By Han Jianguo
Deputy General Manager, Shenhua Group Co., Ltd
President, China Shenhua Energy Co., Ltd
Digital mines are based on the innovative application of well-established, advanced information technologies to the areas of geological resource exploration, mine design and construction, safe and efficient production, operations, and decision-making. Digital mining allows for all aspects of mining to be evaluated simultaneously using digitized displays. The digital mine system can respond to, process, and utilize data to enable integration of different mining processes so as to achieve unified, centralized management of mining operations. Digital mining incorporates modern mining operations characterized by increased safety, reduced environmental impact, intelligence, and high efficiency.1 In China, Shenhua Group (Shenhua) has led the development and deployment of digital mines. The demonstration of China’s first digital mine successfully came online in the Jinjie Coal Mine of Shenhua’s Shendong Coal Group, Co., Ltd on 27 December 2013, representing a major milestone for Shenhua and China.
THE IMPETUS FOR DIGITAL MINES IN CHINA
China’s government made it clear that the coal industry should increase efforts during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011–2015) to develop and deploy an innovative coal system, founded on science and technology, that addresses the needs of coal-producing enterprises, is market oriented, and is based on collaboration between industry, universities, and other research institutions. This transformation in mining is further supported by recent policies on safer coal production, energy conservation, and emissions reduction.
As the primary source of China’s energy and a raw material for many industries, coal is pivotal to the nation’s economic development. However, coal mining is a complicated operation, often carried out deep underground with many potential risks. These risks can be difficult to detect and even more so to predict. Among other reasons, advanced mining systems, such as those incorporated into digital mines, are important because they can significantly reduce accidents.2
Recently, mining technologies in China have been improved in significant ways: from the use of fully mechanized mining to the application of large, automated equipment, information technologies, and artificial intelligence. Taking advantage of these modern technologies has propelled the development of China’s coal industry—and digital mines are a necessary next step.3
Today, China’s coal industry is facing the reality of a market characterized by slowing demand growth, decreased profits for many coal enterprises, and related problems such as overstaffing, low efficiency, poor safety records, and poor management. These issues are restricting the healthy and steady development of coal enterprises. Thus, digital mines and the associated technologies are needed now more than ever.
ARCHITECTURE AND THE MAJOR COMPONENTS OF A DIGITAL MINE
Shenhua’s digital mine was developed taking into consideration the actual needs of coal producers (both underground and open-pit) in China. Three key challenges had to be addressed: mining information acquisition, transmission, and processing.
Digital Mine Architecture
Shenhua’s digital mine consists of a five-level structure of information standards (i.e., equipment, controls, production execution, operation management, and decision support), which fully incorporate information-based corporate decision-making as well as information-based production management and automated production processes. The complete architecture of the digital mine is shown in Figure 1.
The architecture of Shenhua digital mines includes the components listed in Table 1.
Two platforms have been developed for Shenhua’s digital mines—the centralized production-monitoring platform and the production execution platform. Within these platforms are 68 subsystems. Data can be freely transferred among these platforms and subsystems.
The centralized production-monitoring platform is primarily used to integrate data and to control the onsite surveillance system and monitoring system; the production execution platform mainly provides support to the subsystems of production and management for data exchanges between production management and control.
The interacting network for underground coal mines is shown in Figure 2. As shown in the figure, information can be exchanged and shared through a network. An interface meeting international standards is provided at the network and serial port levels, so that all subsystems can be connected and various software and hardware can be integrated, making the systems connected and interconnected.
Architecture of the IT Infrastructure
The architecture of the IT infrastructure of Shenhua’s digital mines can be divided into three layers, from the lowest upward: network, mine machine room, and the application terminals (see Figure 3).
MAJOR INNOVATIONS FROM SHENHUA’S DEMONSTRATION OF THE DIGITAL MINE
The Jinjie demonstration of Shenhua’s digital mine had several successful aspects. For instance, a software platform for coal mine monitoring was developed after analysis and assessment in the Jinjie demonstration mine. Through use of this system, comprehensive monitoring and multifunctional operation of the coal mine and operation management through a single display was achieved.
Aided by this coal mine monitoring software platform, the demonstration digital mine operators were able to transition from a conventional top-down management model to more efficient, data-based control of mining, excavating, machining, transporting, and circulating. The use of this software platform changed the dispatch room into a 24-hour command post, accomplishing full data sharing, intelligent linkage, and automatic control for mining, excavating, mechanical operating, transportation, and circulating systems by enabling control room operators to have full access to data throughout the mine as well as control of automated equipment and communication with the personnel outside the control room.4
Another important accomplishment during the Jinjie demonstration related to the GIS-based automated mining model, which allows the memory-based shear cutting of the coalface to be controlled remotely from the surface. Models and parameters for the slicing and control of the coal cutter were based on the geological drilling and the actual data (e.g., mining height and fluctuation) of the working face. This system allowed for coal to be cut automatically and the slicing path to be recorded. The system was able to receive input through either the sensors or human intervention. No matter the source, the system recorded any interventions and incorporated that information into subsequent slicing parameters (i.e., a self-correcting model). This process repeated itself automatically, and this technology has been applied to five other fully automated mining faces in Shenhua Shendong Co. on a trial basis.
