Rio Tinto reported February 21 it is expanding its Mine of the Future program to include development and testing of new technologies for underground tunneling and mineral recovery.

At the company’s Kennecott Utah Copper mine near Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, Rio Tinto is working in partnership with Atlas Copco on a trial of a tunnel-boring system that is expected to allow the company to tunnel more than 10 m per day, nearly twice the rate of conventional methods. This work is scheduled to begin in 2013 and is addition to a first tunnel-boring trial, run in partnership with Aker Wirth, that will begin this year at the company’s Northparkes copper and gold mine in New South Wales, Australia. Rio Tinto is also considering locations for a shaft-boring system trial.

As part of its work to improve rates of ore recovery from mature and complex deposits, Rio Tinto has formed a partnership with a Norwegian company, TOMRA Sorting Solutions, to develop commercial-scale systems for separating minerals from rock waste. This work will include scaling-up of Rio Tinto’s iron ore and copper sorting technologies, which extract saleable ore from waste rock, to sort up to 1,000 mt of rock per hour.

Rio Tinto is also partnering with UK-based e2V to develop machines to improve the efficiency of mineral recovery from previously discarded ore. The machinery uses large-scale microwave and radio frequency generators and is expected to set “a new world standard” in mineral recovery.

Rio Tinto Head of Innovation John McGagh said, “We are developing machines that use digital and sensing technologies to detect and separate the mineral from rock waste so that we can improve rates of recovery from what is currently being treated as waste rock. This technology has the capability of being a potential game-changer in the mining industry.”

Rio Tinto is also continuing work on the development of the VK1airborne gravity gradiometer, an exploration tool that detects small changes in the earth’s gravitational field the can indicate the presence of mineral deposits. The first complete system was initially flown in August 2010, and several test flights were made 2011. A second, improved system was constructed in 2011 and has begun flight testing near Perth, Western Australia. Rio Tinto’s 2012 plan is to extend the test flight program to the Pilbara region of Western Australia, once the system approaches target performance.

Other recently announced initiatives in Rio Tinto’s Mine of the Future program include the introduction of automated trains and driverless trucks into the company’s Pilbara iron ore operations.