The future below: Mining in the 21st century

Julie Eble
March 17, 2015

Think "miner" and you might picture a coal-dusted, middle-aged guy with a headlamp and a pick axe. Chances are you don’t picture Sam Baker.

Baker, a sophomore mining engineering major at Penn State, is the complete opposite. With short, combed hair and a clean-cut face, he exudes a neat and youthful appearance. But don’t let Baker’s looks fool you. He spent last summer 1,500 feet underground at a state-of-the-art coal mine in Colorado.  

Coal mining in the U.S. is an industry that dates back to the late 1700s when men took their lives into their own hands and entered dark caverns to dig for “black gold.” While the old perceptions of mining may still resonate in our modern culture, today’s mining operations are actually entwined with technology and innovations that not only increase production but also the safety of its workers.

Working as an intern on a surveying crew, Baker says he saw technology in all aspects of mining and was never really concerned for his safety. "Of course, safety was always on my mind, and I knew I had to be alert down there," he said. "But I wasn’t overly worried about it."

During his internship, Baker says he and the other crew members started every shift with a safety meeting and were equipped with such technology as mobile phones -- complete with individualized ring tones and texting capability -- that kept them in constant communication with operations managers in the control room on the surface.

As an additional safety precaution, wireless tracking tags on their helmets monitored their whereabouts in real-time. The tags transmitted worker location information onto mining maps to aid rescue efforts in the event of an accident. The tags also were placed on all underground machinery and mobile equipment. "I was tasked with conducting an inventory of the more than 100 trucks and equipment within the mine, so the tracking software kept a record of everything and helped me locate items and machinery for workers," Baker said.

Reality dictates that mining will continue to be part of the 21st century, as today’s mining and quarrying industry is vital to the U.S. economy and way of life. Mined minerals are central to modern living and are essential to producing such construction and manufacturing materials as steel and cement and for generating electricity to light, heat and cool homes and prepare and preserve food. In fact, according to U.S. mining statistics, 45 percent of today’s U.S. energy comes directly from clean coal mining and 95 percent of all core-key materials used in such devices as plasma TVs, cellphones and iPods come from mined gold, silver, aluminum, titanium, copper and other metallic minerals.

Mine machinery also has become high tech in today’s mining operations. One of those sophisticated pieces of equipment is the large robotic continuous mining machine. It resembles a huge Caterpillar tractor and is equipped with a large rotating steel drum with tungsten carbide teeth that scrape coal from the seam. It can mine as much as five tons of coal a minute -- more than miners of the 1920s would produce in an entire day.

Continuous mining machines account for about 45 percent of underground coal production and use conveyors to transport the coal. The entire coal flow process is monitored by computers and viewed on screens in the main control room on the surface, according to Baker. "The computerized system even controls the amount of coal coming in and flashes a warning signal if the bins are getting too full," he said. Since the entire system is operated via remote control, it keeps workers out of dangerous work zones.

Thanks to mining equipment manufacturer Joy Global, Penn State mining engineering students will have the chance to become familiar with the continuous mining machine’s basic remote control functions and operation from the safety of a donated simulator. The simulator uses 2-D computer animations and includes a hand-held control panel that will enable student operators to experience computer-generated sights and sounds of underground mining while gaining experience operating a large continuous mining machine. By conducting various tasks on the simulator, students will become keenly aware of the machine and their surroundings and learn first-hand how hazards can develop in the workplace.

"Operating a simulated continuous miner will be much like operating the real machine underground, but without the inherent risks," said Jeffery Kohler, professor and chair of mining engineering in Penn State’s Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering. "It will provide an opportunity for hands-on learning and allow us to teach principles related to task training, safety and cognitive workload." The new simulator will be set up in a student lab in the near future, according to Kohler.  

Baker is looking forward to operating the new simulator and exploring the safety aspects of it.

As captain of the Penn State Mine Rescue Team, Baker and his fellow team members compete at national and international competitions in a race to save "trapped" miners by guiding their teams through simulated underground mine rescue missions and completing such timed task as fixing faulty ventilation gear.

"When most people think of mining, they think of the industry that existed 50 or 60 years ago," said Baker. "Mining is not like that anymore. It’s truly a 21st-century industry with all of the technology and safety advancements that come with modernization."

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  • Sam Baker portrait

    Sam Baker, a sophomore in mining engineering and captain of Penn State's Mine Rescue Team, takes a break during a mine rescue competition in Rolla, Missouri.

    IMAGE: Couresty of Sam Baker
  • continuous mining machine

    A low seam continuous mining machine with remote operator.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Joy Global Inc.
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Last Updated March 17, 2015