One notable achievement of the Jinjie demonstration mine related to the transportation of coal on a conveyor whose speed was regulated using laser-based measurements in an intelligent closed loop. The laser-based detection device monitors the amount of coal on the belt: When an increase in the quantity of coal was detected, the conveyor sped up immediately. This system led to energy savings and more efficient production.
The Jinjie demonstration mine used a 10-GB Ethernet (10-giga) underground high-speed transmission network, allowing the integration of a few sub-networks and allowing real-time transmission of mass data from multiple sources. In addition, a wireless portable hand-held terminal was successfully developed and used to monitor the real-time situations at mobile locations. This underground network was able to satisfy the need to access and transmit 57,000 measured sources of data as compared with the conventional 15,000 measured data points. The transmission network is shown in Figure 4.
By using wireless internet technologies such as 3G, Wi-Fi, and radio frequency underground, users achieved automated data collection in real time using mobile terminals such as cellphones, tablets, and point inspectors, leading to underground paperless records to ensure timely and accurate data collection.
IMPACTS AND ACHIEVEMENTS
The Jinjie demonstration of Shenhua’s digital mine provided a large amount of information covering all underground systems, environments, and equipment. This cache of information helped achieve the complete, accurate, real-time, and automatic collection of data. Based on this, the overall digital mines program established a big data-based production command system, which revolutionized how commands and controls are executed. For example, equipment is controlled by a remote computer rather than by a person. Additionally, controls are now centralized rather than decentralized as was the case in the past.
The construction and application of Shenhua’s digital mines program has been applied at the following sites (in addition to Jinjie): Da Liuta, Yu Jiaoliang, Shi Yitai, Shangwan, Bu Lianta, Baode, Wulan Mulun, Ha Lagou, Cun Caota, Liuta, Jinfengcun Caota, No. 1 mine at Wanli, and Bu Ertai. These 14 applications are reporting substantial, positive impacts to operations, the most important of which are described below.
Increased efficiency and downsized payrolls: The shift from direct onsite control to indirect remote control can reduce the operation personnel underground. For example, a change to centralized control can reduce the underground workforce by 52 production workers. This represents a cost savings of RMB9.2 million (US$1.49 million) and 190,700 labor hours.
Refined production management and reduced equipment downtime: Data sharing within the information systems makes it possible for the equipment and system to operate only as needed. Therefore, minimizing the ineffective operation time of the equipment and maximizing production efficiency can be achieved. Take the main transport belts, for example. It is estimated that the variable speed control technologies can increase the utilization of the underground electromechanical equipment by 2%. This translates into a reduced power consumption of 25% and a cost savings of about RMB500,000 (US$80,883) on each belt per year.
Improved productivity, enhanced recovery of resources, and increased utilization of equipment: With the implementation of the digital mines program, energy usage is reduced. Equipment abrasion is also reduced. The output of each coalface is increased by about 10% and excavation of this mining face is extended by more than 12%. The efficiency of the workforce can be increased by about 16% and the utilization of the equipment by about 5%. In the last three years, coal output increased by 15.09 million tonnes and sales increased by RMB7.873 billion (US$1.285 billion) in the Jinjie, Da Liuta, and Yu Jiaoliang mines alone after they implemented the digital mines approach.
Enhanced safety: With the safety management system, accident prevention and control has replaced reactive approaches to safety. The artificial intelligence-based early warning system has significantly improved the safety-related data and considerably improved the safety of mining operations.
A newly formed GIS-based true three-dimensional emergency rescue system linking the underground with the surface has been created: Potential problems in operation can be remotely monitored and diagnosed. Experts can propose effective solutions and provide technical support directly online through consultation.
The rapid development and mutual integration of IT and automation technology have rejuvenated organizational management, production and decision-making, and technology and production scales of China’s coal industry. The construction and successful operation of Shenhua’s digital mines program is strategically significant for the industry. It will further improve production efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance core competiveness for mining. It serves as a cornerstone to the construction of a modern, safe production management system for the coal industry, leading to a modernized coal industry with a highly technical foundation, profitable operations, low energy consumption, reduced pollution, increased safety, and efficient utilization of personnel.
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