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Improving the profitability of coal mining in Russia: the words of a scientist

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In the first nine months of this year, Kuzbass produced 190 million tons of coal, which is 5.4% more than in the same period of 2017. Exactly the same amount was exported from Russia last year. Despite the fact that black gold has lost the domestic market to natural gas, it is still in very high demand in the world, mainly because of the growth of consumption in the Asia-Pacific region. In order to provide an insight into the situation, "Forpost" asked Oleg Kazanin, the Dean in the Department of Mining Engineering at Saint-Petersburg Mining University, a few questions, such as what role science currently plays in increasing coal production and what scientific developments may help increase the profitability of its production.

Dear Oleg, what is your opinion? Is science in demand today by coal mining companies or perhaps the technology has already reached such a level that it is enough to buy expensive equipment to ensure the profitability of production?

The scientific component is in demand. There is simply no other way for core businesses to maintain competitiveness, especially in the foreign markets. Moreover, starting with 2011 and continuing till the second half of the 2016, coal prices had been steadily falling. During this period, as many as 30% of the companies had been either working on the verge of profitability or even beyond its limits.

In order to survive, it was essential to keep productivity viable, and introducing more efficient flowsheets for mining coal layers is what was actually needed. The development and justification of the parameters of these flowsheets, that is the task for the scientists. In this case, this is right spacing and layout, correct choice of equipment, qualitative forecast of environmental conditions, estimate of geomechanical and gas-dynamic states of the mountain group.

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The modern equipment for underground coal mining is actually very powerful and reliable. It can provide stable production of about 20 to 30 thousand tons per day or even more from one mining face. However, it is important not to forget that the increase in productivity also leads to an increase in the degree of impact on the rock mass. With the increase of the digging depth, the natural gas content of the layers is increasing as well, and consecutively the geomechanical situation is becoming more complicated. Applying scientific knowledge is the only way to ensure that maximum recovery efficiency and effective gas control have been reached, and thus safety performance has been maintained.

This term "Managing rock conditions" sounds indeed quite impressive. How does it happen in practice though? What coal-producing enterprises have utilized results of your research and increased their profitability?

It has been almost 10 years since we started working with SUEK (Siberian Coal Energy Company), the largest coal producer in Russia. Throughout the time our scientists have conducted a number of studies, and through the utilization of study results the productivity was significantly increased. For example, one of the most serious problems arising in the process of coal mining is the soil heaving in the mine workings. As a result, workings have to repaired, downtimes lead to loss of working hours, and companies lose money. More than that, if there is only one coal face in the mine, then, regardless of the reasons leading to a downtime, it has a significant effect on the company’s technological and economic indicators.

We carried out a whole set of research activities, i.e. explored the workings’ locations, checked how they are attached to each other, what kind of section was used, and many other parameters as well. In the end, we came up with a number of recommendations, which allowed the company to reduce the amount of downtime caused by heaving.

Currently we are conducting a research related to the justification of well operation conditions while mining large-sized working areas. It was last year when for the first time ever SUEK-Kuzbass applied longwall faces in Russia. The length of the faces used at the mine named after V.D. Yalevsky was extended to 400 meters. At this face the world record performance was achieved – 1 627 000 tons per month. Until recently this figure seemed fantastic. In the past these volumes were extracted at the large mines by several coal faces in a year.

Thus, scientific support of the project and its potential assessment are also a part of our agenda. We should clearly understand how the mountain group reacts, what happens to gas release, how exactly extension of the face affects utilization efficiency of a quite expensive equipment. Current price for the set of equipment applied at the long faces is over $ 50 million. Unsurprisingly, coal company management wants to be sure that the purchased equipment works effectively and is not out of action.

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Let’s take SUEK company as an example. We have an established cooperation with this company in almost all the areas. Among others, these include personnel training and staff development. At any time, regardless of the topic of interest, we are ready to arrange courses for those specialists who are directly involved in the technology implementation at the workplace. For instance, if the company’s specialists have some questions about a particular innovation or if a new instruction on anchorage has just been issued, we are always there to help.

The emergence of powerful and complex equipment as well as the growth of production volumes and the higher intensity of impact on the rock mass, probably, result in the fact that engineers should possess some special knowledge or new competencies. Do coal-mining companies, in your opinion, pay enough attention to training and staff development?

As there had been tragedies caused by mine explosions, we were afterwards approached by a few companies who asked us to organize advanced training courses for top managers and engineering staff of the ventilation and safety unit. The main topic of these courses was gas control at the extraction districts.

Mining safety is obviously one of the most painful topics for miners…

Safety is a priority for the coal industry. Although mortality and injury rates are generally in decline, there is still a surge of fatal injuries once in every three years, and these are usually caused by major accidents. For instance, in 2016 thirty-six people were killed by multiple methane shots at the mine “Severnaya”. In 2013, tragedy occurred at the mine "Vorkutinskaya", and in 2010 at the "Raspadskaya" coal mine. We may derive from it that the problem still exists. It has not disappeared.

Nowadays quite a few companies are setting a new goal, which is to deliver on a "zero accident" concept. This is a global trend, and it has been already accepted by some Russian companies. One obvious example is SUEK-Kuzbass. The company has spent more than 3.3 billion rubles on improving industrial safety over the last four years. So as to achieve this objective and in the same time increase productivity, certain ideas should be put into action: further growth of scientific component in the industry must be ensured, while the attitude that education of mining engineers should continue throughout the whole life should be adopted.