Q&A: inside the latest generation of the Large Open Pit Project

JP Casey 25 November 2020 (Last Updated November 25th, 2020 08:51)

Australia’s Large Open Pit Project is one of the most successful mining research organisations, with support from private firms and a catalogue of influential papers and policy recommendations in its brief history. We speak to manager Professor David Williams and assistant manager Dr Medhi Serati, both of the Geotechnical Engineering Centre, to learn about the next generation of the scheme.

Q&A: inside the latest generation of the Large Open Pit Project
“Our industry sponsors are the key to having made the LOP such a huge success since 2005,” said David Williams. Credit: Monty Rakusen vis Corbis

Mining remains a cornerstone of the Australian economy, employing around 15% of the Australian workforce. As a result, it is no surprise that Australia is home to both some of the world’s largest mines, and most ambitious mining research projects. One such scheme is the Large Open Pit Project (LOP), an industry-backed research and development group that aims to improve mining processes across the sector through research into existing mines and recommendations for future technological and infrastructure developments.

Established in 2005, with a four-year window to address the issue of rock slope failure in open pit mines, the project has delivered a number of influential reports, and been consistently renewed and reimagined, its mandate expanding with each new iteration of the scheme. The project has produced five papers on suggestions for improving the Australian mining sector, with topics ranging from open pit slope design to waste management, and its conclusions have been well-received by mining companies, which recently raised $4m in funding for the LOP to investigate “the open pit of the future” over the next three years.

Beyond purely technological investigations, the LOP is also an excellent example of cross-sector collaboration in the mining industry, with private companies, research bodies, and universities all pulling in the same direction, to share knowledge that will benefit the mining industry as a whole. We speak to the project’s managers about its lofty ambitions.

JP Casey (JPC): What is the LOP, and what has it already achieved?

David Williams (DW): The LOP seeks to advance globally the stateoftheart in surface mine geotechnical design and operation through targeted research. 

The Large Open Pit Project was initiated in 2005 by Dr John Read, then of the CSIRO in Brisbane, and continued under his management until 2014. In 2016, the management of LOP II was taken up by The University of Queensland, firstly under Professor Marc Ruest then, in 2017, under [myself] and deputy manager Dr Mehdi Serati, with LOP III launched in 2020, extending to 2022.

Since 2005, the LOP has delivered five industry guidelines, which have been taken up widely by practitioners, [and] an open pit closure guideline [that] is currently being prepared. The research is intended to be practical and pragmatic, with a shorttomidterm delivery of advances to the industry of three to ten years, and to continue the LOP tradition of peer knowledge exchange through close interaction between sponsor representatives and through site visits to operating mines, as well as service provider and supplier centres.

JPC: What will you aim to achieve as managers of the project?

David Williams and Mehdi Serati (DW and MS): LOP III has reinvigorated the project and, driven by committed sponsor participation, is actively pursuing research and publication through a number of projects, including guidelines for structural and geological models in large open pits, with the aim of providing direction on how to incorporate 3D structural and geological models for use in open pit slope stability studies.

[The project will also investigate] seismic risk and large open pit slope stability, with the aim of assessing the impact of earthquakes, particularly in highly seismic regions, on open pit slope stability, based on case studies of the performance of open pit, civil engineering, and natural slopes subjected to earthquakes. [it will also assess] mine closure guidelines, to add to the previous five guidelines produced by the LOP, which will cover open pits, coarse waste dumps, pit lakes, and in-pit tailings.

[We will also] stress-test the proposed design acceptance criteria matrix for open pit mining, with the aim of evaluating the consistency of the fundamental assumptions behind a newly proposed matrix, [and] open pit and underground interaction. With more and more large, low-grade open pits reaching their economic depth, many companies are considering underground expansions, such as block caves. This often involves interactions between ongoing open pit operations and underlying underground operations.

JPC: Which companies have been involved in the project, and how has this industry collaboration aided the scheme?

DW: Our industry sponsors are the key to having made the LOP such a huge success since 2005. Current industry sponsors number ten global mining companies: Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, BHP, Debswana, Fortescue, Glencore Zinc’s MRM, Gold Fields, Newcrest, Rio Tinto, and Vale, with others considering joining.

Each LOP III sponsor contributes $100,000 per year for three years, plus significant sponsor representative time in-kind, giving a total budget of $3m. The LOP has also sponsored applied research in key areas of interest to its global industry sponsors. The Geotechnical Engineering Centre within the School of Civil Engineering at The University of Queensland is active in a range of mining-related research [projects] of national and global importance, including tailings management studies through mining company-funded projects,

Many of the research projects have spanned a number of years and have been developed in stages to provide medium- and long-term benefits to the global mining industry, such as $250,000 funding from [BHP-owned] Escondida to investigate the use of bacteria in improving the geotechnical parameters and behaviour of tailings.

[Other projects include] waste rock capping studies through mining company-funded projects, such as large-scale, on-site, instrumented columns to investigate various cover configurations on potentially acid forming waste rock in a wet climate, [and] mine closure studies through the CRC for Transformations in Mining Economies.

This information exchange has demonstrated itself to be an invaluable result of the original LOP project, and continues.

JPC: What is the role of education and training in achieving the goals of the LOP, especially in the long-term?

DW and MS: [There exists an] LOP education and training mandate, under which LOP III will devote up to 10% of its funding annually to education and training.

DW: Our research and consulting activities inform our teaching, research training, and the content delivery of continuous professional development activities, such the highly sought after tailings management interactive, an online course currently offered through the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.

The LOP Project is a great example of the successful collaboration between industry and research providers to deliver long-term benefits and improvements to practice, which provides a model for a range of industry [and] research collaborations.