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Geotechnical design for dilution control in underground mining

Ernesto Villaescusa
Professor of Mining Geomechanics,
Western Australian School of Mines, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.

ABSTRACT: This paper provides an overview of the issues influencing dilution in an underground
production environment. The paper reviews the dilution problem throughout the entire mining
process, and provides a rational approach to underground mine design in order to minimize
dilution. The stages contributing to dilution include orebody delineation, design and sequencing,
stope development, drilling and blasting, production and mine management issues.

Dilution is defined as the low grade (waste or
backfill) material which comes into an ore
stream, reducing its value. Ore loss refers to
any unrecoverable economic ore left inside a
stope (broken, in place as pillars or not
properly blasted at the boundaries), or to any
valuable ore not recovered by the mineral
processing system. The detrimental impact of
dilution to the economics of the mining
industry has been well documented elsewhere.
Puhakka (1991) and Elbrond (1994) have
recognized that waste rock dilution and ore
loss exist during geological modelling and
evaluation, decisions regarding cut-off grade,
design of the mining method, stoping and ore
Dilution is a source of direct cost as waste or
transported, crushed, hoisted, processed and
stored as tailings. Dilution is also a source of
indirect cost as the dilution material may
adversely affect the metal recoveries and
concentrate grades. A lost opportunity may
result from directing resources at handling
waste (as opposed to ore) for the mill feed.
Furthermore, ore processing facilities will be
engaged for material which contributes very
little to final useful metal production. In most
cases, mining and milling capacity is limited;
this capacity is affected by the displacement of
ore by waste within the overall mining and
processing facilities. Dilution is always defined
and quantified with respect to an idealized

(planned) stope boundary. In order to quantify

dilution, an orebody must be properly
delineated and the extracted volumes must be
effectively measured.
Dilution can be divided into three general
categories, namely; internal, external and ore
loses (See Figure 1). Internal dilution usually
refers to the low-grade material contained
within the boundaries of an extracted stope. It
can be caused by insufficient internal
delineation of waste pockets within an
orebody. It is also occur in situations where the
mining method dictates a minimum width of
extraction. External dilution refers to the waste
material that comes into the ore stream from
sources located outside the planned stope
boundaries (Villaescusa, 1995). Low grade
contamination from backfill, and mucking of
waste from stope floors are typical examples of
external dilution. Ore loss refers to the
economical material that is left in place within
the boundaries of a planned stope. Planned ore
diaphragms (ore skins), unbroken stope areas
due to unsufficient blast breakage, non
recoverable pillars left to arrest stope wall
instability and insufficient mucking of broken
ore within stope floors are typical examples of
ore loss.
Geological dilution refers to the waste rock or
ore-losses incurred during the exploration and
orebody delineation stages, where only an
estimated model of the orebody can be made.
A geological model is based on limited
information, and is unlikely to coincide exactly
with the real orebody, therefore the delineated
orebody boundaries are likely to exclude ore

and also to include waste. The magnitude of

this problem is a function of the sampling
pattern for the mineralization type under
study. Geological dilution may comprise up to
1/3 of the total dilution depending upon
Pitkajarvi, 1996).










Figure 1. Classification of dilution.

The geometric configuration of an orebody and
its spatial grade distribution play a significant
role during the selection of a mining method
and subsequently influences the amount of
dilution experienced during the stoping
operations. Geometric orebody configuration is
related to the shape, size and continuity of a
deposit while grade distribution defines the
potential value of the deposit. Deposits such as
seams, veins, lenses, lodes and stratiform
orebodies usually require selective mining in
order to minimize dilution, especially if the
orebodies are not very continuous or if a
heavily faulted environment has created sharp
changes in the spatial grade distribution.
Selective mining methods such as room and
pillar, cut and fill and more recently bench
stoping have the potential to allow the full
recovery of high grade mineralized zones
within a deposit, while at the same time
controlling dilution. These mining methods are
susceptible to external dilution from unstable

spans, and sometimes to internal dilution due

to constraints on the equipment size.
In large deposits, the orebody shape is
usually regular and the grade distribution
uniform so that the application of mass mining
methods such as sublevel stoping and sublevel
caving may be applicable. In this paper, a
distinction is made between large orebodies
having a well-defined hangingwall, such as
wide tabular orebodies, and massive deposits
where there are no geologically imposed
orebody boundaries.
Both tabular and massive orebodies can be
mined by sublevel open stope using delayed
cemented backfill and subsequent pillar
recovery. In some cases, the support from
backfill can be used to achieve a complete
extraction of an orebody. Open stoping in large
tabular orebodies is susceptible to dilution
from host rocks at the footwall and
hangingwall stope interfaces as well as from
backfill from previously extracted stopes along
the strike of an orebody. Stoping in massive
orebodies involve the exposure of multiple
backfilled stope faces, such in tertiary stopes at
the Mount Isa Mine in Queensland Australia
(Alexander and Fabjanczyk, 1982). In such
cases, the capacity of the backfill to sustain
large exposed fill surfaces is critical to the
control of dilution. External (waste or lowgrade) dilution from unstable spans can also
occur at the stope crowns, or from the stope
walls located at the orebody abutments.


