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A three dimensional model of an underground mine with shaft access
Underground hard rock mining refers to various underground mining techniques used to excavate hard minerals, mainly those minerals containing metals such as ore containing gold, copper, zinc, nickel and lead, but also involves using the same techniques for excavating ores of gems such as diamonds. In contrast soft rock mining refers to excavation of softer minerals such as salt, coal, or oil sands.

Mine access

Underground access

Accessing underground ore can be achieved via a decline (ramp), inclined vertical shaft or adit.

  • Declines can be a spiral tunnel which circles either the flank of the deposit or circles around the deposit. The decline begins with a box cut, which is the portal to the surface. Depending on the amount of overburden and quality of bedrock, a galvanized steel culvert may be required for safety purposes. They may also be started into the wall of an open cut mine.


  • Shafts are vertical excavations sunk adjacent to an ore body. Shafts are sunk for ore bodies where haulage to surface via truck is not economical. Shaft haulage is more economical than truck haulage at depth, and a mine may have both a decline and a ramp.


  • Adits are horizontal excavations into the side of a hill or mountain. They are used for horizontal or near-horizontal ore bodies where there is no need for a ramp or shaft.


Declines are often started from the side of the high wall of an open cut mine when the ore body is of a payable grade sufficient to support an underground mining operation but the strip ratio has become too great to support open cast extraction methods. They are also often built and maintained as an emergency safety access from the underground workings and a means of moving large equipment to the workings.

Ore access

Levels are excavated horizontally off the decline or shaft to access the ore body. Stope are then excavated perpendicular (or near perpendicular) to the level into the ore.

Development mining vs. production mining

There are two principal phases of underground mining: development mining and production mining.

Development mining is composed of excavation almost entirely in (non-valuable) waste rock in order to gain access to the orebody. There are six steps in development mining: remove previously blasted material (muck out round), Scaling( Removing any unstable slabs of rock hanging from the roof and sidewalls to protect workers and equipment from damage), support excavation, drill rock face, load explosives, and blast explosives.

Production mining is further broken down into two methods, long hole and short hole. Short hole mining is similar to development mining, except that it occurs in ore. There are several different methods of long hole mining. Typically long hole mining requires two excavations within the ore at different elevations below surface, (15 m – 30 m apart). Holes are drilled between the two excavations and loaded with explosives. The holes are blasted and the ore is removed from the bottom excavation.

Ventilation

Door for directing ventilation in an old lead mine.
The ore hopper at the front is not part of the ventilation.
One of the most important aspects of underground hard rock mining is ventilation. Ventilation is required to clear toxic fumes from blasting and removing exhaust fumes from diesel equipment. In deep hot mines ventilation is also required for cooling the workplace for miners. Ventilation raises are excavated to provide ventilation for the workplaces, and can be modified for use as emergency escape routes. The primary sources of heat in underground hard rock mines are virgin rock temperature, machinery, auto compression, and fissure water. Other small contributing factors are human body heat and blasting.

Ground support

Some means of support is required in order to maintain the stability of the openings that are excavated. This support comes in two forms, local support and area support.

Area ground support

Area ground support is used to prevent major ground failure. Holes are drilled into the back (ceiling) and walls and a long steel rod (or rock bolt) is installed to hold the ground together. There are three categories of rock bolt, differentiated by how they engage the host rock. They are:

Mechanical bolts

  • Point anchor bolts (or expansion shell bolts) are a common style of area ground support. A point anchor bolt is a metal bar between 20 mm – 25 mm in diameter, and between 1 m – 4 m in length (the size is determined by the mine's engineering department). There is an expansion shell at the end of the bolt which is inserted into the hole. As the bolt is tightened by the installation drill the expansion shell expands and the bolt tightens holding the rock together. Mechanical bolts are considered temporary support as their lifespan is reduced by corrosion as they are not grouted.

Grouted bolts

  • Resin grouted rebar is used in areas which require more support than a point anchor bolt can give. The rebar used is of similar size as a point anchor bolt but does not have an expansion shell. Once the hole for the rebar is drilled, cartridges of epoxy resin are installed in the hole. The rebar bolt is installed after the resin and spun by the installation drill. This opens the resin cartridge and mixes it. Once the resin hardens the drill spinning tightens the rebar bolt holding the rock together. Resin grouted rebar is considered a permanent ground support with a lifespan of 20–30 years.
  • Cable bolts are used to bind large masses of rock in the hanging wall and around large excavations. Cable bolts are much larger than standard rock bolts and rebar, usually between 10–25 metres long. Cable bolts are grouted with a cement grout.


Friction bolts

  • Split Set stabilizers (Split Set is a trademark) are much easier to install than mechanical bolts or grouted bolts. The bolt is hammered into the drill hole, which has a smaller diameter than the bolt. Pressure from the bolt on the wall holds the rock together. Split Set® stabilizers are particularly susceptible to corrosion and rust from water unless they are grouted. Once grouted the friction increases by a factor of 3-4.
  • Swellex is similar to Split Set stabilizers, except the bolt diameter is smaller than the hole diameter. High pressure water is injected into the bolt to expand the bolt diameter to hold the rock together. Like the Split Set stabilizer, swellex is poorly protected from corrosion and rust.


