Fundamentals of Rock Fracture

Crushing and grinding rock accounts for 85% of the energy needed to process minerals and amounts to about 6% of global industrial energy use. The mining company Rio Tinto has set up a £6M research centre at Imperial College with the aim of developing the “mine of the future”. The idea is to create advanced mining and mineral processing techniques that use much less energy than those employed up to now. One of the Centre’s main projects is the study of rock fragmentation, and the PIs on this project are all TYC members at Imperial College and King’s College.

As part of the project on rock fragmentation, the TYC modellers are studying fracture processes in rocks, with the specific aim of developing more efficient techniques for “block caving”. This exploits the natural fractures in rocks so that they break under gravity rather than by using explosives, making the mining process cheaper and safer. The success of the project depends heavily on interdisciplinary collaboration across the two London Colleges, because the physical processes span a wide range of length-scales. To achieve this, researchers in the Earth Science and Engineering departments at Imperial who are expert in Finite-Element and Discrete Fracture Modelling techniques are working closely with atomistic modellers in the Physics Department at King’s. An important aid in communicating information across the length scales is the “Learn-on-the-Fly” technique developed partly at King’s, which allows quantum-mechanically accurate simulations to be performed on extremely large systems. The ultimate shared goal of the collaborating groups is the prediction from first principles of the behaviour of individual fractures and fracture networks in mine ceilings, and the size distribution of rock fragments produced by their controlled collapse.

The Rio Tinto Centre for Advanced Mineral Recovery was established in 2008 and will run until 2018. The King’s–Imperial collaboration started in 2009 and is currently funded until 2013.


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