Far into the investigation site at a level of 1,375 metres, LKAB employees stand and knock out drill cores from an inner tube. This is where the answers will be found concerning Kiruna’s and LKAB’s future.
Work to drive the investigation site has been going on all year and will continue some way into 2020. In total, 1,400 metres will be driven. With Kiruna’s hard rock, that is a challenge.
LKAB’s exploration department has seven diamond-tipped drilling rigs for test drilling, three of which have already been placed at the start of the new investigation site.
“In the longer term we expect to have a total of 10 rigs. We are having a major push now and have a lot of work ahead of us. We need to drill far in excess of 100,000 metres to map the deposit to the north. Each rig can drill an average of 800 metres a month,” says Anders Edlert, who heads the drilling technology team for the exploration.
Down at the drilling rigs it is hot and damp, and they have just begun drilling to get new information about the assumed continuation of the deposit. Some inner tubes from the previous drilling sequence are ready to be emptied and sorted into labelled wooden boxes. He knocks on one of the tubes with a hammer and the drill cores fall out.
The drill cores are then taken up to the surface, where they are investigated by LKAB’s geologists who combine the samples with other investigations.
“The work has gone really well so far – those who have been driving the investigation site have done an efficient job. We do not yet have enough drill cores to get a clearer picture, but it’s in progress. It’s exciting,” says Karin Lindgren, who heads the team exploring close to the mine in Kiruna.
In 2020 a large number of holes will be drilled in the area of interest, which together will amount to more than 250,000 drilled metres. Of this, around a third will be drilled from ground level – including at various locations in central Kiruna.
Beating the clock
The deposit currently being mined is expected to last until the mid-2030s. In many other industries that would be a relatively distant future, but LKAB has a different perspective.
Decisions on any expansion of the Kiruna mine need to be taken in the mid-2020s. The expansion, which involves an entirely new production system, can then be ready just in time for when the current deposit runs out. This is why it is so urgent.
“By far our greatest challenge is time. We cannot afford to have too many delays,” says Pierre Heeroma, Senior Vice President for Prospecting, Strategy and Business Development at LKAB.
At the end of 2022 LKAB hopes to have clarified whether there is potential for a billion tonnes of mineral resources. The next step will be to investigate whether the resources can be mined. In parallel a number of analyses need to be carried out into aspects such as ore grade and chemical composition. If the ore is similar to today’s ore in Kiruna it will make things simpler, but it could just as easily be different. The iron content could vary, as might the chemical composition.
“The difficult thing is not knowing in advance what we will find – sometimes making a product from the ore we find is more complicated. In addition, we have to find a solution for how it is to be mined in purely technical terms and in an economically profitable way,” says Pierre Heeroma. In parallel with the exploration work, the SUM development initiative is in progress in another part of the Kiruna mine. In an area called Konsuln there is now a test mine that will start being used seriously in 2020. The plan is for the mining of the future to be carbon-free, digitalised and autonomous. Konsuln will be used to test and evaluate battery-powered and driverless vehicles, among other things. If the Kiruna mine is expanded to even greater depths, this technology could well be used.
1Drilling between existing drill holes.