THE South Flank iron ore project currently under construction for BHP in the Pilbara region of WA will be one of the most technologically advanced mines in the world.
Superlatives such as the biggest, longest, latest and greatest are being applied to many aspects of the project which starts production in 2021.
The new mine is incorporating many of the latest developments in mining technology ranging from autonomous mining equipment, digital-connectivity and modular-designed structures.
According to BHP’s Project Director for South Flank, Simon Thomas, South Flank is a US$3.6b project that will fully replace production from the 80mtpa (100 per cent basis) Yandi mine, which is expected to end its economic life in the mid-2020s.
“The first ore from South Flank is targeted for the 2021 calendar year, with the project expected to produce ore for more than 25 years,” he said.
The project has a crucial role to play in enhancing the quality of BHP’s iron ore products from its Pilbara mines in WA.
“South Flank will enhance the average quality of BHP’s WA Iron Ore (WAIO) production and will allow us to benefit from price premiums for higher-quality lump and fines products,” Mr Thomas said.
“The iron ore will contribute to an increase in WAIO’s average iron grade from 61pc to 62pc, and the overall proportion of lump from 25pc to about 35pc.
“It is expected to have a strip ratio in line with the WAIO average.”
Located 130km northwest of Newman, WA, the South Flank mine is close to existing iron ore export infrastructure at BHP’s Mining Area C in the Pilbara.
Extra capacity for processing iron ore is being added to the Mining C hub as part of the South Flank project, Mr Thomas said.
“The South Flank project expands the existing infrastructure at Mining Area C, and involves construction of an 80 mtpa crushing and screening plant, an overland conveyor system, stockyard and train loading facilities, procurement of new mining fleet and substantial mine development and pre-strip work,” he said.
Autonomous mining equipment including haul trucks is an integral part of the South Flank project, showcasing the latest advances in mining equipment.
“South Flank will use the Komatsu 930E-5 ultra-class haul trucks, which are made autonomous-ready,” Mr Thomas said.
“The project is on schedule and on budget at nearly 60pc complete,” Mr Thomas said.
Modern modular construction methods are being used for South Flank.
“South Flank has been designed to allow large, heavy and more complete structural modules to be fabricated and transported to site reducing our exposure to the higher risk construction activities associated with cranes, working at heights and dropped objects,” Mr Thomas said.
“Our design incorporates design modification to remove our operators from hazards identified through an extensive safety in design process, and the modular, rotable nature of many plant components will improve our production efficiency, maintenance safety and productivity.”
Large infrastructure components are being delivered to the mine site for assembly from a range of workshops and steel fabrication plants including in Kwinana, WA.
“The first modules for the stacker and reclaimer recently arrived in Port Hedland, a great milestone. These were locally made on the Kwinana strip,” Mr Thomas said.
Contractors are working to bring to the site large, custom-made steel fabricated equipment, such as large stacker and reclaimer machines used to create and move stockpiles of iron ore.
The stacker-reclaimer units and ore conveyors are some of the largest ever made.
Also included in the mine’s footprint are primary ore crushing facilities, run-of-mine pads, overland conveyors, ore stockpiling and handling infrastructure, stockyards, train load-out facilities and a processing plant, according to BHP.
WA engineering and steel fabrication companies are sharing in the work to build South Flank, Mr Thomas said.
“About 85 per cent of the project spend will be awarded to companies based in Australia; about 90 per cent of which will go to companies based in Western Australia,” he said.
The construction workforce for South Flank totals several thousand people, and in its operating phase the mine will have 600 workers, including many indigenous Australians.
“We have now seen more than 3000 people receive work on South Flank,” Mr Thomas said.
“The project will create around 2500 construction jobs, more than 600 ongoing operational roles and generate many opportunities for Western Australian suppliers.
“Over the life of the project we expect more than 9000 people to be engaged in the South Flank work force.
“A total of 346 ongoing operational roles have been filled to date, with nearly half (48pc) of these roles are female and 20pc are Indigenous.”
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of iron ore, accounting for 53pc of global seaborne trade, and the nation exported 834mt in the 2019 year, which is expected to grow to 878mt by 2021.
China was the chief destination for Australian iron ore exports with a market share of 81pc, followed by Japan at 8pc, South Korea with 6pc, and Taiwan at 2pc, and the rest of the world on 3pc.
The free-on-board WA price of iron ore with a 62pc iron content was expected to average US$80/t in the 2019 year, according to the Australian government’s Office of the Chief Economist in its report for the December 2019 quarter.
“The iron ore price is forecast to decline to average US$60/t FOB Australia by 2021, as the seaborne market gradually returns to balance,” stated the report.