Chile
Q&A

How Drillco helps miners deal with falling ore grades, sustainability

Bnamericas Published: Tuesday, June 21, 2022
How Drillco helps miners deal with falling ore grades, sustainability

As ore grades are falling, especially in Chilean copper mines, local operators are seeking to increase ore recovery by using technology and make their operations more efficient.

Chilean equipment supplier Drillco offers 45 ready-made grade recovery solutions, or tailors products to clients' needs, the company's sales and marketing director Trinidad Carmona tells BNamericas in this interview.

Carmona also talks about sustainability, political risks, and more.

BNamericas: What are the main challenges in Chile’s mining sector?

Carmona: The main challenge is the reduction of ore grades. This is more pressing with copper, because the amount of copper that can be extracted per ton of rock is much lower than in the case of gold, uranium, etc. It is essential to improve operability and efficiency to remove the same amount of ore per ton of rock.

This affects the entire process from drilling, blasting, extraction and transportation to the process that takes place in plants, the crusher, the leaching process, tailings, and so on.

On the other hand, the rate of discoveries is low and not enough to compensate for the drop in grades. Yet, 10 years ago, the cut-off grade was not reached, because mineral content was very low. This does not happen now thanks to the technologies that allow extracting this mineral more efficiently.

BNamericas: Which technologies is Drillco using to facilitate this increased production demand?

Carmona: Drillco operates in a very specific niche, which is rock drilling. We are continuously developing technologies that allow recovering the ore rate. The rock changes throughout the operation, depending on drilling location, depth, or mineral. So, the more information you have about the rock, the better the operation.

With technology, it is possible to obtain, for example, information for the crusher about the content of each truckload, identifying both granulometry and ore grade of the blasted rock. This allows for more efficiency and better use of energy.

BNamericas: And how are technology investments developing?

Carmona: There is a tendency to invest more in technology because mining must comply with ESG standards, efficient production, safety, among others.

But cost is the big challenge. Generally, it starts with a conceptual idea or a design that must then go through a series of prototypes and tests until the product emerges. There are two important points: 1) sustained investment capacity over a long period to develop technologies; 2) assume the risks these technologies imply, because failure is very costly. 

There is reluctance to use new technologies, instead looking for proven alternatives.

BNamericas: How are you dealing with the low availability of mining professionals?

Carmona: Even though Chile is a mining country, it is extremely difficult to find advanced scientific talent with specific capabilities. This makes us less competitive.

In the UK, as in Australia, there is a lot of technology development and various innovation centers with specialized people. The mining industry requires specific positions, for example, engineers specialized in mechatronics, in materials sciences. Although they exist in Chile, they are not enough.

BNamericas: And how do you evaluate the constitutional and political discussion surrounding the sector?

Carmona: When there was talk of more radical proposals such as nationalization or changing the concessions system, that was a very tense moment, because that was going to reduce the competitiveness of our country. But the positions eased, and that has given some peace of mind to investors.

Mining operates in long cycles. An average of eight to ten years passes from the beginning of an exploration project until ore is found, a mine is built and production starts. And only with production, profit is generated. So, the legal framework must be able to provide certainty for long periods.

[State miner Codelco's chairman] Máximo Pacheco said the mining royalty could increase to finance a portion of the social agenda, which is fine – as long as the rules and laws are clear and encourage investment.

Mining companies must invest in automation projects, mining without continental water and new desalination plants, for example, which the state’s investment capacity can’t support. That role corresponds to the private sector, which requires legal clarity.

BNamericas: How does Drillco approach sustainability?

Carmona: We are fully committed to supporting the role of mining. We must recognize that mining has historically been harmful to the environment, but today we are seeing concrete commitment to communities and the environment.

At Drillco, we attach great importance to caring for the environment. For example, 10 or 15 years ago, there were steel cemeteries as all the discarded steel was buried. This caused damage to the underground layers of the soil, affecting arable fields. Today there is greater use of recycling.

We take care of the complete cycle of our products, including discarded steel. We carry out a kind of technical burial that allows us to separate its components and then send it to specific plants in different parts of the world for recycling. As suppliers, we have a duty to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of our products, including their disposal.

BNamericas: What new products do you have in the pipeline?

Carmona: We believe in the partnership system between industry and academia. We are currently working with two very important universities in Europe to find solutions on how to obtain better rock data to improve the recovery rate of the ore grade. This is our current main R&D focus.

BNamericas: Is Drillco machinery designed for all types of minerals?

Carmona: We design a tool for each task. All rock operations are unique. Through technical support in the field, it is analyzed how the client is operating, the operational challenge, and clients’ production plans, the fleet of drills, knowledge of their operators, the rock, and other technical attributes.

On that basis, we offer the product. If operations do not fit our 45 solutions, we develop one. We seek to offer the most efficient product for the entire business, including fuel consumption, energy expenditure, etc. to provide a solution that contributes to a reduction in operational costs.

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