ALROSA’s Udachny Mine: A Diamond Story
Russia-based ALROSA is the world’s largest diamond mining company, enjoying over 60 years of diamond exploration, mining, manufacturing and sales. In July the company commenced with plans to end open-pit operations at the Udachnaya pipe, one of the oldest and largest diamond pipes in Yakutia, in order to transition operations underground.
The open-pit mine, which was established in 1971, hit its peak in the early 1990s, producing more than half of the company’s rough diamonds with 12 million tons per year. At depths of more than 630 meters, the Udachny mine is one of the 10 deepest open-pit mines in the world.
From the very beginning
The very first Yakut diamond was discovered in 1949 in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until five years later on August 21, 1954, when geologist Larisa Popugaeva and Natalya Sarsadskikh discovered the first kimberlite pipe, Zarnitsa—ALROSA’s first primary diamond deposit.
A year after the Zarnitsa discovery—and coincidentally two days after the unearthing of the legendary Mir mine—young Soviet geologist Vladimir Shchukin found another potential deposit.
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It was during exploration works that Shchukin found a fragment of metamorphic rock that usually undelays at depths of 2,000 meters. Typically, this rock can only be brought to the surface by kimberlite pipes—subterranean igneous rock structures best known as sources for diamonds. Shchukin immediately realized they were onto something big.
“We found two diamonds in first two prospecting holes,” Shchukin recounted. “One of them was a perfect octahedron with 4 mm facets. This is important to notice that we made 200 prospecting holes at Zarnitsa pipe and no diamonds were found. As for Udachnaya pipe, we took a small sample, transported it to the base and extracted further 43 crystals. The grades were high – about 3 carats per cubic meter. It was clear the pipe was very large.”
With a name that means “lucky” in Russian, the Udachnaya pipe has lived up to its namesake not only because of its quick discovery, but because it consists of two parallel kimberlite pipes that meet each other near the surface. Udachnaya is the richest Yakut primary deposit by grades and reserves.
Today the Udachny mine is in the final stages of closure, transitioning into a more cost effective and profitable underground operation. Shchukin, now 86, remembers the unusual circumstances surrounding the pipeline’s discovery.
“In 1955, my exploration team had to trot around 1,000 kilometers of routes in search of diamonds,” Shchukin said. “However, we discovered the Udachnaya pipe just in one day, in a matter of one hour and a half. This is why we named it that way (Udachnaya) because with other diamond pipes everything was much more complicated.”
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Even though the above ground operations are ending, the importance of Vladimir Shchukin’s discovery has never been clearer: the mine has become the company’s flagship diamond mining operation, producing more than half of Western Yakutia’s diamonds, as well as becoming the largest open pit mine in terms of size and diamond production.
During almost 50 years of operation (1967 to 2015), the company has mined more than 350 million tons of ore containing roughly $80 billion worth of diamonds. At the peak of its career, the Udachny mine yielded roughly 13 million tons of ore per year, annually producing tens of millions of diamond carats.
Today, the Udachny open-pit encompasses 1,600 meters by 2,000 meters on the surface and 640 meters in depth. The length of the quarry totals 10 kilometers and takes trucks more than 30 minutes to reach the bottom.
“Udachny boggles the mind,” Andrei Zharkov, President of ALROSA said at the ceremony dedicated to the closure of the open-pit mine. “It is a true example of engineering and mining art. The mine lives up to its name. It is unique on a global scale by volume of diamonds and ore mined, by dimensions and ore body structure.”
Zharkov said the closure of the open-pit operation represents an important milestone in the history of the company. “We feel confident about the future. The Udachny underground mine successfully ramps up capacity and its indicative planning horizon is 50 years,” Zharkov said.
The next chapter
With underground operations currently in progress, the story of the Udachnaya pipe has just begun. According to ALROSA, the reserves of Udachnaya have been explored to a depth of about 1,400 meters and there are still 800 meters for underground mining. This equates to roughly 150 million tons of ore, which is expected to last for the next 50 years.
The first phase of the Udachny underground mine was put into operation in summer 2014. The mine will reach its design capacity of four million tons of ore in several steps by 2019. After that it will become the largest diamond mine of ALROSA bringing the company more than five million carats of diamonds annually. In the meantime, the company’s miners are focused on construction and preparatory works planning to produce a total of about 480,000 tons of ore in 2015.
