Rollercoaster for Rocks: New Technology Combines Railways and Conveyors

Rolling onto the Rail-Veyor sitefeels like driving into an amusement park. Looming in the distance, a bright yellow, elevated train track comes into view and, by all appearances,it is a rollercoaster, complete with track,loops and cars. Only instead of people inside the cars, there are chunks of ore riding the rails.

Miners have long debated the best methods for moving mucked-out ore.The chosen technology depends on a number of factors, including the type of material to be moved, the distance it needs to be moved, the grade of the site, whether the mine is on surface or underground, and the cost of conveying the material. Traditional methods employ belt-driven conveyors, trucks, electric and hydraulic shovels, load-haul-dump vehicles and railcars.

Now a new technology has come to the fore, and it could revolutionize the way ore is moved through surface and underground mines, says MikeRomaniuk, President and CEO of Rail-Veyor Technologies Global Inc.

The Canadian company, based in Sudbury, Ontario, has set up a demonstrationsite on a piece of land owned by Vale, which is researching the project and contributing financially to developing the technology.

The train moves around a 750-metre track, which includes a 20 percent uphill grade, on the way to an elevated section of track. The ore-laden cars move over the loop, dumping their loads into a hopper below, before continuing down the track to the point of origin.

The two-wheeled cars are joined to form a continuous trough. As the cars move through a series of stationary drive stations, pressure from truck tires is applied to the sides of the cars, which pushes them along the track. The tires apply just enough pressure to the cars to push them along. The drive stations are synchronized to turn on and off as they push the train through the route.The technology was first tried inFrance in the 1960s but failed due to alack of technology needed for the drivestations to communicate with each other, says Romaniuk. The idea was seized upon a decade ago by Rail-Veyorinventors Joe Capers and Mike Dibble, who convinced the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research to build a demonstration site.

In 2007, the Rail-Veyor system was deployed to Harmony Gold’s Phakisa underground mine in South Africa. The mine started with one train and is now up to three, running 3.7 million tonnes of ore a year at a cost of $2,000 per ton. The Rail-Veyor is suitable for any application needing high volumes of material moved, says Romaniuk, listing aggregate, cement, iron ore, coal, bauxite, gold, copper, nickel and even woodchips, among its possible uses.

“It’s fundamentally a materials movement system,” he says, noting that theRail-Veyor can handle sticky material such as oil sands, up to 24-inch muck, in cars ranging from 18 to 48 inches wide.The cars hold up to three tonnes each.

The company says that there istheoretically no limit to the size of thecars, the length of the unit trains, orthe length of the track. The system has demonstrated the capacity to move and dump about 190 tonnes of material per hour, with the train moving at speeds upto 32 km/h.

Rail-Veyor offers advantages over competing systems such as trucking and traditional railways, says Romaniuk. First, since it is an automated system, there are no costs for hiring operators other than one person required to run the system from a central command post. This also reduces the potential for accidents, as there is no interface between people and trucks, for example.

Second, Rail-Veyor is lighter and more flexible than traditional rail. It uses amore lightweight rail track than traditional rail, meaning that the track can be picked up and moved relatively easily. The train does not require a locomotive. It is able to travel up a 20-degree incline, and can negotiate tighter corners than traditional trains. The system also allows for simple bridging and tunnelling over or under roadways, rivers and other obstructions.

Finally, Rail-Veyor uses minimalenergy. The trains are electricity-powered using drive stations that employ small (100-hp) motors, and the trains actually generate power when they travel downhill.“It’s a very green technology,” saysRomaniuk.

He says the company has received several inquiries from mining companies, and is looking to place three orders by the end of 2010.

“We have some solid interest in North America and some very good interest inthe Asia Pacific region,” says Romaniuk, noting that underground mining and coal are the primary areas of interest.

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