Longwall mining is a highly productive underground coal mining technique. Longwall mining machines consist of multiple coal shearers mounted on a series of self advancing hydraulic ceiling supports. The entire process is mechanized.
Longwall mining machines are about 800 feet (240 meters) in width and 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters) tall.
Longwall miners extract "panels" - rectangular blocks of coal as wide as the mining machinery and as long as 12,000 feet (3,650 meters). Massive shearers cut coal from a wall face, which falls onto a conveyor belt for removal. As a longwall miner advances along a panel, the roof behind the miner's path is allowed to collapse.
Longwall mining was first introduced in the 1950s and 1960s. Today it accounts for more than half of all coal production in the United States. On any given day, a typical longwall mining system is capable of extracting between 10,000 and 30,000 tons (9 to 27 million kilograms) of coal from a panel. The primary downside to this very productive technique is a prohibitive initial investment - longwall mining machines usually run between 5 and 15 million dollars.
Longwall mining replaces the historical "room-and-pillar method", whereby underground "rooms" of coal are manually extracted and pillars are left to support the roof so miners can work safely. In mining regions deeper than 1,000 feet (300 meters), the room-and-pillar method becomes highly uneconomical because the size of pillars required to support the roof are much larger, meaning that valuable coal cannot be extracted from them. Longwall systems make deep mining feasible.
Sometimes longwall mining is called destructive or environmentally unsafe because it causes the land above the mined-out panel to sink. This can damage underground water tables, structures at the surface, and can cause erosion of the soil. Careful geological surveying can help ameliorate these problems. As technological advances continue to make longwall miners increasingly effective, they will become responsible for an increasing portion of the world's total coal production.
Plan of longwall mine before conveyors, hoist is at the center of the central pillar
The basic idea of longwall mining was developed in England in the late 17th century. Miners would undercut the coal along the width of the coal face, removing coal as it fell, and using wooden props to control the fall of the roof behind the face. this was known as the Shropshire method of mining. While the technology has changed considerably, the basic idea remains the same, to remove essentially all of the coal from a broad coal face and allow the roof and overlying rock to collapse into the void behind, while maintaining a safe working space along the face for the miners.
Starting around 1900, mechanization was applied to this method. By 1940, some referred to longwall mining as "the conveyor method" of mining, after the most prominent piece of machinery involved. Unlike earlier longwall mining, the use of a conveyor belt parallel to the coal face forced the face to be developed along a straight line. The only other machinery used were an electric cutter to undercut the coal face and electric drills for blasting to drop the face. Once dropped, manual labor was used to load coal onto the conveyor parallel to the face and to place wooden roof props to control the fall of the roof.
Such low-technology longwall mines continued in operation into the 1970s. The best known example of this was the New Gladstone Mine near Centerville, Iowa "one of the last advancing longwall mines in the United States." This longwall mine did not even use a conveyor belt, but relied on ponies to haul coal tubs from the face to the slope where a hoist hauled the tubs to the surface.
Longwall mining has been extensively used as the final stage in mining old room and pillar mines. In this context, Longwall mining can be classified as a form of retreat mining.
Gate roads are driven to the back of each panel before longwall mining begins. The gate road along one side of the block is called the maingate or headgate; the road on the other side is called the tailgate. Where the thickness of the coal allows, these gate roads have been previously developed by continuous miner units, as the longwall itself is not capable of the initial development. In thinner seams the advancing longwall mining method may be used. In this system the gate roads are formed as the coal face advances. Only the maingate road is formed in advance of the face. The tailgate road is formed behind the coal face by removing the stone above coal height to form a roadway that is high enough to travel in. The end of the block that includes the longwall equipment is called the face. The other end of the block is usually one of the main travel roads of the mine. The cavity behind the longwall is called the goaf, goff or gob.
Fresh air travels up the main gate, across the face, and then down the tail gate. Once past the face the air is no longer fresh air, but return air carrying away coal dust and mine gases such as methane, carbon dioxide, depending on the geology of the coal. Return air is extracted by ventilation fans mounted on the surface. A series of seals are erected as mining progresses to maintain goaf gas levels.
Typically to avoid coal in the goaf spontaneously combusting, goaf gases are allowed to build up so as to exclude oxygen from the goafed area. This means that there is an explosive goaf fringe between the face and the goaf at all times requiring constant monitoring.
A number of hydraulic jacks, called powered roof supports, chocks or shields, which are typically 1.75 m wide and placed in a long line, side by side for up to 400 m in length in order to support the roof of the coalface. An individual chock can weigh 30–40 tonnes, extend to a maximum cutting height of up to 6 m and have yield rating of 1000–1250 tonnes each, and hydraulically advance itself 1 m at a time.
Hydraulic chocks, conveyor and shearer
The coal is cut from the coalface by a machine called the shearer (power loader). This machine can weigh 75–120 tonnes typically and comprises a main body, housing the electrical functions, the tractive motive units to move the shearer along the coalface and pumping units (to power both hydraulic and water functions). At either end of the main body are fitted the ranging arms which can be ranged vertically up down by means of hydraulic rams, and onto which are mounted the shearer cutting drums which are fitted 40–60 cutting picks. Within the ranging arms are housed very powerful electric motors (typically up to 850 kW) which transfer their power through a series of lay gears within the body the arms to the drum mounting locations at the extreme ends of the ranging arms where the cutting drums are. The cutting drums are rotated at a speed of 20–50 revs/min to cut the mineral from coal seam.
Chocks providing support to allow shearer to work
The shearer is carried along the length of the face on the armoured face conveyor (AFC); using a chain-less haulage system, which resembles a ruggedised rack and pinion system especially developed for mining. Before chainless haulage systems, a heavy duty chain was run the length of the coal face for the shearer to pull itself along. The shearer moves at a speed of 10–30 m/min depending on cutting conditions. The AFC is placed in front of the powered roof supports, and the shearing action of the rotating drums cutting into the coal seam disintegrates the coal, this being loaded onto the AFC. The coal is removed from the coal face by a scraper chain conveyor to the main gate. Here it is loaded onto a network of conveyor belts for transport to the surface. At the main gate the coal is usually reduced in size in a crusher, and loaded onto the first conveyor belt by the beam stage loader (BSL).
As the shearer removes the coal, the AFC is snaked over behind the shearer and the powered roof supports move forward into the newly created cavity. As mining progresses and the entire longwall progresses through the seam, the goaf increases. This goaf collapses under the weight of the overlying strata. The strata approximately 2.5 times the thickness of the coal seam removed collapses and the beds above settle onto the collapsed goaf. This collapsing can lower surface height considerably, causing serious problems like changing the course of rivers and severely damage building foundations.
1. Better resource recovery (about 80% compared with about 60% for Room and pillar method)
2. Less roof support consumables needed
3. Higher volume coal clearance systems
4. Minimal manual handling
5. Subsidence is largely immediate, allowing for better planning and more accountability by the mining company.
6. Safety of the miners is enhanced by the fact that they are always under the hydraulic roof supports when they are extracting coal
There have been cases of surface subsidence altering the landscape above the mines. At Newstan Colliery in New South Wales, Australia "the surface has dropped by as much as five metres in places" above a multi level mine. In some cases the subsidence causes damage to natural features such as drainage to water courses or man-made structures such as roads and buildings. "Douglas Park Drive was closed for four weeks because longwall panels destabilized the road. In 2000, the State Government stopped mining when it came within 600 metres from the twin bridges. A year later there were reports of 40-centimetre gaps appearing in the road, and the bridge had to be jacked sideways to realign it."
(Sourced form Wikipedia)