MACHALI, Chile – Chile’s El Teniente copper mine, the world’s largest underground mine, has gone from using donkeys during its early days in 1905 to using remote-controlled dump trucks today, reflecting a commitment to keeping this huge facility viable for another half century in the interior of the Andes.
More than a century has passed since miners using picks and shovels began digging the first tunnels in the mountain, located about 85 kilometers (some 53 miles) south of Santiago.
Since then, technology has become an ally for the mine, which is at the forefront of the Chilean and global mining industries, and is a benchmark for the rest of the sector in the country.
The mine, operated by state-owned Codelco, is now a leading facility at all levels - remote extraction from Rancagua, a city located 50 kilometers away; automated materials transfer; grinding optimization; and the foundry.
El Teniente boasts a complete production chain at an altitude of 3,200 meters in the process of being reinvented to maintain the rate of production for another 50 years, putting the facility on the road to two centuries of operation.
The dusty landscape of rugged semi-desert hills is cut by a road that winds between the ravines until it reaches a small tunnel that gives way to a dark and humid “anthill” in which the “old guys,” the workers, in mining lingo, roam around in their orange jumpsuits.
Some 4,248 “worker ants,” according to Codelco figures from December 2018, feed this underground monster that continues to produce copper, putting out 465,040 metric tons of the metal in 2018.
El Teniente’s copper has been exploited for 115 years and the mine has more than 3,000 kilometers of underground tunnels, or a distance roughly the equivalent of the width of Australia or the shortest distance separating the coasts of South America and Africa across the Atlantic Ocean.
With the help of modern technology, Codelco plans to earn additional profits of $1 billion from the mine starting in 2021, which would mean $200 million more in profits per year.
El Teniente also has two ambitious projects in progress at two new levels below the existing one, at 1,900 and 1,700 meters, respectively, above sea level, but 400 meters below the current mine.
Workers like Cristian Diaz, a mine operator, use the tunnels to dig for copper deep under the Andes.
“It has been modernized quite a bit, it is growing at a super fast rate. Technology has helped to push progress and development faster in every way,” Diaz, who has worked for 15 years in the bowels of El Teniente, told EFE.
Innovation and technology will allow Codelco to begin producing in the first of these new levels in 2023 and the deepest in 2024.
The state-owned mining company has doubled its bet on the largest underground mine in the world, hoping to earn average profits of $1.3 billion a year in the next five years, thanks to the capacity of the mine to grow and adapt over time.
“It’s a unique experience. It’s impressive to work in such a large mine. One day is not enough to travel even a third of the mine. It has grown much more. We’d need days to go through this mine ... It’s impressive how much it has grown, the number of people who have worked over the years. It makes me proud to work in the largest mine in the world,” Diaz said.
As a benchmark for the hundreds of mines in this South American country, El Teniente is the pride of the industry and, in addition to being the largest mine of its kind in the world, it is also the oldest in Chile.
Tradition and innovation merge in El Teniente’s wet and flooded tunnels, which are strewn with cables that grow as one approaches the exit to the surface, like vines that rise between other vegetation in search of sunlight.
Evelyn Jimenez, head of construction for the Diamante project, one of the new production areas in the coming intermediate level, said the incorporation of technology allowed Codelco to increase productivity amid the “challenge” of working in underground mining.
“The incorporation of technology and women has been advancing. That has created an easier environment and creativity has also increased, and the mining culture has changed,” the mining engineer told EFE.