Rio Tinto is pushing ahead with its Mine of the Future innovation program, with plans for the development and testing of new technologies in underground tunnelling and mineral recovery.


The Mine of the Future programme was launched in 2008 to introduce new technologies for mining operations that aim to reduce costs, increase efficiency and improve health, safety and environmental performance.


Rio Tinto's head of Innovation John McGagh said the company was ‘head and shoulders’ above the rest of the industry in its technology and innovation programs.


“Mine of the Future is becoming a reality today, with full-scale rollout of automation of mine equipment and large-scale tests of tunnelling, mineral recovery and exploration technologies. Being ahead of the pack gives Rio Tinto a competitive edge in the global mining landscape by generating more efficient and cost-competitive methods of finding, extracting and processing mineral resources and providing new, engaging and diverse employment opportunities."


Rio Tinto is expanding trials of new shaft and tunnel boring systems, aimed at significantly reducing the time taken to excavate underground, with the announcement of a second tunnel boring trial. Rio Tinto is working in partnership with Atlas Copco on the trial, which will start in 2013 at Rio Tinto's Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC) mine in Salt Lake City.


The Atlas Copco Tunnel Boring System at KUC is expected to allow Rio Tinto to tunnel more than 10 metres a day - nearly twice the rate of conventional methods.
The first tunnel boring trial, run in partnership with Aker Wirth, will begin this year at the Northparkes copper and gold mine in New South Wales. Locations are currently being considered for a shaft boring system trial.


Mr McGagh said "More mining is moving underground as deeper ore bodies are identified and open pits come to the end of their lives. Constructing underground mines can be technically challenging, expensive and a slow process. These trials mean we can test the technology to allow us to mine deeper and more safely, with the potential benefits of greater efficiency and speed of underground mine construction which would increase the value of the projects." 


Rio Tinto is also working on ways of improving rates of ore recovery from mature and complex deposits.   As part of the mineral recovery programme, Rio Tinto is forging a new partnership with Norwegian company TOMRA Sorting Solutions, a leading global supplier of automated sensor-based systems used in recycling and food processing.


The partnership will develop commercial-scale systems for separating minerals from rock waste. The work will include scaling up Rio Tinto's iron ore and copper sorting technologies - which extract saleable ore from waste rock - to sort up to 1,000 tonnes of rock an hour.


Rio Tinto is also partnering with UK-based e2V to develop machines to improve the efficiency of mineral recovery from previously discarded ore. The machinery uses large-scale microwave and radio frequency generators and is expected to set a new world standard in mineral recovery.


The partnership will enable Rio Tinto to scale up its mineral recovery technologies such as Copper NuWave, which is expected to be trialled later this year at Kennecott Utah Copper in the United States.


Mr McGagh said "We are developing machines that use digital and sensing technologies to detect and separate the mineral from rock waste so that we can improve rates of recovery from what is currently being treated as waste rock. This technology has the capability of being a potential game-changer in the mining industry.


"There is increasing minerals demand around the world - especially from emerging markets. As minerals become harder to mine, from deeper mines in more remote areas, it's innovation from modern science and technology that's the key to meeting this challenge in a safe and environmentally-friendly way."


Rio Tinto announced that the Automated Train System will be deployed throughout the Pilbara marking the world's first automated long-distance heavy-rail network.

Rio Tinto is also trialling autonomous production drills designed to provide a reliable and repeatable process in blast-hole drilling.


The intent of the integrated system is that automated blast-hole drill rigs will precisely position the blast holes, conduct live rock analysis, dictate to the explosives delivery vehicle the correct charge for each hole and provide data supporting three dimensional mapping systems to provide detailed imaging of each deposit. A number of critical system components have already been successfully tested in Rio Tinto operations.


Work is continuing on the development of the VK1airborne gravity gradiometer, an exploration tool with the potential to assist Rio Tinto find future tier one ore bodies. The system detects small changes in the earth's gravitational field which can indicate the presence of mineral deposits.


The first complete system was initially flown in August 2010, and undertook several test flights throughout 2011. A second improved system was constructed in 2011 and has just commenced flight testing near Perth. Once the system approaches target performance, the 2012 plan will extend the test flight programme to the Pilbara.