A Queensland coal mine is trialling the use of German automation technology to exploit of hard-to-access coal deposits.

While thin seam deposits are a potentially abundant and lucrative source of coal, the practical difficulties of accessing them has thus far impeded their cost-effective exploitation by the mining sector.

Thin coal seams – conventionally defined as those measuring less than 1.3 metres in width – are generally considered too challenging and finicky to mine for their large-scale development to be economical.

This issue could soon be remedied, however, by the development of automation technology which is capable of extracting the full value embodied by these narrow coal deposits.

German engineering firm Wirtgen has released an surface mining vehicle capable of efficiently and economically removing the contents of thin coal seams. The company has achieved this by adapting automated technologies used by its roadwork machines – one of its mainstay areas of  commercial operation – which are typically used to remove the bitumen surfaces of obsolete roads.

The developers of the $7 million surface mining machine claim it is capable of cutting, crushing and loading narrow coal deposits in a single fell swoop, thus omitting the need for drilling, blasting, loading and primary crushing.

In addition to granting access to thin coal seams which would otherwise be too challenging to exploit, the incorporation of multiple functions within a single machine eliminates the need for other equipment, thus making the mining process even more economical and convenient.

New Hope Group, a Queensland-based energy company, is now conducting an in-depth four-month trial of the technology at its New Acland coal mine near Oakey in the south-eastern corner of the state.

Similar machines are currently being used at mining operations in China, Turkey and the USA, while in Australia they have already been deployed at Fortescue’s iron ore mines in the Pilbara.

The New Hope trial, however, marks the first time the technology is being applied to open cut coal mines in Australia.

According to New Hope general manager Andrew McDonald, the adoption of the technology comes as coal producers seek to raise efficiency and reduce costs in order to deal with variable commodities prices and Australia’s higher operating costs.

“We are hoping to see better yields out of our coal, and we are also hoping to see a better quality coal product come out,” he said. “This is meant to be a very efficient way to extract coal from thin seams, and it can also load directly into the haul trucks via an attached conveyor system…it may also reduce the need for blasting, which could offer significant savings for mining operations.”

New Hope plans to conduct thorough tests of the new machine’s ability to cut and separate the layers of dirt at the top of and between the coal seams, as well as of the coal itself.

The compartmentalised machine requires only four days for assembly, and New Hope’s employees have already undergone training in the operation and maintenance of the new device.

The machine was only deployed for day shifts during the initial phase of the trial in order to enable workers to become fully familiar with its operation, before shifting to all-shift usage  in June, subject to strict KPOs.