February 2011

Rio Tinto funds new mining frontier

Mining giant advances research into underground mine construction

By Janice Leuschen


John McGagh, head of innovation, Rio Tinto (left) and Peter K. Kaiser, president & CEO at CEMI, sign historic innovation agreement. Rio Tinto is investing $10 million over the next five years to conduct research into underground mine construction | Photo courtesy of Shannon Katary

Rio Tinto will invest $10 million dollars over the next five years in the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) to establish the Rio Tinto Centre for Underground Mine Construction, said Fred Delabbio, general manager of underground technology and innovation for Rio Tinto, in a recent announcement at CEMI’s facility in Sudbury, Ontario.

John McGagh, head of innovation at Rio Tinto, addressed the group via video link from Brisbane, Australia, about the need for new technologies. “It is quite likely that over the next 25 years, the minerals industry will be required to place into the world system the same amount of mineral product that we’ve placed into the system since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution until about today,” he said. “It comes at a time when we’ve taken advantage of the best ore bodies. It’s not to say that we are running out of minerals; it’s to say that we have a new challenge.”

The new challenge is to reach ore bodies that are deeper underground than current mining technology allows, at a much faster pace and in an environmentally friendly manner. CEMI will be focusing on innovative support systems for drill-and-blast and mechanical excavations, developing better understanding and predicting rock behaviour in difficult conditions, rock/mass characterization, pillar designs and excavation building.

This centre is the fifth of Rio Tinto’s long-term research centres. “Our strategy is to create a network of partners comprising the world’s best minds in their specific areas of discipline to work with the Rio Tinto system and our extended networks and supply partners, to rapidly develop these technologies and get them into our operations,” McGagh said.

For Peter Kaiser, president and CEO of CEMI, and his team, the investment by Rio Tinto demonstrates to other mining companies that CEMI is a world-class research centre. CEMI receives ongoing funding from local mining companies Vale and Xstrata Nickel, as well as the federal government for its research. It has grown from a startup organization in 2003 to a centre with a management team with over 150 years of industry, academic and research experience.

“The partnership with Rio Tinto will attract highly qualified individuals to northern Ontario and help to retain expertise,” Kaiser said. “It will enhance active linkages between science, industry and business, so that we can capitalize from this initiative.”

Kaiser emphasized that Rio Tinto is not making a donation but is investing in CEMI, and the agreement will be mutually beneficial. “It’s a substantial amount of money that allows you to make a significant difference,” he said. “This research program is not about making incremental changes, but about making significant changes, so the funding will be very focused.”

Kaiser also noted that the program will create opportunities for small- and medium-sized businesses to engage in innovative testing and technical developments. In addition, CEMI will be able to expand its network of innovators to serve local partners in their problem solving by creating commercialization and service opportunities around the world.

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