August 2012

Fresh air in the underground

Vale’s Cheryl Allen discusses implementation of underground automated ventilation systems

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

Cheryl Allen graduated from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in 1984 and developed her career as a ventilation engineer as she moved around Canada and the United States. At the time, her husband’s career as a mining engineer was the priority, so whenever his work took him to a new city, she looked for an engineering job there. In doing so, she discovered there was a demand for ventilation engineers. “I realized becoming a technical specialist would allow me to apply engineering skills at a higher level and set my own course for future challenges,” she says. Throughout the course of her career, Allen has learned hands on from many technically gifted employees and applied those practical lessons to designs and research opportunities. Today, she is principle ventilation engineer at Vale. “To share experience is definitely a career highlight,” she says, referring to her role in the CIM Distinguished Lecturers Program, where she will be speaking on the challenges of installing an underground automated ventilation system and on how to overcome them.

CIM: How common are underground automated ventilation systems?

Allen: Europe is leading the way. Here in Canada, it’s just beginning. There are some mining companies in North America that have started the process, and Vale has three systems in progress, but when we started there was nothing to copy in North America. We took our own steps forward. We had risk as­sessments at every phase to ensure we really understood what to do before the systems were put in.

CIM: What are the benefits of an automated ventilation system?

Allen: Being able to understand what’s happening with your processes un­derground in real time is a top benefit. We can better understand where energy is going because we have real-time data and a massive amount of data already collected to analyze. If you’re actually measuring something, it’s much easier to know what you’re doing right. An automated ventilation system is more efficient and flexible, as auto­mation allows the system to be diverted to specific areas of the mine quickly and makes volume changes easily and quickly.

CIM: How complicated is it to install a system?

Allen: You need your IT people, who have that high-level, overall view of the architecture of the system and can en­sure it is robust and reliable. You need the instrumentation departments, the electricians and the users of the system. You have the management personnel who see the reporting end of it and know if it’s doing what it is supposed to be doing, and saving energy. There are engineers involved in everything from equipment selection to how it’s going to operate, so there is a wide range of personnel and disciplines involved when you put in an automated ven­tilation system and maintain it.

CIM: What are the challenges?

Allen: A big part of it is the need for a culture change. You have to introduce the automation gradually so people get comfortable with it and its reliability. There’s also the commitment to both initial high capital cost and system maintenance. It does pay off in the long term. Depending on various factors, it could be one to five years. You start by trying to get all the players to un­derstand what it is you’re putting in. It’s a challenge to communicate to the people whose workplace is dependent on the system that this will be better. And it’s a challenge to ensure the systems you put in are not damaged. In the underground environment, it is easy to damage the more fragile systems, so they have to be able to withstand a fair amount of abuse. And it’s a challenge to help the people using them understand what they are, how they operate and how to avoid damage.

CIM: Do you think there is going to be an increase in underground automated ventilation systems in Canada?

Allen: My hope is that 10 years down the road, they will be commonplace. It is difficult to retrofit systems; it’s easier to incorporate the system into designs as new mines come online. I think we’re going to see a lot more underground automated ventilation systems.

Book Cheryl Allen as a Distinguished Lecturer or learn more about the CIM Distinguished Lecturers Program.

Post a comment

Comments

PDF Version