Fibre link could aid Chile mine rescue

31st August 2010

Co-workers, rescuers and relatives gather outside a copper and gold mine where miners are trapped - Source: Reuters

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A former British deputy prime minister, John Prescott, will make a formal offer to Chilean authorities to supply Chinese fibre-optic technology to make long term links to the 33 miners trapped 700m underground in Chile, says a New Zealand mining engineer.

Dave Feickert, from Wanganui, who is working in China to improve its accident-prone mines, said today he had met engineers from the Shandong-based Micro Sensor Photonics (SMSP) Company in Beijing to discuss how they might be able to help in the rescue effort.

"Chinese application of fibre-optics in underground mines is more advanced than in other major mining countries," Feickert told NZPA.

"This rescue is a major test for the world mining industry and requires all skills to be mobilised".

SMSP is a subsidiary of British company Intelligent Sensor Systems (ISS), headed by Dr Andrew Rickman, founder of a fibre optics company, Bookham, but based in the Shandong provincial government's academy of sciences at Jinan.

"SMSP can offer a package of fibre optics-based monitoring, communication and control systems which could help the rescue team and the trapped miners deal with some of the difficulties they face," he said. These systems were already in use in underground coal mines in China.

"This is a three-country approach in fact in the sense that the company is Chinese, with a UK parent and I am a Kiwi working with them," Feickert said.

Prescott had good links in China at a high level and a lifetime interest in occupational safety and would put the formal offer to the Chileans.

"This technology is not expensive but the cost will come in getting the Chinese engineers on site," said Feickert.

"We have a major safety and health programme about to begin in China in the high risk industries, starting with coal mining - nine million euros - and I hope the EU will fund this out of its emergency fund."

A hybrid cable - metal and fibre optic elements together, with low-voltage electricity - was thinner than a pencil and could also be used to provide some lighting.

And, depending on the availability of small screens that could be sent down a borehole, the lightweight cable and an audio feed could provide video for entertainment and educational purposes for the trapped men, and more men could chat to family at a time, with better privacy.

"They will need to stay active and organise each day to try to mimic their normal lives ... video/DVD and other multi-media will help here," he said.

Communication, including video links, with the rescue team and their families was very important.

Feickert said the Chinese technology was good, and the first in the global mining sector to integrate all sensor and communication systems in mines, including methane and seismic monitors.

Australian mining companies had not yet succeeded with complete integration of communications down mines, and there was scope for the systems to be used on both sides of the Tasman, he said.