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Articles / Innovation / Bigger, stronger, faster -- and environmentally friendly mining

Bigger, stronger, faster -- and environmentally friendly mining


Through collaboration with the mining giant Rio Tinto, Atlas Copco is working on the next generation of an underground caving machine that would make mining more environmentally friendly.

Mobile mining new machine in action

The result of a collaboration between Atlas Copco and Rio Tinto mining company, the new Modular Mining Machine enables more environmentally friendly mining.

The Modular Mining Machine can cut through extremely hard rock walls more than a mile underground, faster and more nimbly than any tunnel-boring machine could, and with less disturbance of the environment.

It is another result of the successful cooperation between Atlas Copco and the mining company Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto's vision for the future calls for using underground block caving in its extensive copper-mining operations. The main disadvantage of this technique has been the long and difficult preparation, requiring up to six years sinking shafts and digging the necessary miles of tunnels, at a depth of a mile or more underground.

Rio Tinto wants to cut that lead time in half. A few years ago, the company invited equipment manufacturers to present their best ideas for making this possible. Atlas Copco won the contract for a horizontal tunneling machine, one that can bore through the hardest rock using a cutterhead mounted on a mobile vehicle.

"If we found copper close to a major city tomorrow, the associated environmental and social concerns would make it very difficult for us to mine this resource," says John McGagh, Rio Tinto's head of innovation.  "Deep underground cave-mining technology, like the Atlas Copco mobile mining machine, could make mining in such a situation possible, without any adverse impact on the environment," he says.

Atlas Copco's Modular Mining Machine offers several advantages over conventional tunnel-boring machines. For one, it can make tunnels with the desired parallel walls, rather than conventional round tunnels. Also, it's nimble enough to accommodate narrow turns and to begin the tunneling for Y-shaped branches.

Designs for the machine are now in the process of being finalized, with delivery possible as early as the end of 2011. 

“We're working towards a completely new way of mining to deliver the step-change benefits we seek, utilizing smart technology in smart machines," says John McGagh. "We need smart partners to help us develop these machines." And when it comes to innovation", he says, "we know from experience that Atlas Copco is a good partner."