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ALROSA has currently performed the final series of blasting works at Udachny but will detonate one final explosion at the end of the year in order to destroy the spiral road leading to the bottom of the ore cushion, which will now take up the production baton.
With the closure of Udachny, ALROSA aims to build new quarries at more complicated deposits nearby. The long-term program intends to boost diamond production to more than 41 million carats a year with Udachny Mining and Processing Division playing an important role.
One of the primary deposits for ALROSA to develop in the future is the Zarnitsa pipe, the very first diamond deposit discovered by the company. According to the company, the development of Zarnitsa has long been delayed because the Udachny mine was much larger with richer diamond grades.
In comparison with Udachny, the Zarnitsa open-pit mine is small, measuring only 80 meters in depth. However, it has potential to grow upwards of 800 meters in diameter and at least 200 meters in depth.
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While smaller mining operations at Zarnitsa have existed since 1998—only yielding about one million tons of ore per year—now is the time for Zarnitsa to step it up. Starting next year, ALROSA plans to ramp up production at Zarnitsa to produce more than three million tons of ore per year. The workforce and equipment of Udachny are being currently transferred to Zarnitsa.
ALROSA also plans to develop its Verkhne-Munskoye deposit, which was discovered in 2007 and is located 160 kilometers from the Udachny Mining and Processing Division. The site consists of four kimberlite pipes and should add another three million tons of ore per year. The mine is expected to start development in 2018.
Although the above ground operation is closing, the work for ALROSA has only just begun.
Anglo American: FutureSmart Mining
Anglo American’s approach to technology, digitalisation and sustainability is changing the nature of the way the company mines. These are the step-change innovations that will transform the nature of mining – how the company sources, mines, processes, moves and markets its products – and how its stakeholders experience that business. Anglo American is transforming its physical and societal footprint with FutureSmart Mining.
“FutureSmart Mining is our innovation-led approach to sustainable mining,” Anglo American’s Tom McCulley told Mining Gllobal. In his role as CEO for Anglo American Peru & Group Head of Projects he has overseen investment of more than $5bn at the company’s Quellaveco copper project in Peru.
“These are the step-change innovations that will transform the nature of mining – how we source, mine, process, move and market our products – and how our stakeholders experience our business. It’s about transforming our physical and societal footprint.”
Anglo is undertaking a feasibility study to assess the possibility of rolling out one of its FutureSmart technologies, Coarse Particle Recovery (CPR), at Quellaveco. “CPR crushes particles to 2.5 times larger than normal, reducing energy consumption and mill time, leading to a 20% increase in throughput and 85% water recovery - a key issue in Peru given the concerns around water scarcity,” says McCulley.
“By allowing water to release from the much coarser particles, CPR will reduce the risks associated with wet tailings and ultimately help eliminate them altogether. When combined with low cost additives, it is possible to dewater residual waste and produce dry stackable tailings. This technology remains a focus area for us as water sent to tailings facilities often represents the largest water loss at a mine.”
Quellaveco is going to be the first mine to run the FutureSmart operating model from day one. Anglo’s idea is to build a stable base on which it can layer new technologies, CPR being one of them.
“We will also be a fully digital mine, which brings us future benefits in terms of understanding and applying changes in real time,” adds McCulley. “Our trucks and our drills will be automation-ready. We have taken the approach that, when we decide to move into an autonomous operation, no jobs will be lost, but the nature of some people’s jobs will have to change.”
FutureSmart is a blend of technology and sustainability,” said McCulley in an interview with Global Business Reports. “If you go back to the vision and design of Quellaveco, it has really been focused on the long-term sustainability of the mine through effective use of things like water, energy and the environment. Quellaveco has been focused on technology such as automation, with digital and analytical tools all coming together. We will be looking at future technologies to bolt on as we go to ensure that we are optimizing the sustainable use of resources and remaining cost-effective.”
Anglo American’s Quellaveco copper project in Peru has created 15,000 jobs during construction and approximately 2,500 jobs are planned for operations, increasing Peru’s copper production by a forecast 300,000 tonnes per year. The mine’s first copper production is expected in 2022. To learn more about Anglo American's Quellaveco copper project read our feature here.