Master Drilling eyes deep gains with new boring technologies

Master Drilling — a company specialising in raise bore drilling — is working on technologies that could change the way underground workers operate, boosting productivity and lowering costs at a difficult time.

The mining industry is grappling with low commodity prices, rising costs and replacing reserves. Any developments to lower costs and raise production would be highly desirable.

Master Drilling, which prides itself in chasing innovative technological advances in the services it can provide in competition with Murray & Roberts, will be in a position at the end of the year to update the market on new technologies it is testing.

One of the key trials will be a horizontal boring machine that will take a few months to drill a 2.1m diameter tunnel on an inclined gold reef at Sibanye Gold’s Kloof mine.”Any equipment you bring to a mine to open reserves can only add value. Whatever you do with a non-drill and blast system that has speed and efficiency will make a huge difference,” said CEO Danie Pretorius.”We were told last week that most mines in the world run at between 50% and 70% capacity. Isn’t that suicide? We are saying if that’s true, why not deploy a way to open reserves more quickly,” he said.

The borer, which weighs a fraction of what other tunnel borers weigh, can drill 300m tunnels in six months whereas it would take two to three years using explosives and hand-held drills, Mr Pretorius said.Raise boring, which is a way of drilling a vertical shaft by pulling a cutting disk from underground to the surface, is the mainstay of Master Drilling’s business and a specialty it wants to deploy in the energy and construction sectors, particularly in hydroelectric schemes. It is busy with two of these projects in Ecuador and Colombia.

The company would like to have 60% of its business in commodities and the rest in energy and construction projects, Mr Pretorius said. Master Drilling plans to enter the US market for the first time at the end of this year or early next year, using its platform in neighbouring Mexico to launch its offering to US customers.It intended generating revenues in dollars but paying costs in pesos, which would give it an advantage over US drilling companies, Mr Pretorius said.

It wants to develop a way of blind boring in hard rock conditions. Technology exists to do this type of drilling in poor ground conditions. Unlike raise boring, there is no underground tunnel from which to attach a reaming head to pipes lowered from the surface and which is then pulled upwards, leaving a shaft behind.

“For regions like Africa, this technology is vital. I really believe there is scope for it. We want to adapt the blind hole machines used in the US and China to be hard-rock machines,” Mr Pretorius said.”In Africa, if you look at timing and costs, the logistics are a nightmare. If you can trim time by half, reduce the number of people and equipment, it’s got to make good sense,” he said.