Russia-based ALROSA is the world’s largest diamond mining company, enjoying over 60 years of diamond exploration, mining, manufacturing and sales. In July the company commenced with plans to end open-pit operations at the Udachnaya pipe, one of the oldest and largest diamond pipes in Yakutia, in order to transition operations underground.
The open-pit mine, which was established in 1971, hit its peak in the early 1990s, producing more than half of the company’s rough diamonds with 12 million tons per year. At depths of more than 630 meters, the Udachny mine is one of the 10 deepest open-pit mines in the world.
From the very beginning
The very first Yakut diamond was discovered in 1949 in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until five years later on August 21, 1954, when geologist Larisa Popugaeva and Natalya Sarsadskikh discovered the first kimberlite pipe, Zarnitsa—ALROSA’s first primary diamond deposit.
A year after the Zarnitsa discovery—and coincidentally two days after the unearthing of the legendary Mir mine—young Soviet geologist Vladimir Shchukin found another potential deposit.
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It was during exploration works that Shchukin found a fragment of metamorphic rock that usually undelays at depths of 2,000 meters. Typically, this rock can only be brought to the surface by kimberlite pipes—subterranean igneous rock structures best known as sources for diamonds. Shchukin immediately realized they were onto something big.
“We found two diamonds in first two prospecting holes,” Shchukin recounted. “One of them was a perfect octahedron with 4 mm facets. This is important to notice that we made 200 prospecting holes at Zarnitsa pipe and no diamonds were found. As for Udachnaya pipe, we took a small sample, transported it to the base and extracted further 43 crystals. The grades were high – about 3 carats per cubic meter. It was clear the pipe was very large.”
With a name that means “lucky” in Russian, the Udachnaya pipe has lived up to its namesake not only because of its quick discovery, but because it consists of two parallel kimberlite pipes that meet each other near the surface. Udachnaya is the richest Yakut primary deposit by grades and reserves.
Today the Udachny mine is in the final stages of closure, transitioning into a more cost effective and profitable underground operation. Shchukin, now 86, remembers the unusual circumstances surrounding the pipeline’s discovery.
“In 1955, my exploration team had to trot around 1,000 kilometers of routes in search of diamonds,” Shchukin said. “However, we discovered the Udachnaya pipe just in one day, in a matter of one hour and a half. This is why we named it that way (Udachnaya) because with other diamond pipes everything was much more complicated.”
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Even though the above ground operations are ending, the importance of Vladimir Shchukin’s discovery has never been clearer: the mine has become the company’s flagship diamond mining operation, producing more than half of Western Yakutia’s diamonds, as well as becoming the largest open pit mine in terms of size and diamond production.
During almost 50 years of operation (1967 to 2015), the company has mined more than 350 million tons of ore containing roughly $80 billion worth of diamonds. At the peak of its career, the Udachny mine yielded roughly 13 million tons of ore per year, annually producing tens of millions of diamond carats.
Today, the Udachny open-pit encompasses 1,600 meters by 2,000 meters on the surface and 640 meters in depth. The length of the quarry totals 10 kilometers and takes trucks more than 30 minutes to reach the bottom.
“Udachny boggles the mind,” Andrei Zharkov, President of ALROSA said at the ceremony dedicated to the closure of the open-pit mine. “It is a true example of engineering and mining art. The mine lives up to its name. It is unique on a global scale by volume of diamonds and ore mined, by dimensions and ore body structure.”
Zharkov said the closure of the open-pit operation represents an important milestone in the history of the company. “We feel confident about the future. The Udachny underground mine successfully ramps up capacity and its indicative planning horizon is 50 years,” Zharkov said.
The next chapter
With underground operations currently in progress, the story of the Udachnaya pipe has just begun. According to ALROSA, the reserves of Udachnaya have been explored to a depth of about 1,400 meters and there are still 800 meters for underground mining. This equates to roughly 150 million tons of ore, which is expected to last for the next 50 years.
The first phase of the Udachny underground mine was put into operation in summer 2014. The mine will reach its design capacity of four million tons of ore in several steps by 2019. After that it will become the largest diamond mine of ALROSA bringing the company more than five million carats of diamonds annually. In the meantime, the company’s miners are focused on construction and preparatory works planning to produce a total of about 480,000 tons of ore in 2015.
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ALROSA has currently performed the final series of blasting works at Udachny but will detonate one final explosion at the end of the year in order to destroy the spiral road leading to the bottom of the ore cushion, which will now take up the production baton.
With the closure of Udachny, ALROSA aims to build new quarries at more complicated deposits nearby. The long-term program intends to boost diamond production to more than 41 million carats a year with Udachny Mining and Processing Division playing an important role.
One of the primary deposits for ALROSA to develop in the future is the Zarnitsa pipe, the very first diamond deposit discovered by the company. According to the company, the development of Zarnitsa has long been delayed because the Udachny mine was much larger with richer diamond grades.
In comparison with Udachny, the Zarnitsa open-pit mine is small, measuring only 80 meters in depth. However, it has potential to grow upwards of 800 meters in diameter and at least 200 meters in depth.
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While smaller mining operations at Zarnitsa have existed since 1998—only yielding about one million tons of ore per year—now is the time for Zarnitsa to step it up. Starting next year, ALROSA plans to ramp up production at Zarnitsa to produce more than three million tons of ore per year. The workforce and equipment of Udachny are being currently transferred to Zarnitsa.
ALROSA also plans to develop its Verkhne-Munskoye deposit, which was discovered in 2007 and is located 160 kilometers from the Udachny Mining and Processing Division. The site consists of four kimberlite pipes and should add another three million tons of ore per year. The mine is expected to start development in 2018.
Although the above ground operation is closing, the work for ALROSA has only just begun.