Mining operations rely on conveyor belts to move mined minerals and other materials from the mining unit to the processing plant. The belt generally consists of one or more layers of material predominately made from rubber.
But with rubber prices steadily rising in the past few months and natural rubber prices jumping more than 40% in the first six months of 2008, conveyor manufacturers are facing the most dramatic price increases in modern times and analysts project yet more price rises.
The Indian Government has taken steps to curb the rise in the price of natural rubber by imposing a ban on futures trading while the Philippines Government recently announced it will be distributing about 50,000 rubber seedlings to hundreds of farmers in three towns in the North Cotabato region to keep up with strong demand for the material.
According to government officials and Philippine media reports, the North Cotabato region has allocated P10m for its rubber development programme this year, the biggest allocation among priority high-value commercial crops in Asia at present.
As mining operations around the world intensify to meet global supply demand for metals and minerals, higher belt prices together with splice strength are two vital aspects of production for conveyor companies.
Conveyors are spliced on the conveyor belt system on site, to form an endless belt. The process demands specialist know-how and methods used depend on the type of operation and materials being conveyed.
According to Bern Kusel at Germany-based Phoenix Conveyor Belts, 'higher belt and splice strength is still most important with growing capacities and conveying lengths'.
Phoenix, a division of global company ContiTech, is based in Hamburg and began making conveyor belts 100 years ago. Today the group has factories in Germany, Hungary, India and China.
According to the company, Phoenix-manufactured belt splices, fabricated in Chile, were voted the world's strongest belt splices in 1999. The company says it is still investing heavily to develop splicing strength technology across its portfolio of products.
Harsh conditions: Sweden's iron-ore operations
The world's strongest conveyor currently serving the mining industry is the Phoenocord St 7500, operating at Ruhrkohle's Prosper Haniel mine in Germany. The slope conveyor belt at the mine carries raw coal from 800m underground to the surface while simultaneously bringing refuse back underground.
With a conveyor strength of 8,200N/mm and 1,400mm wide, the belt has 12mm-thick rubber covers including a Phoenotec protection system.
But while strength may help cope with growing capacity and output from the mine, conveyors must also prove they can withstand natural weather conditions.
Global conveyor company ContiTech has been working to improve its conveyor systems to cope with some of the harshest natural environments in the world.
The company, which manufactures steel-cable and fabric-reinforced conveyor belts, says one of its most important products serving European mining operations is situated in the mineral ore industries of Scandinavia. The company's Scandinavian operations currently hold 35% of the mineral ore mining industry.
ContiTech provides its conveyor systems to the Swedish LKAB Group, which runs the largest underground iron ore mine in the world at Kiruna, almost 1,200km north of the capital Stockholm.
For more than ten years, LKAB has been using ContiTech conveyor belts to transport iron-ore materials in its surface and underground operations. Conti-Tech Scandinavia has now, together with a local partner, set up a service point on LKAB premises to ensure the smooth running of the conveyor as it continues to battle with bitter winter weather.
Ensuring the safe and smooth running of mine operations depends on many factors. Unpredictable weather and natural disasters, together with poor safety standards at some mines, has resulted in tragic accidents.
As state officials and governments the world over move to improve safety across the industry, the US is currently at the centre of the debate concerning conveyor belt tunnels.
In July 2008, the US state of Utah appointed its first Coal Mine Safety director, Garth Nielsen, at the newly created Office of Coal Mine Safety. This followed the Crandall mine disaster at the coal mine in Emery County in August 2007, where miners and rescue workers were killed. Nielson starts his job amid fresh debate over using conveyor belt tunnels to pump fresh air underground in coal mines.
Under new rules proposed by the US federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), flame-resistant belts, fire prevention and detection in belt tunnels together with federal approval will be required by mine operators.
According to the MSHA, mines would have to buy flame-resistant belts, but only a year after the proposal becomes final. US mines will also have to replace heat sensors with carbon monoxide monitors and install smoke detectors, among other things.
In a statement issued to the press, the MSHA said the objective of the proposed rule is to improve mine safety by significantly reducing the hazard of conveyor belt fires in underground coal mines.
However, mine worker unions believe that banning belt air altogether is the only option to improve safety in the tunnels. The US mining unions are also calling for belts to be non-flammable as well as fire-resistant, to ensure total safety and overall air quality.
While US legislators wait on public hearings happening across the US, belt manufacturers supplying the US and other nations will wait to consider new rules. New legislation may, therefore, play a vital role in developing tomorrow's technology across the conveyor industry.