In my current series of articles, I am examining the many occupations within the diamond industry. So far, we have looked at the jobs and responsibilities that go into finding a diamond mine, and developing a plan to build the mine and acquire the necessary permits. Assuming that the decision to mine is made, and a mining camp and processing plant are built, the long process of mining the deposit over many years begins to take place. There are hundreds of different people performing many different jobs every day in order to deliver ore to the plant, and keep diamond production moving consistently.
The job of the resource geologist does not end after the discovery of a mine. In fact, a team of geologists is usually a permanent fixture at a diamond mine, and helps to coordinate the efforts of the explosives team in an open pit operation. Geologists also assist underground miners to delineate the ore body. They help define what is actually diamond-bearing rock, and what the surrounding host rock is, and ensure that the correct rocks make it to the processing plant. The delineation of the mine provides important data that is used to confirm original estimates, and to increase the size of the ore reserve as more data becomes available.
Blasting is usually the work of demolitions experts under very controlled conditions. Although the process is extremely violent, it must still be done with sensitivity, to avoid causing unnecessary damage to the diamonds within. Drills create holes between five and 10 meters deep, and explosives are inserted into the resulting holes. The explosives are all connected in sequence, and are detonated from a distance. Usually, the entire mine is on notice when a blast is about to happen, and many operations cease during blasting, to ensure no one inadvertently finds themselves in the wrong place.
Underground mining is more expensive than open-pit mining, due in part to the large number of people required in a challenging environment. Underground mining can be dangerous. In 2015, 33 underground miners were rescued from a Chilean gold and copper mine, after spending 69 days trapped 2,200 feet underground. Mining underground can bring complications that require many people to be alert. Air quality is a huge consideration, and a team of air quality experts is on site to monitor ventilation, diesel fuel emissions, toxic gas levels, and particulate levels. These scientists often have authority to pull mining teams out from within the mine if air quality is approaching unsafe parameters. The mining itself is complex, and requires the skills of explosives experts, engineers, and equipment operators.
Diamond mining, like other types of mining, requires the use of many heavy truck and equipment operators. Regardless of how the ore is extracted from the host rock, it must be transported to a processing plant, often a short distance from the mine itself. This requires big trucks, and lots of them. These vehicles are often pushed to their limits, and most mines have enormous maintenance buildings, where trucks and earthmoving equipment get regular maintenance from skilled equipment mechanics. Given the volume of ore moved regularly at a diamond mine, it is normal to see equipment bays full of vehicles, and dozens of mechanics working on them 24 hours a day.
Given that diamonds are as valuable as they are, security is an ever-present feature of mining camps. Throughout recent history, stories abound about increasingly creative ways that workers have tried to smuggle and steal diamonds from the companies that employ them, from shooting arrows filled with stones over fences, to hiding diamonds within body crevices. Security staff serves an important function to ensure that all of the diamonds in which a mining company has invested ultimately make it to market. These people must stay ahead of the technology curve, and many security personnel at modern mines are principally computer and analytical technicians. Thermal imaging cameras and adaptive video analytics are the new security tools, in place alongside the traditional tools of surveillance, access restrictions, and physical searches.
Once ore is delivered to the processing plant, the work of extracting diamonds begins. Diamonds generally come in very low concentrations compared to other resources, so losing even a small percentage of them in processing can be the difference between profit and loss. Metallurgists are the people who specialize in extracting diamonds from the ore, and often work with a group of civil and mechanical engineers to optimize the recovery plant to liberate diamonds. Although diamonds are the hardest natural substance on Earth, they are still susceptible to being broken during recovery, and every plant must strike a fine balance between liberating all the diamonds within the rock with minimal damage, and losing them because the plant is set up too ‘delicately’ to recover them. Engineers monitor plant recovery on a minute-by-minute basis, and make continual adjustments and recalibrations to the many moving parts in the recovery circuit.
Since many other heavy minerals are recovered along with diamonds, skilled diamond pickers and sorters are needed to identify diamonds from within a steady stream of other, often similar-looking minerals. This process usually takes place under heavy security monitoring within a controlled environment. Often, diamond sorters work inside ‘glove boxes’ that create a physical barrier between the worker and the diamonds, while still allowing them to separate the valuable minerals they are looking for.
In additional to the operators working directly on diamond extraction, a mine, like any other business, features countless support personnel to make everything work as planned. With accounting, management, maintenance, administration, marketing, IT, HR, and many other members of staff, a diamond mine often functions like a small city. The ultimate goal is to ship diamonds to a sorting and sales team that can ready the diamonds for sale to the manufacturing community, which will be the topic of my next article.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity. No one should act upon any opinion or information in this website without consulting a professional qualified adviser.