From camels to flying carpets – by David Robinson (Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal – November, 2011)

Dr. David Robinson is an economist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. His column is from Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal a magazine that showcases the mining expertise of North Bay, Timmins and Sudbury.

Mining and the trade in metals shaped the ancient world. And in almost every case, the transportation system for the metal industries was the most advanced you could find at the time.

Whether it was camels moving copper to Jerusalem from mines in Edom, or Phoenician ships ferrying tin from the Tin Islands to the growing cities of the eastern Mediterranean, mining and advanced transportation have gone together like love and marriage. Transportation innovations of the 19th century shaped the mining industry of the 20th century. Without rail, for example, the vast interior deposits of iron, copper and other metals would have been far more costly to deliver to a growing global market. Cities like Sudbury simply could not exist.

The shipping needs of one modern company show the scale of the transportation services required by miners. Vale exports iron ore to China in “capesize” freighters (too large to pass through the Suez Canal) that carry up to 400,000 deadweight tons – the equivalent of 4,000 ore cars. In 2006, Vale ordered a dozen of these for $1.6 billion.

Rail remains the most common choice for base metal transport on land. A new149 kilometre railroad on Baffin Island in Canada will carry 18 million tons a year out of one of the world’s most northerly mines. The Cliffs chromite operation in the Ring of Fire expects to ship four million tons of ore per year 350 kilometres to Nakina on a new $2 billion rail line.

What could possibly compete with rail for projects like this?  It turns out that the late 20th century has produced some interesting contenders.

Consider the lighter-than-air heavy-lifter proposed by Hybrid Air Vehicles of Bedfordshire, England. The company has a contract with Canada’s Discovery Air Innovations to supply up to 45 aircraft each capable of lifting 50 tonnes. Future models could carry up to 1,000 tonnes.  Ten of these flying monsters could move ore from the Ring of Fire to the proposed smelter.

All ten could be bought for the price of the proposed railroad. The $2 billion railroad would be unnecessary. And these craft would have virtually no environmental impact on the delicate boreal forest.

But the savings are just beginning. Four million tons a year is almost 11,000 tons a day. A standard railroad ore car holds about 110 tons, so about 100 cars a day will be required. If the smelter were in Sudbury, round trips would take two full days. In all likelihood, 200 cars would be in motion each day while 200 more would be loaded and unloaded. At a modest $100,000 per car, the stock of cars would cost close to half a billion dollars. Locomotives would add at least $20 million more.

Hybrid air vehicles would be capable of carrying entire buildings to a site, as well as all the mine equipment. They could provide comfortable passenger service to communities and mine sites anywhere in the north without requiring costly road construction. Instead of having to put up $2 billion cash for a railroad, then paying interest while you wait for the mill to be built and production to ramp up, using hybrid air vehicles lets you defer most of your investment, bringing in additional capacity only when it is needed.

There are other intriguing possibilities. Consider the Hoverbarge that could be supplied by Hovertrans Solutions Pte. These heavy-lift hovercraft can handle 2,500 tons. They can travel across muskeg without damaging vegetation. They could move cargo directly from mine to ships in James Bay if desired. Like the hybrid air vehicles, they offer the maximum flexibility and they minimize up-front costs. They are an almost low-tech solution. Most of a hoverbarge can be built locally using standard steel welding techniques.  Hoverbarges could be used for exploration and as platforms for mining operations with a short lifespan. 

These companies are not yet seen as part of the mining supply and service industry, but they could be. They need partners in the industry. That may open up a new game for our most innovative companies. Transportation has always been an important part of mining, and, as we reach into more and more remote and delicate environments, we will need technologies that are flexible, environmentally friendly, and cheap.