Master Drilling and its Italian contractor Seli Technologies’s borer can leave holes up to 5.5m wide. Picture: SUPPLIED
Master Drilling and its Italian contractor Seli Technologies’s borer can leave holes up to 5.5m wide. Picture: SUPPLIED

Master Drilling has secured its first mining contract for its new and innovative tunnel boring machine, with Northam Platinum agreeing to a pilot study at its mothballed Eland mine.

Master Drilling, an SA drilling and boring specialist and one of the world’s largest such companies, came up with the concept of a tracked machine that can bore tunnels horizontally in a relatively flexible way and that can be re-used, unlike existing horizontal boring machines.

The mobile tunnel borer will be deployed in a seven-month pilot project at Northam’s Eland mine near Brits and, if it works as well as its designers say it will, a similar machine could be built and deployed at Northam’s modern and highly mechanised Booysendal mine, said Master Drilling CEO Danie Pretorius.

The machine, which comes in small components to give it the necessary flexibility, is designed to bore and clad tunnels at a rate of more than 100m a month, three times the conventional method used in SA’s mines, but Master Drilling would like to get this figure “substantially above” 150m a month, he said.

There are high levels of interest from mining companies around the world in the deployment of the mobile tunnel borer, Pretorius added.

“There’s no doubt that if we get this right, the discussion in five years’ time will not be about our backbone raise-boring business but about how we are doing with our tunnel boring business, subject to capital availability,” he said. “If we get the funding for it, we could transform the business from a vertical to a more horizontal business in time.”

Master Drilling has 149 raise-bore machines that install vertical tunnels between two underground working areas or between the surface and tunnels deep underground. The fleet is one of the largest in the world.

Master Drilling was recently contracted to do a wide range of work at AngloGold Ashanti’s Obuasi mine in Ghana. AngloGold is redeveloping the mine into a modern operation. This contract, along with the Kamoa copper project owned by Canada’s Ivanhoe in southern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), will go a long way to offsetting the expired contract at the newly built Kibali mine in the DRC.

Kibali is jointly owned by AngloGold and Barrick, which merged with Randgold Resources, and has the latter company’s CEO Mark Bristow as its new CEO.

Pretorius said the relationship forged with Bristow’s team during the construction of Kibali will almost certainly result in work coming from Barrick, the world’s largest gold miner. Barrick is very active in Nevada, US and wants to merge its assets in the state with those of rival Newmont.

seccombea@businesslive.co.za