The Mining Industry

miningMining is the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the earth, usually from an ore body, lode, vein, seam, reef or placer deposit. These deposits form a mineralized package that is of economic interest to the miner.

Ores recovered by mining include metals, coal, oil shale, gemstones, limestone, chalk, dimension stone, rock salt, potash, gravel, and clay. Mining is required to obtain any material that cannot be grown through agricultural processes, or feasibly created artificially in a laboratory or factory. Mining in a wider sense includes extraction of any non-renewable resource such as petroleum, natural gas, or even water.

Mining of stones and metal has been a human activity since pre-historic times. Modern mining processes involve prospecting for ore bodies, analysis of the profit potential of a proposed mine, extraction of the desired materials, and final reclamation of the land after the mine is closed.

Operations usually create a negative environmental impact, both during the mining activity and after the mine has closed. Hence, most of the world’s nations have passed regulations to decrease the impact. Work safety has long been a concern as well, and modern practices have significantly improved safety in mines.

Levels of metal recycling are generally low. Unless future end-of-life recycling rates are stepped up, some rare metals may become unavailable for use in a variety of consumer products. Due to the low recycling rates, some landfills now contain higher concentrations of metal than mines themselves.

Brief History

In the early 20th century, the gold and silver rush to the western United States also stimulated mining for coal as well as base metals such as copper, lead, and iron. Areas in modern Montana, Utah, Arizona, and later Alaska became predominate suppliers of copper to the world, which was increasingly demanding copper for electrical and households goods. Canada’s mining industry grew more slowly than did the United States’ due to limitations in transportation, capital, and U.S. competition; Ontario was the major producer of the early 20th century with nickel, copper, and gold.

Australia experienced the Australian gold rushes and by the 1850s was producing 40% of the world’s gold, followed by the establishment of large mines such as the Mount Morgan Mine, which ran for nearly a hundred years, Broken Hill ore deposit (one of the largest zinc-lead ore deposits), and the iron ore mines at Iron Knob. After declines in production, another boom in mining occurred in the 1960s. Now, in the early 21st century, Australia remains a major world mineral producer.

A globalized mining industry of large multinational corporations has arisen. Peak minerals and environmental impacts have also become a concern. Different elements, particularly rare earth minerals, have begun to increase in demand as a result of new technologies.

Mine Development and Life Cycle

The process of mining from discovery of an ore body through extraction of minerals and finally to returning the land to its natural state consists of several distinct steps. The first is discovery of the ore body, which is carried out through prospecting or exploration to find and then define the extent, location and value of the ore body. This leads to a mathematical resource estimation to estimate the size and grade of the deposit.

This estimation is used to conduct a pre-feasibility study to determine the theoretical economics of the ore deposit. This identifies, early on, whether further investment in estimation and engineering studies is warranted and identifies key risks and areas for further work. The next step is to conduct a feasibility study to evaluate the financial viability, the technical and financial risks, and the robustness of the project.

This is when the mining company makes the decision whether to develop the mine or to walk away from the project. This includes mine planning to evaluate the economically recoverable portion of the deposit, the metallurgy and ore recoverability, marketability and payability of the ore concentrates, engineering concerns, milling and infrastructure costs, finance and equity requirements, and an analysis of the proposed mine from the initial excavation all the way through to reclamation. The proportion of a deposit that is economically recoverable is dependent on the enrichment factor of the ore in the area.

To gain access to the mineral deposit within an area it is often necessary to mine through or remove waste material which is not of immediate interest to the miner. The total movement of ore and waste constitutes the mining process. Often more waste than ore is mined during the life of a mine, depending on the nature and location of the ore body. Waste removal and placement is a major cost to the mining operator, so a detailed characterization of the waste material forms an essential part of the geological exploration program for a mining operation.

Once the analysis determines a given ore body is worth recovering, development begins to create access to the ore body. The mine buildings and processing plants are built, and any necessary equipment is obtained. The operation of the mine to recover the ore begins and continues as long as the company operating the mine finds it economical to do so. Once all the ore that the mine can produce profitably is recovered, reclamation begins to make the land used by the mine suitable for future use.

Techniques

Mining techniques can be divided into two common excavation types: surface mining and sub-surface (underground) mining. Today, surface mining is much more common, and produces, for example, 85% of minerals (excluding petroleum and natural gas) in the United States, including 98% of metallic ores.

Targets are divided into two general categories of materials: placer deposits, consisting of valuable minerals contained within river gravels, beach sands, and other unconsolidated materials; and lode deposits, where valuable minerals are found in veins, in layers, or in mineral grains generally distributed throughout a mass of actual rock. Both types of ore deposit, placer or lode, are mined by both surface and underground methods.