The geomechanical properties and geometric
configuration of an orebody and its host rock
medium often dictates the type of mining
method used for underground extraction. The
prediction and control of the rock mass
behaviour within a stope and the surrounding
rock is critical to ensure efficient geomechanical
and economical performance during stoping
displacements are expected within a rock mass,
depending upon the mining method chosen to
extract an orebody. A full range of
geomechanical strategies are available to the

mining engineer selecting the most economical

mining method, in order to control dilution.
A mining method characterised by high
mining recovery and a low dilution can be
considered to be an efficient mining method.
Deposits with weak host rocks and indistinct
contacts are usually associated with high
dilution. The same applies to cases where thin
ore veins are being mined - in which case
dilution may reach 80-100%.
Brady and Brown (1985) analyzed the rock
mass response to stoping activity in terms of
displacements and constitutive behaviour of
the near and far field rock surrounding a
stoping block. Their analysis classified the
mining methods into naturally and artificially
supported as well as caving (unsupported)
methods. Supported and caving methods
induce different stress and displacements fields
into the rock mass and consequently different
degrees of dilution can be expected. Brady and
Brown (1985) also provided a detailed analysis
of the most commonly used underground
mining methods. However, dilution was not
considered in their analysis.
By enlarge, dilution control may be more
difficult in the caving methods where
displacements of large magnitudes within the
host rock are experienced. Caving methods are
not selective and the barren country rock can
contaminate the ore stream (Wright, 1983).
Artificially supported mining methods rely on
achieving close control of the performance of
the rock mass surrounding a stope. Cut and fill
relies on passive support from the applied
backfill, while shrink and VCR stoping use the
broken ore as a temporary support for the
stope walls. Srink stopes can be susceptible to
external dilution due to time dependent failure
of the exposed walls, while excessive damage
(external dilution) to the stope walls can be
experienced during VCR mining, specially
when used for pillar recovery. Significant
dilution and increased wall damage can be
caused by repetitive cratering blasting (Page,
1987) .
The success of naturally supporting methods
such as sublevel open stoping (for large tabular
and massive orebodies) relies on achieving
large stable and mostly unsupported stope

boundaries. Experience indicates that wall

behaviour and stability is a function of the
opening geometry (shape and size), geological
discontinuities, stress concentrations, and the
blasting practice (Villaescusa et al, 1997). The
stand-up time before backfill support is
introduced as well as support provided by
cablebolting is also an important factor
controlling stability.
Underground mine design is an engineering
process in which the key performance
indicators are: safety, dilution, recovery,
productivity and cost criteria. A safe and
economical design may require a combination
of physical, analytical, numerical, probabilistic
or empirical excavation design tools that must
be appropriately calibrated with field
observations. Empirical methods are very
popular and are often based on on some
geomechanical-based classification system or
local experience (Potvin et al, 1989, Laubscher,
1991, Villaescusa et al, 1997).
Figure 2 presents a rational methodology for
underground mine design in which three key
stages are identified. An initial orebody
delineation and rock mass characterization
stage, followed by a global and a detailed
design stages respectively. Global design issues
are relevant and applicable within entire areas
of a mine, such an extension of an existing
orebody, while detailed design issues are
applicable to the extraction of individual
The methodology proposed involves an
integral approach to excavation design (from
orebody delineation to stope extraction) in
which the interaction among geology, mine
planning, rock mechanics and operating
personnel is required throughout the entire
excavation process.
4.1 Basic input
The orebody delineation and rock mass
characterization stages provide the input for
the entire design process. The suggested
approach is to obtain representative (mine-

