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Explosives business changing rapidly with new technology.

Explosives business changing rapidly with new technology

Technology has changed the nature of the explosives business, says Pat O'Connell, president of Porcupine Powder Company in Timmins, an associate of ICI.

In bygone days explosives were handled in wooden crates which were discarded after use. Today they are toted in cardboard boxes or in cardboard-lined, woven bags which are reusable. The bags are superior to the boxes because they carry 20 times the load.

Bags have opened the market to bulk loading, where cartridges are put in the bags and the bags, in turn, are loaded in magazines.

But that is only scratching the surface of the rapidly changing explosives industry.

"We had 500 years of black powder (gun powder), about 170 years of dynamite and 25 years of water gels, and now we have had only 10 years with emulsions," said O'Connell. "I would imagine 10 years from now we will have another whole family of explosives."

Between the time of dynamite and the discovery of gels, the only significant advancement was the safety fuse. Prior to the application of the fuses, miners were in the habit of "blasting themselves," said O'Connell.

Safety fuses are about 70 years old.

Water gels come in super-saturated solutions of ammonium nitrate or calcium nitrate. Other components are added to suit the requirements of the blast-area. Gels are much safer to handle than nitroglycerine (dynamite).

Following on the heels of gels came emulsions. These can come in the consistency of "mayonnaise, or runny, pancake batter," said O'Connell.

Dynamite is slowly dwindling in popularity.

"We still sell some dynamite because dynamite has been around so long that we know exactly what it will do in all conditions," he said.

In the detonator category, the basic black-powder fuse has been joined by extremely accurate electronic detonators with built-in microchips. Electrical detonators have a burn-delay in the shell and O'Connell describes them as "reasonably accurate for day-to-day blasting."

New on the market is ICI's Excel shock-tube detonator. A shock of compressed air activates the timing mechanism within the detonator. Being a non-electric initiation system, it is immune to interference from static electricity, radio transmissions or stray currents.

New products are tested in the field to judge their response to the elements. Canada is the development base for ICI's global enterprise. The Canadian Shield has the world's most challenging environment, said Roy Aspden, a management representative from ICI's head office.

"If it works in Canada, it will work anywhere else in the world," agreed O'Connell.

New products are continuously on trial. Most entail modifications to an existing product to meet a client's request.

ICI depends on input from distributors who know the market. The technical research lab in McMasterville alters products and applies for government approval for prototypes.

Customers may operate open-pit mines, underground mines, quarries or construction companies.

The whole idea of blasting is to create a void and then fire a drill pattern in sequence. Different methods are used to control the blast.

Blast design is an important Porcupine Powder service. This is the area of expertise of David Proudfoot, the company's technical services manager.

Proudfoot said a combination of experience and training is essential. Both he and O'Connell are graduates of the Haileybury School of Mines.

Aspden, a fellow mine school graduate, explains the importance of blast design.

"You take each situation individually and design around the constraints you are faced with."

For example, underground, accuracy is important to maintain wall strength and to avoid diluting ore with non-mineral-bearing material. If there is sulphide dust, fire suppressants may be required.

Some conditions such as soft earth may call for a slow blast. Brittle ground may require a fast-detonating explosive.

Other requirements include control of vibrations and noise.

Instruction and safety are necessary elements of blasting, as well. Porcupine Powder does a lot of teaching - including a course for prospectors.

"There are old blasters and there are bold blasters, but there are no old, bold blasters," Aspden said, adding that "you don't walk away from blasting accidents."
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Title Annotation:Mining Report
Author:Smith, Marjie
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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