Some mining, including much of the rare earth elements and uranium mining, is done by less-common methods, such as in-situ leaching: this technique involves digging neither at the surface nor underground. The extraction of target minerals by this technique requires that they be soluble, e.g., potash, potassium chloride, sodium chloride, sodium sulfate, which dissolve in water. Some minerals, such as copper minerals and uranium oxide, require acid or carbonate solutions to dissolve.

Surface Mining  Surface mining is done by removing (stripping) surface vegetation, dirt, and, if necessary, layers of bedrock in order to reach buried ore deposits.

High Wall Mining  High wall mining is another form of surface mining that evolved from auger mining. In high wall mining, the coal seam is penetrated by a continuous miner propelled by a hydraulic Push-beam Transfer Mechanism (PTM).

Underground Mining  Sub-surface mining consists of digging tunnels or shafts into the earth to reach buried ore deposits. Ore, for processing, and waste rock, for disposal, are brought to the surface through the tunnels and shafts.

Other methods include shrinkage stope mining, which is mining upward, creating a sloping underground room, long wall mining, which is grinding a long ore surface underground, and room and pillar mining, which is removing ore from rooms while leaving pillars in place to support the roof of the room. Room and pillar mining often leads to retreat mining, in which supporting pillars are removed as miners retreat, allowing the room to cave in, thereby loosening more ore. Additional sub-surface mining methods include hard rock mining, which is mining of hard rock (igneous, metamorphic or sedimentary) materials, bore hole mining, drift and fill mining, long hole slope mining, sub level caving, and block caving.

Processing

Once the mineral is extracted, it is often then processed. The science of extractive metallurgy is a specialized area in the science of metallurgy that studies the extraction of valuable metals from their ores, especially through chemical or mechanical means.

Mineral processing (or mineral dressing) is a specialized area in the science of metallurgy that studies the mechanical means of crushing, grinding, and washing that enable the separation (extractive metallurgy) of valuable metals or minerals from their gangue (waste material). Processing of placer ore material consists of gravity-dependent methods of separation, such as sluice boxes. Only minor shaking or washing may be necessary to disaggregate (unclump) the sands or gravels before processing. Processing of ore from a lode mine, whether it is a surface or subsurface mine, requires that the rock ore be crushed and pulverized before extraction of the valuable minerals begins. After lode ore is crushed, recovery of the valuable minerals is done by one, or a combination of several, mechanical and chemical techniques.

Since most metals are present in ores as oxides or sulfides, the metal needs to be reduced to its metallic form. This can be accomplished through chemical means such as smelting or through electrolytic reduction, as in the case of aluminum. Geometallurgy combines the geologic sciences with extractive metallurgy and mining.

Environmental Effects

Environmental issues can include erosion, formation of sinkholes, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of soil, groundwater and surface water by chemicals from mining processes. In some cases, additional forest logging is done in the vicinity of mines to create space for the storage of the created debris and soil. Contamination resulting from leakage of chemicals can also affect the health of the local population if not properly controlled. Extreme examples of pollution from mining activities include coal fires, which can last for years or even decades, producing massive amounts of environmental damage.

Waste

Ore mills generate large amounts of waste, called tailings. For example, 99 tons of waste are generated per ton of copper, with even higher ratios in gold mining, because only 5.3g of gold is extracted per ton of ore, a ton of gold produces 200,000 tons of tailings. These tailings can be toxic.

Renewable Energy

Many mining sites are remote and not connected to the grid. Electricity is typically generated with diesel generators. Due to high transportation cost and theft during transportation the cost for generating electricity is normally high. Renewable energy applications are becoming an alternative or amendment. Both solar and wind power plants can contribute in saving diesel costs at mining sites. Renewable energy applications have been built at mining sites. Cost savings can reach up to 70%.

Industry

While exploration and mining can be conducted by individual entrepreneurs or small businesses, most modern day mines are large enterprises requiring large amounts of capital to establish. Consequently, this sector of the industry is dominated by large, often multinational, companies, most of them publicly listed. London UK is known as the capital of global mining houses such as Rio Tinto Group, BHP Billiton, and Anglo American PLC.

Corporate Classifications

Mining companies can be classified based on their size and financial capabilities:

*  Major companies are considered to have an adjusted annual mining-related revenue of more than US$500 million, with the financial capability to develop a major mine on its own.
*   Intermediate companies have at least $50 million in annual revenue but less than $500 million.
* Junior companies rely on equity financing as their principal means of funding exploration. Juniors are mainly pure exploration companies, and do not have a revenue exceeding US$50 million.

 


 

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