A diagram of the Turquoise Ridge mine hangs on a wall near Nigel Bain’s office. To the uninitiated, it’s virtually impenetrable; a miasma of lines, shapes and markings.
“Our own people have a hard time making sense of it sometimes,” says Bain, General Manager of Turquoise Ridge.
Located in northern Nevada, Turquoise Ridge is a complex underground mine that has been operating for more than two decades. It contains numerous ramps and tunnels, top cuts and undercuts, and shafts and zones. Some areas are being actively mined, like the Footwall Extension Decline, an 800-foot section of the mine that contains significant gold resources. Other are not. It is, quite simply, not easy to illustrate such a complex operation on paper.
Bain believes Turquoise Ridge has hit upon a solution: 3D printing. Standing in his office on a warm September day, he holds up a 3D scale model of the mine. Made of ABS plastic, the model is remarkably detailed. Thousands of mine-design parameters have been integrated. The Footwall Extension Decline is clearly visible, as are the different cuts, ramps, and levels.
“We want to be able to show people the potential of the ore body in a way that is easily understood,” Bain says.
The source of the 3D model is an unlikely one: the Humboldt County Library in Winnemucca. Located about an hour’s drive from Turquoise Ridge, Winnemucca is a town of 14,000—not the first place you would expect to find a 3D printer. But, then again, Jessica Dyk is not your typical librarian.
“I very much like technology,” she says. “I really enjoy it.”
Dyk became enamored with 3D printers after doing a project on them in college. She was fascinated by their ability to make things like prosthetics, and the fact that they may one day be used to build a lunar base on the moon. “I was like, ‘I have to have one,’ ” she says.
Years later, as Library Specialist at the Humboldt County Library, her wish came true. She was able to mobilize enough support to fund the purchase of a Lulzbot TAZ 6, one of the best consumer 3D printers on the market. The printer arrived at the library in August. Turquoise Ridge, which had already been considering 3D modelling, contacted Dyk soon after.
“The printer was barely up and running when Barrick approached us and asked if we’d be willing to print a mine map for them,” Dyk says. “I said, ‘yes, of course, we’d be happy to print whatever we can for you.’ ”
To produce the detailed models that Turquoise Ridge needed, it soon became clear that the printer would require a dual extruder head. The library’s machine had a single extruder head. An extruder sends the correct amount of material—such as plastic, copper, stainless steel or even bamboo—to the “hot end” of a 3D printer, where the material is melted into thin layers for printing. Turquoise Ridge agreed to provide $2,000 to purchase a dual extruder head.
“We were happy to do it,” Bain says. “Some of the kids in the library’s 3D-printing clubs might see that printer, and the scale models of Turquoise Ridge, and find it pretty neat and consider a career in mining.”
The library offers training on the printer tailored to different age groups. Older children, for example, can learn to use computer code to print various objects. The dual extruder head allows for multi-color and multi-material printing, Dyk says, clearly excited by the prospect. “If we want to print in stainless steel and copper together, we can do that now. It can even print conductive plastic, which is amazing.”
Turquoise Ridge is the first Barrick mine to use 3D modelling. The highly-sophisticated models are produced at virtually no cost. The latest model, the third iteration, cost about $30.
Looking ahead, Bain, along with Arun Rai, Chief Engineer at Turquoise Ridge, and Joseph Seamons, Senior Engineer, who work closely on 3D modelling, believe there will be opportunities to extend the use of the technology. They hope, for example, to incorporate faults in the geology in future mine models. They also hope to produce scale models of other structures and equipment on site to facilitate training and planning.
“It’s a good tool that helps brings things to life,” Rai says.