Rio Tinto is pushing ahead with its Mine of the Future program, with plans for the development and testing of new technologies in underground tunneling and mineral recovery. “Rio Tinto is head and shoulders above the rest of the industry in our technology and innovation programs,” said Rio Tinto Head of Innovation John McGagh.

“Mine of the Future is becoming a reality today, with full-scale rollout of automation of mine equipment and large-scale tests of tunneling, mineral recovery and exploration technologies. Being ahead of the pack gives Rio Tinto a competitive edge in the global mining landscape by generating more efficient and cost-competitive methods of finding, extracting and processing mineral resources and providing new, engaging and diverse employment opportunities.”

Rio Tinto is expanding trials of new shaft and tunnel boring systems, aimed at significantly reducing the time taken to excavate underground, with the announcement of a second tunnel boring trial. Rio Tinto is working in partnership with Atlas Copco on the trial, which will start in 2013 at Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC) mine in Salt Lake City.

The Atlas Copco Tunnel Boring System at KUC is expected to allow Rio Tinto to tunnel more than 10 meters per day—nearly twice the rate of conventional methods. The first tunnel boring trial, run in partnership with Aker Wirth, will begin this year at the Northparkes copper and gold mine in New South Wales. Locations are currently being considered for a shaft boring system trial.

“More mining is moving underground as deeper ore bodies are identified and open-pits come to the end of their lives,” said McGagh. “Constructing underground mines can be technically challenging, expensive and a slow process. These trials mean we can test the technology to allow us to mine deeper and more safely, with the potential benefits of greater efficiency and speed of underground mine construction which would increase the value of the projects.”

Rio Tinto is also working on ways of improving rates of ore recovery from mature and complex deposits. As part of the mineral recovery program, the company is taking a cue from non-mining industries in its development of world-class mineral sorting technology by forging a new partnership with a leading global supplier of automated sensor-based systems used in recycling and food processing.

A partnership with Norwegian company TOMRA Sorting Solutions will develop commercial-scale systems for separating minerals from rock waste. This work will include scaling up Rio Tinto’s iron ore and copper sorting technologies, which extract saleable ore from waste rock, to sort up to 1,000 metric tons per hour of rock.

Rio Tinto is also partnering with UK-based e2V to develop machines that 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. The partnership will enable Rio Tinto to scale up its mineral recovery technologies such as Copper NuWave, which is expected to be trialed later this year at KUC.

“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,” said McGagh. “There is increasing minerals demand around the world—especially from emerging markets. As minerals become harder to mine, from deeper mines in more remote areas, it’s innovation from modern science and technology that’s the key to meeting this challenge in a safe and environmentally-friendly way.”

In related news, Rio Tinto also announced an Automated Train System will be deployed throughout the Pilbara marking the world’s first automated long-distance heavy-rail network. The first driverless train will be launched in 2014, with the AutoHaul automated train program scheduled for completion a year later.