Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Explosives don't usually factor in discussions of innovative mining technology. Yet cutting-edge explosives that look like Vaseline rather than sticks of dynamite are at the forefront of state-of-the-art technology designed for mines.

AEL Mining Services says there is a sudden and growing demand for its products as mining companies closely examine their operations to realise cost savings.

AEL is a division of listed chemicals company AECI and holds more than 50% of the surface and underground explosives markets in SA.

Explosives are one of the top five costs for any mining operation. By using new blasting technologies, AEL says, a mine can save up to R1m per blast, and many more millions of rand in operational expenses a year.

The company has been on a mission to convert mines away from package explosives (that look like the sticks of dynamite), in particular to move them from “quick and dirty” bulk explosives to its main offering of the petroleum jelly-like emulsion.

Emulsion blasting saves lives and, in the long run, saves costs, AEL says.

“There is now a pull from the mines, we are not pushing it [the product] anymore,” says AEL CEO Edwin Ludick. “The mines are really driving demand.”

AEL’s divisional director for underground, Meagan van den Berg, says that with some commodity prices such as platinum at persistent lows, mines can’t hide inefficiencies anymore. “I think they’ve squeezed their suppliers on price so much, they are now looking at inherent inefficiencies [exacerbated by] a lack of adopting technology or just not thinking differently,” she says.

The growing demand for innovation in explosives technology is something AEL, which has 60% of its business outside of SA, is seeing globally as mines struggle to cut costs further and battle low productivity.

New blasting technology is cost-effective and produces far better results. “On one site the annual saving we generated for them was in excess of R80m,” Van den Berg says.

The risk of injury and fatalities can be higher when the quality of the explosive is inferior, says Van den Berg. “A lot of the fatal incidents  underground is where a product in one or two of the holes misfires, and they go into the mine and drill into [a] detonator that failed. That typically results in a fatality,” she says.

Safety stoppages are also an expense, which can run into tens of millions of rand in lost income a day, she adds.

The emulsion option is also much safer because it is not an explosive until it is activated by a “sensitiser”. Only when that is pumped into the hole with emulsion does it become a genuine explosive, Ludick explains.

The company offers a host of other innovative offerings, including software and intelligent electronic devices, which also improve efficiency and safety.

There is an environmental perk, too, as some of the bulk explosives require used oil. An AEL offering that has been well received in Indonesia and in remote locations is taking used oil from machinery for the manufacture of bulk emulsion on site. “That amounts to thousands of litres of used oil … We’ve also found used oil has helped us increase the energy in our explosives, so it is a double benefit for the mine,” Van den Berg says.