Crush pillars are designed to be in a crushed state whilst being formed at the mining face. The residual stress state of these failed pillars provides a local support function in mining stopes and is used in the majority of the intermediate depth South African platinum mines. On mines utilising crush pillars, the pillar dimensions are selected to achieve a width to height ratio of approximately two. This is not achieved in most cases as a result of practical mining problems and poor pillar-cutting discipline. Furthermore, pillar dimensions are seldom adjusted to compensate for the various factors governing crush pillar behaviour. The pillars should, however, be in a crushed state whilst being formed or whilst still in close proximity to the mining face to prevent potential damaging seismicity.
An underground investigation was conducted into the behaviour of the crush pillars in a trial site on the Merensky Reef at Lonmin Plc. The aim of this investigation was to examine the mechanism of pillar crushing and the related rock mass behaviour. The underground test results and pillar behaviour are compared to a limit equilibrium model to investigate if the model provides a useful approximation of the behaviour of the crush pillars. This paper details some of the preliminary findings.
On most mining operations, the design of crush pillars is based on trial and error. As the pillar strength is unknown, the pillar sizes are adjusted to obtain the correct behaviour. Crush pillar dimensions are generally selected to give a width to height ratio (w:h) of approximately 2:1, (Ryder and Jager, 2002). Several factors affect the behaviour of the crush pillars and in many cases satisfactory pillar crushing is not achieved. This results in a seismic hazard in many of the mines using crush pillars. If pillar crushing is not initiated whilst the pillar is being formed at the mining face, as the mining face advances and the pillars move to the back area of a stope, some pillars may burst while oversized pillars may punch into the footwall. If pillars are designed in such a way that they are fractured during cutting by the face abutment stresses so that the pillars will already have yielded and reached their residual strength, further compression of the pillars will be associated with an increase in load and stability will be ensured, (Ozbay and Roberts, 1988). The stiffness of the strata must therefore be greater than the post-peak stiffness of the pillar (Figure 1) or violent pillar failure and hanging wall instability will occur. The pillar design should be aimed at determining pillar dimensions for which the post-peak curve of the pillar is as flat as possible.
Crush pillar mining appears to be a method unique to South African hard rock mines with the pillar system being applied to shallow and intermediate depth gold and platinum ore bodies. It allows for a higher extraction than what can typically be achieved with a conventional rigid / elastic non-yield pillar system. The pillar system must, however, be used in conjunction with a barrier pillar system.