wide) rock mass properties likely to be used in

the global excavation design and stability
analysis. In most cases, this information is
obtained from diamond drill holes (core
logging) and direct mapping of underground
openings. Geophysical tools can also used for
Diamond drilling, with geological corelogging, is the most commonly used method
for orebody delineation. Information obtained
from drill intersections is extrapolated hole-tohole using geological assumptions to provide
estimates of deposit size, shape, grades,
tonnage and geotechnical characteristics. The
advantages are the depth to which information
can be obtained, and a relatively routine data
analysis and interpretation. On the other hand,
diamond drilling can be costly leading to
limited sampling coverage across an orebody.
Orebody delineation can be potentially
improved with the introduction of geophysical
logging. Increased sampling of an orebody
boundary would occur by designing an
optimum percentage of a delineation drilling
budget for geophysical logging of percussiondrilled holes. Geophysical properties have the
potential to be extrapolated hole-to-hole in
order to provide a better estimate of the size
and shape of an orebody. Once the geophysical
tools are calibrated, an increased logging
productivity may be achieved since assaying is
not required. Unfortunately, geophysical
logging is affected by the uncertainty in the
interpretation of lithology and the grade from
geophysical data.
4.2 Global (block) design issues
Global design issues are related to the design
and stability of large sections of a mine, such a
new extension at depth or at an orebody
abutment. Global design involves several
issues including mine access, infrastructure,
pillar and stope span designs. Global design
issues are schematically represented in the
upper loop on Figure 2, and listed in detail in
Table 1.





Access &
Stope & Pillar
size and location

Stress analysis






Drill & blast design

Economical analysis

Rock reinforcement

Extraction monitoring






Figure 2. Underground mine design process.

Stress analysis of the global production
schedules must be undertaken in order to
determine the loading conditions (stress and
displacement) that result from the proposed
mine-wide stoping sequences.

Table 1. Global (block) design issues.

Exploration drilling requirements for
orebody delineation for the designed area
Quantity and grade of ore required
with respect to scheduled metal targets
Area wide rock mass characterization
from borehole data and direct access
Access and infrastructure development
requirements - ore handling systems,
workshops, etc.
Production scheduling, details and timing
Induced stresses from scheduled sequences,
including extraction directions
Primary and secondary stope dimensions
(including regional access pillars)
Backfill system requirements
Equipment requirements
Global economic assessment

4.3 Detailed design issues

Detailed design is related to the extraction of
individual stopes within a global area. The
process is schematically presented in the lower
loop on Figure 2. This stage begins when the
geological team undertakes detailed orebody
delineation for stope extraction. In-fill
delineation drilling, mapping, sampling and
geological interpretations on a stope scale are
then completed. The mine planning engineer
uses geological sections from a mine design
package to do a preliminary stope design,
while the rock mechanics engineer completes a
rock mass characterization program, provides
guidelines for dilution control, reinforcement
and blast sequencing.
At this stage extraction factors that account
for dilution as well as back analysis of
performance from any adjacent stopes are
taken into account. Drill and blast design is
capabilities, to ensure that the designed stope
shape is achievable. This is then followed by an
economic analysis that determines stope
viability by considering the break even revenue
cut-off figures including a calculation of net
revenue versus total mining, concentrating and

overhead cost. Finally, a stope design

document that include plans of sublevel
development, sections showing blasthole
design concepts and drilling and blasting
parameters, ventilation, rock mechanics and
overall firing sequence is issued to the
operating personnel.
4.4 Geotechnical monitoring
Geotechnical monitoring of rock mass response
to the individual stope extraction including
stope performance reviews that documents all
the relevant information such as actual dilution
figures, issues influencing productivity and
overall economic results is required during the
measurements are required to assess the
response of the rock mass to the excavation
process and are a key component of the mine
design optimization process required to
achieve safe and most economical extractions.
The measurements can be classified into three
phases: Prior, during and after excavation
(Windsor, 1993).
Measurements prior to an excavation are
usually concerned with the characterization of
the geotechnical environment as an input to the
excavation design. Such measurements include
borehole/core logging data to determine rock
type, structure, rock material properties and
hydrology conditions.
Measurements during excavation are used to
provide warning of hazards such as excessive
rock stress, deformation and extent of damage
envelope around the underground openings.
These measuremets are required for validation
of design assumptions made when some of the
data was not available prior to excavation such
as in-situ stresses and material properties (i.e
numerical models of rock and fill behavior).
The measurements suggest the type and timing
of remedial measures such as modification to
extraction rate and sequencing of excavations
reinforcement schemes.
Measurements following an excavation are
undertaken to obtain data required for
optimization of future excavation designs (back
analysis of performance). These measurements

are required for dilution control and to

minimize ore loses. They are also needed to
provide data on long term stability, safety and
environmental effects.


