Cold competence

Kirkenes, Norway. Surrounded by the barren yet beautiful Arctic landscape, the Sydvaranger iron ore mine in northeastern Norway is a key driver of the local economy.

East of most of Finland and sharing a longitude with Saint Petersburg, Kirkenes surprises many by its location. You can drive to Russia in just 10 minutes, where you jump forward in time by two hours. The Finnmark region surrounding Kirkenes was completely destroyed by the end of the Second World War, and reminders linger everywhere. During the operation of the Sydvaranger iron ore mine, located just a few kilometres south of Kirkenes, helmets, equipment and even a complete bomb shelter have been discovered.

Temperatures hover below freezing for months on end and can plunge as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. From late November through January the sun doesn’t rise, so the region dwells in almost total darkness, the only light provided by the floodlights of the mine and the frequent displays of aurora borealis, the famous northern lights. On the flip side, permanent summer daylight may sound appealing, but it can play havoc with your body clock and sleep patterns.

Sydvaranger mine

The Sydvaranger mine is located in northern Norway, about eight kilometres south of Kirkenes, close to the Russian border. The total mine area covers 35 square kilometres and comprises 23 largely separate iron-ore deposits.

Sydvaranger Gruve AS was established in 2007 to rehabilitate the mining, railroad and manufacturing plants and start production of high-grade iron ore concentrate. The company employs 400 people and is wholly owned by the Australian company Northern Iron Ltd.

“We do struggle with visibility during winter storms, when snow and wind combine,” says Ulf Dæhlin, mine manager at Sydvaranger Gruve AS. “Although the climate is very cold, it’s rare that we stop production. Heavy snowfall can be a problem, but it’s normally too cold to snow.”

A unique contract
The history of the Sydvaranger mine dates back to 1910, when iron ore concentrate was first produced in the area. After 15 years of closure, Sydvaranger Gruve recommenced production of iron ore concentrate in 2009 using conventional open pit methods, with drill and blast followed by load and haul to extract the ore and waste. As part of the refurbishment, Sandvik Mining was selected to supply crushers, feeders and a complete new set of conveyor components to the old conveyor system at the crushing station.

In March 2014, the owners elected to employ a Rock on Ground (ROG) services contract to better control costs. Lead contractor Orica Norway takes responsibility for the entire drilling and blasting process, including all designs, survey work, timing plans and blasting itself. Orica teamed up with local contractor Oscar Sundquist, who in turn sources the drilling equipment from Sandvik. World-leading research and technology from Orica combined with the 70-year experience of local mountain operations from Oscar Sundquist provide the optimum balance of skills, vital to the success of not only the mine but the local economy. Unlike many remote mining operations, 80 percent of the mine’s 500 workers live locally, and only specific expertise is flown in.

The project covers blasted rock volumes of 140 million tonnes over six years. The material is crushed and transported by an exclusive eight-kilometre rail link to the concentrator plant and ice-free port in Kirkenes. In the last financial year, the operation produced approximately two million dry metric tonnes of high-quality iron ore concentrate, while the quality has improved to 68 percent iron content and 4.8 percent silica.

Proven equipment for a tough environment
There’s plenty of high-quality ore under Finnmark, but extracting it profitably is a challenge due to climate, transportation and logistics among other factors. To ensure a profitable operation for all, Sydvaranger Gruve, Orica, Oscar Sundquist and Sandvik work together as partners. The decision to purchase eight surface drills was a significant one for a mine of this size, so it’s no surprise that all parties had strong opinions during the testing process. Finding a machine that could cope with the Arctic environment and a company that would become a partner in the project were the priorities.

Sandvik fleet at Sydvaranger

  • Eight Sandvik DP1500i drills
  • Seven Sandvik SP1423 feeders
  • Three Sandvik CH870 cone crushers
  • Two Sandvik LF1530 screens
  • One Sandvik DX780 drill

Sandvik European Service Manager Joakim Strandberg visits the mine regularly.

“The drills can manage the 140-millimetre holes that were required by the mine, and we have the tools, manufacturing, parts and service all within a reasonable distance,” he says. “We worked closely with Oscar Sundquist to decide on the best approach to support the contract, including grinding services. We have one technician on site doing the grinding of the drilling tools and a supervisor handling the on-site training and support for the Oscar Sundquist technicians.”

The obvious choice
Emil Dæhlin, project manager at Oscar Sundquist, is one of the mine’s many local employees. He grew up in the Kirkenes area and now has responsibility for the drilling operations and managing communication between the contracting partners. He explains why they chose Sandvik and its DP1500i drills.

“We had our field test here in November 2012 using the Sandvik DP1500i,” he says. “We tested it for a month and it performed well. There are more than 500 DP1500i drills in operation around the world today, so we were confident in the capability and strengths. Other options hadn’t been tested in such conditions. Given the proven quality of their equipment and focus for service, Sandvik was the obvious long-term choice.”

Oscar Sundquist chose the top hammer technology over alternatives such as down-the-hole (DTH) or rotary drilling due to the relatively small pits at Sydvaranger. Again, Sandvik offered the ideal solution.

“We have hard rock and bench heights of only 40 metres,” Dæhlin explains. “Top hammer drilling uses much less fuel with better penetration, and the maintenance costs are lower than using DTH. We began using steering rods, but it quickly became apparent these weren’t necessary. The combination of the DP1500i rig and Sandvik GT60+ rods gives us perfectly straight holes without the need for additional guides. With such tough rock to break through, that’s quite an achievement.”

Sandvik solution

Oscar Sundquist purchased eight Sandvik DP1500i crawler-based surface top hammer drills. The new-generation intelligent rigs come equipped with an advanced user interface featuring GPS and step-by-step troubleshooting instructions.

Sandvik also supplies technical staff to the site, working in partnership with both Orica Norway and AS Oscar Sundquist to ensure the operators are fully trained and the drills remain operational in tough conditions.

Lars-Even Pettersen works as a DP1500i operator, drilling precise holes at 10-degree angles before the charge team loads the explosives. He also has responsibility for routine maintenance work.

“Sandvik DP1500i is stable and easy to handle and manoeuvre, but it’s the new GPS system that makes the biggest difference,” Pettersen says. “It’s a big improvement over the DP1500. The bigger cabin means I can have someone alongside me learning the process, while the powerful heater keeps us warm. Working in wintertime is challenging with the cold but also the total darkness, so we depend on the LED lights and cameras to see where we are working.”

Close cooperation
A new project highlights the close relationship Sandvik has not only with the customer but with each party on site. The teams are currently working together to develop an improved drill bit that will last longer in the tough Arctic rock.

“It’s a very abrasive material so we need to find drill bits that last as long as possible,” Dæhlin says. “We are collaborating to develop something suitable to help the economics of the operation and benefit everyone in the long run.”

The outlook for Sydvaranger is optimistic, despite tough market conditions. The expected life of the mine is at least 20 years, and the owners are currently investigating possibilities of expansion. The economics are everything, and Sandvik equipment plays its part by enabling cheaper and quicker drilling than would otherwise be possible.