What is coal mining? Over 6185 million tonnes (Mt) of hard coal is currently produced worldwide and 1042 Mt of brown coal/lignite. The largest coal producing countries are not confined to one region – the top five hard coal producers are China, the USA, India, Australia and South Africa. Much of global coal production is used in the country in which it was produced; only around 15% of hard coal production is destined for the international coal market.
Surface Coal Mining Operations & Mine Rehabilitation
Coal is mined by two methods:
- surface or ‘opencast’ mining
- underground or ‘deep’ mining
The choice of mining method is largely determined by the geology of the coal deposit. Underground mining currently accounts for a bigger share of world coal production than opencast; although in several important coal producing countries surface mining is more common. For example, surface mining accounts for around 80% of production in Australia; while in the USA it is used for about 67% of production.
Surface mining – also known as opencast or opencut mining – is only economic when the coal seam is near the surface. This method recovers a higher proportion of the coal deposit than underground mining as all coal seams are exploited – 90% or more of the coal can be recovered.
Large opencast mines can cover an area of many square kilometres and use very large pieces of equipment, including:
- draglines, which remove the overburden
- power shovels
- large trucks, which transport overburden and coal
- bucket wheel excavators
The overburden of soil and rock is first broken up by explosives; it is then removed by draglines or by shovel and truck. Once the coal seam is exposed, it is drilled, fractured and systematically mined in strips. The coal is then loaded on to large trucks or conveyors for transport to either the coal preparation plant or direct to where it will be used.
There are two main methods of underground mining: room-and-pillar and longwall mining.
Room & Pillar Mining
In room-and-pillar mining, coal deposits are mined by cutting a network of ‘rooms’ into the coal seam and leaving behind ‘pillars’ of coal to support the roof of the mine. These pillars can be up to 40% of the total coal in the seam – although this coal can sometimes be recovered at a later stage.
Diagram showing a room and pillar mine
Longwall mining involves the full extraction of coal from a section of the seam, or ‘face’ using mechanical shearers. A longwall face requires careful planning to ensure favourable geology exists throughout the section before development work begins. The coal ‘face’ can vary in length from 100-350m. Self-advancing, hydraulically-powered supports temporarily hold up the roof while coal is extracted. When coal has been extracted from the area, the roof is allowed to collapse. Over 75% of the coal in the deposit can be extracted from panels of coal that can extend 3km through the coal seam.
Technological advancements have made coal mining today more productive than it has ever been. To keep up with technology and to extract coal as efficiently as possible modern mining personnel must be highly skilled and well-trained in the use of complex, state-of-the-art instruments and equipment.
|Top Ten Hard Coal Producers (2011e)|
Source: International Energy Agency 2012