The most common parameters influencing
dilution and ore losses in underground mining
are listed in Table 2. Five key stages ranging
from the initial orebody delineation program to
the final extraction stages have been identified
within the mine design process. Management
issues were also included, given that in some
cases they represent the most critical factor
controlling dilution (Ashcroft, 1991).
5.1 Orebody delineation
Orebody delineation is the process which
establish the size, shape, grades, tonnage and
mineral inventory for the ensuing mining
process. Efficient, effective, and accurate
delineation of a deposit is required to design a
mine in a manner that maximizes recovery,
minimizes dilution and increases safety.
Dilution can not be planned or minimized if
information is not available. Experience
indicates that increasing the information
density is likely to decrease dilution and ore
losses (Braun, 1991, Lappalainen and Pitkajarvi,
1995). In cases where the stope geology is not
well delineated, the interpreted ore outlines are
usually regular; the presence of waste
inclusions is then likely to remain unknown.
5.2 Design and sequencing
At this stage, several extraction strategies to
minimize dilution/ore loss can be studied in
advance to choose the best design alternative.
Engineering, geology and operating personnel
should have a direct input into this stage of the
design. Extraction factors that account for
dilution, should be applied at this stage. Back
analysis from adjacent stopes based on laser
(Cavity Monitoring System, Miller et al, 1992)
surveys, drill and blast design and general

experience in the area should be used. Proper

design means that the planning engineer
receives an optimised block thus leaving more
time for drilling, blasting and ground support
optimization, schedule modifications and other
Table 2. Parameters influencing dilution.
Orebody delineation
Under sampling of orebody boundaries
Errors in decisions regarding cut-off grades
Down hole survey errors
Lack of geotechnical characterization
Design and Sequencing
Poorly designed infrastructure
Poor stope design (dimensions)
Lack of proper stope sequencing
Lack of economical assessment
Stope development
Non alignment of sill horizons
Poor geological control during mining
Mining not following geological markups
Inappropriate reinforcement schemes
Drilling and Blasting
Poor initial markup of holes
Set-up, collaring and deviation of blast holes
Incorrect choice of blasting patterns,
sequences and explosive types
Production stages
Mucking of backfill floors
Mucking of fall offs and stope wall failures
Contamination of broken ore by backfill
Leaving broken ore inside the stopes
Poor management of waste rock
(tipped into the ore stream)
Mine Management
Lack of supervision and communication
Excessive turn over of personnel
Limited time for planning
Lack of stope performance reviews
No documentation and proper training
Performance indicators based on quantity
(focus on tonnes as opposed to metal content)
Lack of leadership and vision

At this stage, the stable stope and ore outlines

are superimposed in order to detect volumes of
waste rock inside and ore outside the stope
limits. Wall instability and any relevant
remedial measures are also identified. A stope
shape must be drillable and stable, and the
walls must insure proper flow of broken ore to
the stope drawpoint. Economical studies in
conjunction with stability analysis can be
performed to evaluate different design options
(e.g. stope sequencing, dimensioning, etc.).
5.3 Stope development
Drive location has been shown to be critical for
dilution control. Undercut of stope walls by the
access drill drives is likely to control the
mechanical behaviour at the stope boundaries.
Drive shape and size also influence stope wall
undercut. Incorrect positioning of sill drive
turnouts off access crosscuts, may also create
stope wall undercut leading to dilution. Cross
cuts need to be mapped, sampled and
interpreted prior to developing the sill drives
along an orebody. In cases where assay
information is required prior to sill turnout, a
prompt assay turnaround is critical to maintain
development productivity. Quality (and
quantity) geological face mapping of
development is critical to minimize stope wall
undercuts. Geologists should highlight any
overbreak beyond an established mining
width. Promt feedback to the operating
personnel undertaking the development
mining is required. Routine geotechnical
mapping of development faces must be also
undertaken. Perimeter blasting techniques can
be used to reduce wall damage in development
access in order to minimize stope wall
5.4 Drilling and blasting
If dilution and ore losses can be minimized
during the block design stages, drilling and
blasting can be done without problems and
focused on better fragmentation and damage
Nevertheless, dilution and ore loss can also
planned and evaluated during the drilling and

blasting stages, where the blasting outlines can

be designed to optimize extraction.
The blasting process involves the interaction
of the rock mass, the explosives, the initiation
sequences and the drill hole patterns.
Consequently, a blast design should account
for the interaction of the existing development,
equipment, orebody boundary and stope
outline. Geological, geotechnical, operational
and extraction design issues must be
considered. Blasting performance is also
affected by the orebody geometry and drilling
limitations (hole length and accuracy).
Explosive consumption and performance
determines the quality of fragmentation.
However, an increase on the specific
consumption of explosive may also increase the
damage to the host rocks, increasing external
The effects of blasting on stability can be
determined based on measurements of blast
vibrations, hole deviation, hole angle and
distance of the holes to the exposed stope
walls. A consideration of the most suitable
drilling technology for a range of hole sizes and
drilling patterns in order to minimize damage
and hole deviation is needed. Suggested
drilling and blasting patterns for long-hole
stoping are presented in Table 3.
Table 3. Drilling and blasting patterns for
sublevel stoping
Hole Burden StandDiam
(m) Distance
51 1.0 - 1.5
63 1.3 1.8
73 2.0 - 2.5

