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Hydropower’s Untapped Potential in Mining

Water Power can Transform Underground Mining, COMRO's Legacy Shows

by Adenike Adeodun

The development of hydropower for South Africa’s gold mining industry has shown immense potential, despite the setbacks faced by the industry. When the Chamber of Mines Research Organisation (COMRO) was operational, it led intensive research into hydraulics. However, due to industry challenges, COMRO merged with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), leading to a discontinuation of its independent research efforts.

Had COMRO continued its focused research during those uncertain times, hydropower could have been more extensively integrated into mining operations today. This technology would likely be powering underground machinery to a much greater extent. To highlight the potential of water power in mining, Brian Protheroe edited the book “COMRO’S Legacy,” published by the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy as part of a special publications series. The book underscores how hydraulic power can serve as an alternative power source for mining machinery.

“There’s a lot of information available,” Protheroe commented in an interview with Mining Weekly, “but it has not been disseminated to the extent that it possibly should have been.” This gap in dissemination means that many of today’s mining engineers may not fully recognize hydropower’s potential.

Protheroe emphasized the significant potential of hydropower in mining, pointing out its proven efficiency when used underground. The COMRO research team saw endless possibilities for using water in mining operations. “We produced winches which worked on water, so everything could be worked on water. We looked at reverse osmosis and envisioned a whole sequence of how the mine of the future would look,” Protheroe recalled, highlighting the innovative impact ripper designed for continuous mining operations.

In addition to machinery, water has also been found to be highly effective in cooling systems. Ice, in particular, was discovered to be more efficient at cooling than water, which itself is better than air. At the now-closed East Rand Proprietary Mine (ERPM) in Boksburg, 8,000 tons of ice were taken underground daily, as it provided cooling four times more effective than water. Harmony Gold’s Mponeng operation, the world’s deepest mine, uses ice to cool its depths. Earlier this year, Harmony approved a R7.9-billion project to deepen Mponeng to about 4.1 km by 2030.

With the gold price at a record $2,300 per ounce, the question arises: can new technology, possibly involving miniaturization, be developed to economically extract gold at greater depths? Protheroe believes that innovative approaches are indeed possible.

A 2 km pipe from the surface can provide 20 MPa (200 bar) of power, which is sufficient for driving mining machinery. Protheroe explained that a rule of thumb in mining is that for every ton of rock mined, a ton of water is used. A typical mine reticulates 20 million liters of water, utilizing a system that includes dams and extensive pipework.

The potential of water power in underground mining remains largely untapped. Protheroe’s work, including his contributions to “COMRO’S Legacy,” aims to reignite interest in hydraulic power and its applications. By revisiting and expanding upon the research initially conducted by COMRO, the mining industry can explore new, efficient ways to utilize water power.

Hydropower’s efficiency and versatility make it a valuable resource for the mining sector. From driving machinery to cooling operations, the applications are numerous. Protheroe’s insights suggest that, with renewed focus and innovation, water power could play a transformative role in the future of mining.

The mining industry stands at a crossroads where embracing the potential of water power could lead to significant advancements. By revisiting the foundational research of COMRO and exploring new technological approaches, the sector can harness the benefits of hydraulic power, making mining operations more efficient and sustainable. As the industry continues to evolve, the insights and innovations highlighted in “COMRO’S Legacy” offer a roadmap for integrating water power into modern mining practices.


Source: Mining Weekly

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