Sunday, 12 July 2020
Pyrotechnics are the Past: Here's Why
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Pyrotechnics are the Past: Here's Why

The first historical record of black powder being used to blast rocks dates back to the 17th century in Hungary. In the two centuries that followed, some of the most talented scientific minds devoted their energies to refining and improving the use of powder in mining and construction applications. The Englishman William Watson is credited as the first to ignite powder with an electric spark in 1745. Five years later, the American Benjamin Franklin became the first inventor to produce cartridges full of compressed black powder. Powder mills had been constructed by this time, and business was thriving. Applications for black powder were moving beyond the mine and into construction.

But as explosions multiplied all over the world, so did the number of injuries and fatalities related to black powder. Governments and private companies were hungry to blast and build. They knew how profitable and advantageous “modern” blasting applications could be for them. Black powder as a tool of industry was established — but the ability to wield that tool predictably had not been found.

William Bickford, another Englishman, gave us a much-needed leap forward in 1831. His modern safety fuse revolutionised the safety and precision of  explosions in commercial mining and other industrial applications. Thanks to his patented slow-burning fuse, accidents fell and productivity spiked. And by 1866, Alfred Nobel had invented dynamite — another revolution in the history of explosives.

Further developments came fast and furious, including new types of drills and hammers. Inventors and companies spared no expense to edge the competition and invent better solutions. But explosives continued to be centre frame. Nitroglycerine was discovered in 1846, and was being manufactured for industrial applications by the 1880s. This led to gains in both safety and productivity — and by the late 1950s, ANFO explosives were beginning to replace dynamite in a big way.

As blasts became more powerful, the means of igniting those blasts also started to evolve. Detonators and detonating cords began to replace the modern safety fuse. By the 1960s, the first non-electric detonator was made available but by the 1990s electronic blast initiation systems took precision and control to unprecedented heights.

Since then, things have gotten really interesting. Multi-blast functionality, larger pattern sizes, blast crew efficiencies and bulk product modification have all become standard parlance for progressive players in the industry. Intelligent operators know that if they put more energy into planning, and utilise expertise to find a more integral path toward reaching their goals, the fruits of their efforts will be apparent in everything from reduced blasting days to increased crusher throughput to zero accidents on-site. They also know that mining — although some of its goals and processes remain the same — is a constant forward march of technology and know-how.

Toward the future

It’s the source of many arguments to say which advance in the world of explosives and detonation has been the single most important in history. One thing is for certain — nothing is safe from the onward march of innovation.  Blast initiation was once revolutionary, especially when Bickford made it undeniably safer with the introduction of the safety fuse. But what was once revolutionary becomes a liability as fresh innovations appear. This is true not only in our industry, but across many others as well.

Electronic blast initiation is one area where tremendous strides have been made in recent decades, particularly the first DaveyTronic® in 1998 and landmark upgrades into the 21st century. These advances have revolutionised the discussion around how blasts are done, and have rendered both electric and non-electric initiation all-but-obsolete in many mining applications.

What will tomorrow’s initiation systems look like? Will today’s best technology become irrelevant as new discoveries are made? Maybe so — but when we look at the history of innovation in commercial mining, one thing is for certain: Those who study and apply the lessons of the past will not only find better returns — they’ll have a better chance at knowing where commercial mining needs to go next.

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