2.0 2.5











Rods +
Rods + tubes
Tubes top
Tubes top
In the hole
In the hole


Training modules for drilling crews, including

an understanding of blasting are required to

minimize blast damage. Clear, concise drilling

plans from planning to the drilling crews are
required. In cases where the orebody contact
does not coincide with the sill development
walls (narrow orebodies), painting of the
orebody boundary would help the drilling
5.5 Production stages
Even at this relatively late stage, dilution and
ore losses can still be minimised. Information
from percussion blastholes can be used to
locate zones of waste within an orebody, thus
enhancing orebody delineation. The blast
design could be revised based on detailed
information regarding zones of ore and waste.
Some holes might not be blasted (i.e. leaving a
pillar), or additional holes may be drilled. Drillcutting data can be used to identify the orewaste contact in production holes. However,
these task-intensive operations (sampling,
bagging, and assaying) are prone to
inaccuracies, and the turn-around time for the
data analysis is often too slow for practical use.
In practice, information about the ore-waste
contact at the production stages is seldom
acquired without the use of properly calibrated
geophysical tools.
The potential exists for geophysical logging
(single hole techniques) of production holes to
identify the ore-waste contact for optimal blast
design. An advantage of single-hole geophysics
is that information would be immediately
available; therefore significantly reducing turnaround time. This is particularly beneficial in
situations in which severe blasthole deviation
is occurring, and the exact location of the orewaste contact is undefined.
Inspection and floor preparation before firing
and mucking commences, minimizes ore
contamination during mucking. Mucking units
may dig holes and dilute ore with fill. Mucking
units may also ramp up and leave broken ore
in the stope floors. A training program on draw
point inspection for grade, ore contamination
and stope status (stability) is required to
control dilution. The stopes must be inspected
several times through a mucking shift to check

the LHD tramming route and the state of a

stope. The condition of the hangingwall,
footwall and back must be assessed during
these inspections. Any significant falloff,
overbreak or underbreak should be recorded,
given that variations from planned designs
could affect stability and place at risk further
extraction in adjacent stopes.
Stope performance review must be
undertaken following the completion of
production blasting. These reviews are needed
to improve performance and to determine what
lesson can be learnt and what improvements
can be made. Geology, mine planning and
operations personnel must be involved. The
performance review compares the laser (CMS)
surveyed void with the planned void. The
differences can be due to blasting overbreak,
stope wall failures, pillar failures, insufficient
breakage, etc. The variations from the planned
volumes are used to determine actual tonnage
and to estimate the extraction grade for each
stope. These can be used to undertake the final
economical analysis and to optimize future
extraction in similar conditions.
5.6 Issues for mine management
Although geologists, engineers and operators
are involved in the mine design process, mine
managers must be ultimately accountable for
the success of a dilution control plan. Dilution
control and ore losses must be managed within
a global program of optimization for cost
control and increased safety. The choice of an
option that minimises dilution may disrupt
scheduling and low levels of dilution could be
sometimes justified in the context of a
particular total mining scenario.
In some cases, dilution and ore loss are not
assessed because the geology and related costs
are not sufficiently well known. At best, critical
decisions are simply based on the experience of
the drilling and blasting designer. In other
cases, when a decision is taken, experience and
rules-of-thumb are used instead of calculations
based on grade. This is often due to lack of real
data and the level of judgement for dilution

Each operation must set the design objectives
for dilution control based on the reality of its
own particular mining system and its
economics. A dilution control action plan must
include definition and identification of the
dilution sources, including a strategy for
corrective actions. Realistic targets for dilution
reduction over both the short and long term
must be set. The success of the program will
rely on regular communication of the planned
targets and economical importance to all
mining personnel.
Management must develop performance
indicators that are a function of quality rather
than quantity. i.e. the focus must be on metal
tonnes and dilution control. Mine managers
must recognize the potential for improvement
within their own mine environment. Most of
the understanding of what comprises dilution
and the tools to quantify it already exists.

The author acknowledges the financial support
of the Australian Centre for Geomechanics and
Curtin University of Technology.

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