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Underground bullet trains: Timo Tikka and the importance of mine shaft connections

Part three of our 10-part Stantec R&D Fund 10th Anniversary Series takes us into the lab to explore the safety and durability of mine shaft systems

Each round of shaft connection fatigue testing at the University of Saskatchewan consists of one million consecutive impacts on a model like this one.

Imagine a freight train traveling at 60 kilometres an hour (37 miles per hour) through a tunnel leading to a station a kilometre (0.6 miles) below ground. The train comes back up to the surface, then heads down again. Up, down. Up, down. Countless times a day for years on end.

Now imagine this train slamming against the tunnel system, exerting a force between five and 10 tons as it speeds along the rails. What might seem like a minor bump on an otherwise smooth ride becomes a major issue when it occurs repeatedly.

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In real life, says Timo Tikka, senior mining consultant (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), that freight train analogy captures the essence of a mining conveyance system that carries people (in cages) or ore and equipment (in skips) up and down a mine shaft. When a skip bangs against its guidance system too often, the system’s connections become weak and unsafe. The result? A system failure that can shut down a mine, costing operators millions of dollars a day. That’s a scenario we don’t want our clients to face.

This aerial view of a standard mine shaft highlights the connection areas Timo and his team’s research focuses on.

A solution through teamwork
Timo sees a solution to this costly and dangerous issue. Together with a team of Stantec colleagues, university researchers, and industry partners, he’s using Stantec’s Research and Development (R&D) Fund (part of our Greenlight program) to test new connections for mine shaft steel. These connections will help better guide skips and absorb energy should movement occur.

“The whole idea of this guidance system is to make the ride as smooth as possible,” says Timo. “And if there is an event where the skip goes sideways, the system can handle the forces applied.”

He’ll be the first to tell you there’s no “I” in “research team.” Students and researchers at the University of Saskatchewan are conducting fatigue testing on the steel connections. Meanwhile, their counterparts at the University of New Brunswick are impact testing a pad that could be placed between the skip and the guidance system to absorb energy from a skip bumping against its track.

Our client and partner BHP Billiton is contributing resources to this project and will use the results in its Jansen potash project in Saskatchewan. Funding from Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) is also supporting the shaft steel connection fatigue research. The funds from Stantec’s R&D Program helped to bring all these pieces together.

Leon Wegner is a professor and head of the Department of Civil, Geological, and Environmental Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. He believes this collaborative research is an investment not only in the industry, but also in the next generation of experts.

“Students can develop expertise and relationships that will benefit their professional careers, and Stantec is able to answer a complex research question while working with bright young professionals,” says Wegner, who has worked closely with Timo from the start.

“The findings from this collaborative research project will also be of great value to the mining industry. The project has the potential to improve the design of mine shaft steelwork by giving engineers the information they need to more confidently design for fatigue.”   

Potash, which contains potassium, is an essential ingredient in fertilizer and is mined from deposits around the world. Many deposits are located a kilometre (0.6 miles) or more beneath the earth’s surface.

Progressing with potash
Although the team hopes to apply its research on all types of mine shaft systems, it’s starting with potash, a mineral used in fertilizer to enhance plant growth and resilience.

Potash producers typically produce larger volumes of product and bring higher tonnages of ore to the surface than other types of mines. With heavier payloads and faster skip travel becoming the future of the industry, the research is heading into “uncharted territory” when it comes to fatigue resistance. New design codes require verification analysis through computer modeling to meet safety and operational targets. Furthermore, fatigue testing can’t be scaled up (calculations for a 60-ton skip load, for example, can’t be based off data from a 20-ton load). The project challenges are clear. 

Timo and the team have published a paper, which they presented at the 2015 Canadian Society for Civil Engineering Annual Conference in Regina, Saskatchewan. They’ve also identified areas of focus for the next phase of study. Although fatigue testing—which consists of one million rounds of force moving up and down on the connection point over the course of 11 days—can be “as exciting as watching paint dry,” Timo knows the work is important.

“The faster skips go, the smoother they have to be,” Timo says about the project. “If you go on an old railway car, it kind of rattles and bounces around. But if you go on a bullet train, you don’t even know it’s moving. We’re aiming for a bullet train experience.”

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About this article
Stantec is celebrating the 10th anniversary of our Research and Development (R&D) Fund—now called Greenlight. Through Greenlight, Stantec invests $2 million annually into our employees’ big ideas, with half the funds earmarked for scientific R&D initiatives. Greenlight is part of our Creativity & Innovation Program, which nurtures the efforts of our people to apply any idea that benefits us, our clients, or our communities, and enhances our reputation, competitive position, and ultimately our financial performance. In the coming months, we’ll be profiling 10 of our R&D grant recipients and their work, so check back often for more stories.

A former professor with more than 30 years of experience in civil and structural engineering, Timo Tikka understands the value of partnerships in research and in sharing knowledge with the next generation of experts.

When a skip bangs against its guidance system too often, the system’s connections become weak and unsafe . . . Timo sees a solution to this costly and dangerous issue.

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