September 22, 2017

Ever been 5,000 feet below Earth’s surface? Asteroid miners explore Barrick’s Hemlo Mine

Barrick’s Hemlo Mine

At nearly a mile below the surface (that’s around four Empire State Buildings), Hemlo showcases a part of Earth that is unlike anything experienced on the surface. Recently, a team of asteroid miners were invited underground to share ideas with Barrick’s Innovation Strategy Team. The middle of Earth’s crust may seem very different from the zero-gravity vacuum at an asteroid, but there are more similarities than one would expect. It was immediately obvious that both Planetary Resources and Barrick must operate and react to an inherently unpredictable and inhospitable environment. Those similarities were the reason for our visit—sharing our ideas and knowledge while learning from Barrick’s innovative underground mining practices.

As the world’s largest gold mining company, Barrick’s Innovation Strategy Team focuses on increasing human safety and growing their business, ultimately facing some of the same challenges that asteroid mining does today. Michelle Ash, Barrick’s Chief Innovation Officer, works on a range of new ideas across Barrick’s business, “including autonomous and electrified mining and global orebody exploration.”

“Engaging with Planetary Resources is part of a larger strategy to infuse Barrick with bold ideas and exponential technologies,” says Tyler Godoff, Manager of Innovation Partnerships at Barrick. “We intentionally choose partners who challenge our thinking and encourage us to be unconventional.”

Innovative technology such as autonomous machinery, advanced sensor packages, and miniaturization is what gives all miners the upper hand. Underground, on the surface, or in space, mining is all about recovering the maximum resource possible while moving the minimum extraneous rock.

As ore grades (the concentration of gold within ore bodies) decline across the globe, Barrick has developed increasingly sophisticated methods for simultaneously targeting high-grade areas while avoiding the surrounding waste rock. These methods require a robust understanding of the deposit and are in a constant state of refinement. This information comprises the mine plan which controls the ‘when, where, what, and how’ underground. When Barrick opens a new mine, this plan stretches for decades and predicts the value of the last ounce of gold before the first shaft begins to open.

The technology behind the mine plan is truly incredible and only expands in an operational mine like Hemlo. A complex arrangement of machines, humans, and infrastructure weaves through Hemlo’s network of tunnels around the clock. Automated haul trucks carry ore to jaw-crushing systems on one level while operators inspect the results of recent drilling on another. Information from each step is joined together and coordinates this elaborate operation safely.

While we aren’t planning to send humans to the asteroid mines anytime soon, these types of complex actions must still occur in unison at our deep space operations. What’s more, communication with our spacecraft is limited by the speed of light. It can take upwards of 15 minutes for a command sent from Earth to reach our spacecraft at an asteroid. This means that just like Barrick’s automated trucks, our spacecraft must make their own decisions without human intervention.

It’s hard to describe the overall experience of being a mile underground. There are a few familiar elements from popular culture–hardhats and headlamps, the ‘cage’ elevator for descending–but plenty of surprises, like the constant cool breeze from the ventilation system and the vaulted ceilings that rival most loft apartments. The biggest surprise, however, lasted only a few seconds.

In total darkness, feeling a slight decrease in gravity as the elevator started it’s decent, it was hard not to feel that we might be inside an asteroid mine after all.

Rhae Adams
Director, Mining & Energy

And check out Barrick’s Beyond Borders blog ‘5 things you should know about asteroid mining