Local ground support

Local ground support is used to prevent smaller rocks from falling from the backs and walls. Not all excavations require local ground support.
  • Welded Wire Mesh is a metal screen with 10 cm x 10 cm (4 inch) openings. It is held to the backs using point anchor bolts or resin grouted rebar.
  • Shotcrete is a spray on concrete which coats the backs and walls preventing smaller rocks from falling. Shotcrete thickness can be between 50 mm – 100 mm.
  • Latex Membranes can be sprayed on the backs and walls similar to shotcrete, but in smaller amounts.


Stope and retreat vs. stope and fill

Stope and retreat

Using this method, mining is planned to extract rock from the stopes without filling the voids; this allows the wall rocks to cave in to the extracted stope after all the ore has been removed. The stope is then sealed to prevent access.

Stope and fill

Where large bulk ore bodies are to be mined at great depth, or where leaving pillars of ore is uneconomical, the open stope is filled with backfill, which can be a cement and rock mixture, a cement and sand mixture or a cement and tailings mixture. This method is popular as the refilled stopes provide support for the adjacent stopes, allowing total extraction of economic resources.

Mining methods

Schematic diagram of Cut and Fill mining

Selective mining methods

  • Cut and Fill mining is a method of short hole mining used in steeply dipping or irregular ore zones, in particular where the hanging wall limits the use of long hole methods. The ore is mined in horizontal or slightly inclined slices, and then filled with waste rock, sand or tailings. Either fill option may be consolidated with concrete, or left unconsolidated. Cut and fill mining is an expensive but selective method, with low ore loss and dilution.


  • Drift and Fill is similar to cut and fill, except it is used in ore zones which are wider than the method of drifting will allow to be mined. In this case the first drift is developed in the ore, and is backfilled using consolidated fill. The second drift is driven adjacent to the first drift. This carries on until the ore zone is mined out to its full width, at which time the second cut is started atop of the first cut.


  • Shrinkage Stoping is a short hole mining method which is suitable for steeply dipping orebodies. The method is similar to cut and fill mining with the exception that after being blasted, broken ore is left in the stope where it is used to support the surrounding rock and as a platform from which to work. Only enough ore is removed from the stope to allow for drilling and blasting the next slice. The stope is emptied when all of the ore has been blasted. Although it is very selective and allows for low dilution, since the most of the ore stays in the stope until mining is completed there is a delayed return on capital investments.


  • Room and Pillar mining : Room and pillar mining is commonly done in flat or gently dipping bedded ore bodies. Pillars are left in place in a regular pattern while the rooms are mined out. In many room and pillar mines, the pillars are taken out starting at the farthest point from the stope access, allowing the roof to collapse and fill in the stope. This allows for greater recovery as less ore is left behind in pillars.


Bulk mining methods

  • Block Caving is used to mine massive steeply dipping orebodies (typically low grade) with high friability. An undercut with haulage access is driven under the orebody, with "drawbells" excavated over the undercut. The drawbells serve as a place for caving rock to fall into. The orebody is drilled and blasted above the undercut, and the ore is removed via the haulage access. Due to the friability of the orebody the ore above the first blast caves and falls into the drawbells. As ore is removed from the drawbells the orebody caves in providing a steady stream of ore. If caving stops and removal of ore from the drawbells continues, a large void may form, resulting in the potential for a sudden and massive collapse and potentially catastrophic windblast throughout the mine.


Ore removal

In mines which use rubber tired equipment for coarse ore removal, the ore is removed from the stope (referred to as "mucked out" or "bogged") using center articulated vehicles (referred to as boggers or LHD [short for Load, Haul, Dump]). These pieces of equipment may operate using diesel or electric engines and resemble a low-profile front end loader.

The ore is then dumped into a truck to be hauled to the surface (in shallower mines). In deeper mines the ore is dumped down an ore pass (a vertical or near vertical excavation) where it falls to a collection level. On the collection level, it may receive primary crushing via jaw or cone crusher. The ore is then moved by conveyor belts, trucks or occasionally trains to the shaft to be hoisted to the surface in buckets or skip and emptied into bins beneath the surface headframe for transport to the mill.

In some cases the underground primary crusher feeds an inclined conveyor belt which delivers ore via an incline shaft direct to the surface. The ore is fed down ore passes, with mining equipment accessing the ore body via a decline from surface.

Deepest mines

  • The deepest mines in the world are the TauTonamarker (Western Deep Levels) and Savuka gold mines in the Witwatersrandmarker region of South Africa, which are currently working at depths exceeding 3,900 meters (about 12,800 feet ). There are plans to extend Mponeng mine, a sister mine to TauTona, down to 4,500 meters in the coming years.
  • The deepest hard rock mine in North America is Xstrata's Kidd Minemarker, which mines copper and zinc ore in Timminsmarker, Ontariomarker. Mining is actively occurring 2,682 m (8,800 feet) below surface. The shaft bottoms out at over 2,926m (9,600 feet) down.
  • The deepest hard rock mines in Australia are the copper and zinc lead mines in Mount Isamarker, Queenslandmarker at 1,800 m (5,906 feet).
  • The deepest platinum-palladium mines in the world are on the Merensky Reef, in South Africa, with a resource of 203 million Troy ounces, currently worked to approximately 2,200 m (7,218 feet) depth.
  • The harshest conditions for hard rock mining are in the Witwatersrand area of South Africa, where workers toil in temperatures of up to 45 °C (113 °F). However, massive refrigeration plants are used to bring the air temperature down to around 28 °C.


Footnotes

See also




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