Banishing explosive sparks in underground mines

Sep 18, 2013
Underground mining. Credit: Matthiashn. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 /flickr

Vintage space technology was dug up recently to make mines around the world safer by reducing the risks of explosions.

Deep beneath Earth's surface, mining equipment is just like much other modern machinery – computer screens show the operators what's going on. Under ordinary circumstances, glass screens would be ideal.

But in a mine, "Glass is difficult, because it breaks too easily," says Johannes Koenig, an engineer at German mine-equipment manufacturer Marco Systemanalyse und Entwicklung GmbH.

Plastic screens, though, have a major drawback: they build up a static charge when touched, potentially creating a tiny spark like the one you get when you walk across a carpet then touch a metal door handle. 

In mines, sparks can be disastrous. That's because tunnels filled with clouds of fine coal or are explosions waiting to happen. So screens made of scratch-resistant plastic must be protected in some way.

Marco engineers worked with ESA Technology Transfer Network's MST Aerospace to find a solution. With MST's help, they connected with MAT PlasMATec GmbH in Dresden, Germany, who years ago developed coatings for .

"We saw that the coatings developed by PlasMATec for spacecraft could provide an intelligent solution to Marco's mine problem," saidDr Werner Dupont from MST Aerospace. 

Artist's impression of the ESA-NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). Credit: ESA

Space technology gets new life

PlasMATec's experience with stretches back to before the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Engineer Andreas Mucha was part of a Soviet-era team that pioneered indium–tin oxides (ITOs) to coat lenses and windows for spacecraft.

Similar coatings were used later on ESA's SOHO satellite for thermal control of the payload pointing towards the Sun, and on Galileo's laser retroreflector array.

Now used in everything from and touch panels to , ITOs and can be applied to surfaces as a transparent, thin layer.

The aerospace use of the technique was first developed for a space camera built by Karl Zeiss Jena for the Soviet space programme. In 1976, the Soyuz-22 manned spacecraft carrying the East German MKF-6 multispectral sensor camera spent eight days in orbit, taking nearly 2500 pictures of Earth. Later, another MKF-6 camera was mounted on Russia's Mir space station.

Dr Mucha and his colleagues coated the MKF-6 lens with a very thin layer of ITO – just a few hundred nanometres thick – to give it a tiny bit of electromagnetic resistance. In space, the coating allowed the lens to be heated slightly via an electric current, to prevent condensation.

Russia’s Mir space station seen from Space Shuttle Atlantis during the approach for docking on 15 January 1997. Credit: NASA

Space experience was the right solution

PlasMATec's experience from Mir helped them to repurpose the transparent layer of and tin for Marco's mining equipment.

"We coated their polycarbonate screens with basically the same conductive iridium–tin oxide layer we once developed for the lens of the MKF-6 space camera," explained Dr Mucha.

The conductive coating prevents electrostatic charge from building up on the screen, in turn banishing sparks – and preventing underground explosions. 

Longwall mining is a form of underground coal mining where a long wall of coal is mined in a single slice, typically 0.6–1.0 m thick. The longwall panel – the block of coal that is being mined – is typically 3–4 km long and 250–400 m wide. Credit: M. Schweiss/Eickhoff Maschinenfabrik und Eisen/Wikipedia

"A conductive film gives the possibility to have no electrical charging – or sparks – if you brush it with your hands," Dr Mucha said. "It's a different purpose than for space, but the same process."

MST Aerospace is the German partner in ESA's Technology Transfer Network set up by the Agency's Technology Transfer Programme Office in 13 European countries, supporting non-space industry to identify solutions among the thousands of ready available space technologies.

Explore further: Heavy metal frost? A new look at a Venusian mystery

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