How the GE Store Found a Better Way to Get Water Out of a Mine

In one respect, underground mines are like inverted skyscrapers, that have a natural tendency to fill up with infiltrating ground water. The water that collects in the mine — whether it seeps in or is used during operations — must be removed, lest it cause flooding.

“De-watering” is a major concern for mining companies and it is a complex and costly task. But it’s also critical to ensure smooth, continuous operations. “You’re always using water underground and its constantly invading mines,” says David Willick, Commercial Director (North America) at GE Mining. “So de-watering is essential — in both underground and open-pit operations.”

The traditional method for dewatering calls for deploying pumps, made from expensive specialty alloys. The challenge is that water from mines, which contains solids and grit, is hard on pumping equipment, leading to the need for frequent maintenance. Moreover, some pumps that can stand up to mine water can only move it so far, leading to the need to construct multi-stage pumping systems.

For many years, this method was accepted as a given in the industry. But now GE — through its GE Store approach to innovation — is offering something new.

The story begins a couple of years ago, when an attentive GE Mining Application Engineer, Remi Desrosiers attended an unrelated Mining industry trade association meeting. During a break, Remi overheard representatives from a mining company with operations in Ontario talking about how the mine’s existing pumps had failed — again — and about the costs of flying in replacement parts from Germany.

A second GE Mining Application Engineer, John Slavin, suggested the company try pumps from GE’s oil and gas business, which were much less costly than those being used at the mine. The conversation led to a formal meeting, but the company initially decided against trying the GE suggestion, as the GE pumps where unknown to them and they had already engaged with several other well-known mining pump suppliers.

At least, that was the case until Willick and his team started talking about the mine’s water. “It was a tipping point,” Willick says. “We stopped talking about the pump as a product and started focusing on the fluid they were pumping.”

As a next step, John Slavin arranged for samples of the mine’s water to be sent to GE’s Global Research Centre in Niskayuna, N.Y. There, GE technical staff in Nicole Tibbitt’s lab conducted tests and considered applicable technologies developed by other GE business units. It was determined that, technology developed for the oil and gas industry was very much applicable to this “mining” application.

Working with the mining company, GE then suggested a system of incorporating technology to remove oversized material. GE also talked to the company about the future potential to improve impeller life by applying new coatings to the pumps to further improve their resilience to mine water.

The result? A new pumping system that has been in operation at the Ontario mine for more than 24 months. The benefits myriad. The system costs much less than traditional pumping technologies and it pumps water to the surface in a single shot rather requiring a multi-stage design. It has been operating with 100 per cent uptime, and the two full-time workers who previously were changing pumps have been re-deployed to other tasks in the mine. As for the bottom line, the new system has generated savings in excess of $1 million annually in maintenance labour and parts costs.

The technology has been a success in Ontario, Willick says, and it’s now generating interest among other mining companies as well as several engineering companies. The dedicated Application Engineers and technical staff at the GRC are the heroes of this campaign. GE has come from nowhere in mine dewatering to now setting a new standard. GE is now taking this solution globally.

“Ironically, the key point in the sales campaign came when we started focusing on using GE’s technical expertise to analyze the customer’s water and suggesting the best overall solution,” Willick says. “At this point we became a partner as opposed to just another pump vendor.”

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