UK-based mining group Rio Tinto plans to develop and test new technologies in underground tunnelling and mineral recovery as part of its Mine of the Future programme.

The company has teamed up with Atlas Copco to expand trials of new shaft and tunnel boring systems, which are expected to start in 2013 at Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Utah Copper (KUC) mine in Salt Lake City.

The Atlas Copco Tunnel Boring System at KUC is expected to allow Rio Tinto to tunnel more than 10m a day.

Rio Tinto head of innovation John McGagh said: "Rio Tinto is head and shoulders above the rest of the industry in our technology and innovation programmes. Mine of the Future is becoming a reality today, with full-scale rollout of automation of mine equipment and large-scale tests of tunnelling, mineral recovery and exploration technologies.

"Being ahead of the pack gives Rio Tinto a competitive edge in the global mining landscape by generating more efficient and cost-competitive methods of finding, extracting and processing mineral resources and providing new, engaging and diverse employment opportunities."

The first tunnel boring trial is expected to begin this year at the Northparkes copper and gold mine in New South Wales, Australia, in partnership with Aker Wirth. Locations are also being considered for a shaft boring system trial.

Mineral recovery is another area where Rio Tinto is focusing on innovation. It is working on methods to improve the recovery rates of ores from mature and complex deposits.

It has tied up a deal with Norway-based TOMRA Sorting Solutions which will develop commercial-scale systems for separating minerals from rock waste.

This work will include scaling up Rio Tinto’s iron ore and copper sorting technologies which extract saleable ore from waste rock to sort about 1,000t of rock an hour.