Improvement in coal mine face conditions to reduce dust exposure and to dilute methane.
• Reduction in noise sources, the intensity of sources and ultimately the improvement in the occurrence of noise-induced hearing loss.
 
Due to the maturity of South African hard rock mines, most operations require large cooling and refrigeration infrastructure to ensure thermal environments conducive to productivity. Energy and electricity costs are major expenditure drivers in mines and are the second largest cost driver in the South African context. To this end there are numerous studies to improve the efficiency of existing mines. These include studies into the existing ventilation and refrigeration systems and optimising these through a structured study.
 
Research includes the development of energy efficient components within the network, as well as research into improved networks and the control of the networks.
 
Underground mine fires and explosions remain one of the top risks in underground mining. Research continues into new methods to reduce the risk. This also includes the development and hosting of training seminars in understanding and preventing of mine explosions. The Department has a strategic alliance with the CSIR-managed research facility at Kloppersbos.
 
On-going research deals with active explosion suppression systems and the evaluation of new and alternative coal dust inerting systems.
 
Risk management
A multitude of factors contribute to the overall mining process and risk management is an essential component of the mining engineer’s job. Some of the topics covered in this module are legal liability, safety, health, and operational risk management techniques such as mitigation methodologies, change management, behaviour-based safety and safety leadership. Each of these topics is of vital consideration when establishing a safe and healthy working environment. A mining engineer should therefore understand and manage all the relevant aspects of each type of risk. Risk management is a discipline that affects and includes all stakeholders of a mine – employees, owners, the community, governments and more. The Department offers industry-wide risk management courses through accredited partners.
 
Mineral economics
The mineral economics course deals with the business and economic aspects of natural resource extraction and use. The course involves studying topics in economic and financial analyses as they pertain to mining. All industry participants use mineral economics to some extent, including national and local governments, banks and financial companies, corporations and consultants.
 
The mineral economics course includes the study of:
• Macro and micro economic principles
• Supply and demand theory
• SAMREC and SAMVAL codes and their impact on the mineral sector and individual projects
• Corporate annual results and economic performance
• Marketing of minerals
• Mine valuation
• Grade control
 
A thorough understanding of these principles is crucial for evaluating and improving mining and processing projects from an economic point of view.
 
A mining engineer involved in developing business plans (feasibility studies) must understand the impact of external economic forces on the viability of projects, as well as the impact a specific project may have on the economy of the environment in which it operates.

 

Published by Angenitha Olivier

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