Innovation in British Columbia’s Coal Handling Industry

CWA Engineers was recently featured in issue No. 267 of Dry Cargo International Magazine, in the article entitled:  “Canadian Engineering Firm Innovating in the Coal Handling Industry” (reproduced below).

The article, based on an interview with CWA’s VP of Project Development — Steve Yee,  examines British Columbia’s prominent position in the metallurgical coal mining industry, the unique challenges presented by the bulk handling of Western Canadian Coal, and the innovative solutions that CWA employs to address a variety of issues faced by bulk terminal operators including:

  • Dust control.
  • Throughput optimization and expansion.
  • Considerations of CapEx versus OpEx.

The article also discusses the continued importance of metallurgical coal as economies shift toward renewable energy systems.

Canadian Engineering Firm Innovating in the Coal Handling Industry

British Columbia, a province on Canada’s Pacific coast, is larger than France and Germany combined. With over 940,000 square kilometers, were it a country of its own, it would be the 32nd largest in the world. There are advantages to having such a large area of land: it has 1,000 provincial and national parks, over 15,000 kilometers of coastline, and carpets of natural and manmade forests. It also has a wealth of natural resources and minerals. The mining industry in BC started in the mid-19th Century with coal mines on Vancouver Island, before spreading throughout the province’s interior and northwards towards Alaska. The province encompasses the largest part of the Canadian Cordillera, a mountain belt rich in minerals and coal[i].

Mines such as those in the Elk River Valley and Northeastern BC have all extracted coal over the decades for both national and international markets. This production has benefitted the province hugely; the BC government says that steel-making coal mining is a major industry, employing thousands of people and generating billions of dollars in annual revenue[ii]. The aforementioned mines, however, have one particular disadvantage: location. Many of these mines are on the eastern side of the province, while the western coast of BC is home to the major coal export hubs of Prince Rupert and Vancouver. For example, the town of Tumbler Ridge is well over 1,000km from Prince Rupert, nearly the same distance between Elk River and Vancouver. The British Columbia Coal Industry Overview says that most coal produced in Southeastern BC is transported by rail to Vancouver, while many coalfields in Northeast BC are connected to Trigon Pacific Terminals Limited (formerly Ridley Island Terminals) near Prince Rupert.

The coal these mines extract must be conveyed through the sites, washed, sorted, loaded, and transported. Then, when arriving at coastal ports, it has to be unloaded, stacked, reclaimed, and loaded onto ships. Each piece of coal is constantly being handled by some equipment or item of infrastructure. As readers well know, every additional handling opens up opportunities for increased costs, delays, overruns, and issues.

Western Canadian Coal

As Western Canadian Coal is dustier and finer than most, handling it generally leads to issues with fugitive dust and fines management. Indeed, a descriptive term rarely used with coal applies in this instance: when wet, this coal becomes sticky. But is handling Western Canadian Coal more difficult than managing other bulk products? The personnel who handle and transport coal from mines to ships can benefit from working with other products. Such considerations with other bulk products include: grains and potash needing to be kept dry; aggregates leading to higher rates of belt abrasion; construction materials generating dust; and dry powders becoming cohesive. Due to managing these issues, firms with experience operating in the materials handling industry tend to bring a large amount of practical knowledge to projects, which serves to benefit clients in the coal industry.

Handling Coal at Ports and Terminals

The British Columbia Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation[iii] says that most steel-making coal extracted in Southeastern British Columbia is transported by rail to Westshore Terminals in Delta (Vancouver) and to Neptune Bulk Terminals/Teck Resources in North Vancouver, while coal extracted further north is taken to Trigon Pacific Terminals near Prince Rupert. A small amount of coal is taken to steel mills in eastern Canada. These three terminals on Canada’s Pacific coast have adapted to handling huge amounts of coal: Trigon’s terminal loads coal at a rate of 9,000 tonnes per hour[iv], while annual throughputs at Neptune/Teck[v] and Westshore[vi] exceed 23 million and 32 million tonnes respectively. What considerations go into the planning and designing of infrastructure to handle these volumes?

CWA Engineers Inc., a Vancouver-based multidisciplinary engineering and project management firm, has completed numerous port and terminal projects throughout Canada and the United States. VP Steve Yee, who was involved in the majority of these works, says there are general considerations to be taken into account for any materials handling project—and not just coal handling. He says CWA’s clients in the coal industry generally have an excellent understanding of what they need (optimization, expansion, reliability, reduced costs, etc.). However, there are many other issues which both the client and CWA must take into account. These include relevant technical issues and exogenous issues such as climate change concerns, geopolitical issues, supply chain restrictions, high inflation, increasingly stringent permitting requirements, urbanization, and indigenous and public engagement. In relation to coal handling, he also cites the following as primary design concerns:

Dust — CWA personnel are very familiar with the properties of Western Canadian Coal. Steve says that its inherent fineness and dustiness were issues in the early days for engineers and designers, however, that has since changed. CWA’s advances in terms of dust collection have resulted in the company gaining a reputation for its innovation in this area, even outside of British Columbia. Steve says that CWA has utilized state-of-the-art techniques such as discrete element method (DEM) modelling and computational fluid dynamics (CFD). Using these methods, the firm can analyze material flows and trajectories in bins and chutes, along with the influence of moving surfaces such as gates, diverters, conveyor belts, and apron feeders. This means chutes and bins can be designed to reduce turbulence in the material flow, thus minimizing dust generation and product degradation. One such chute is transferring over 8,000 t/h without a dust collector in the heart of a large urban municipality.

Throughput — Most ports and terminals judge their capacity in terms of tonnes per hour or millions of tonnes per year. It’s a relevant unit. However, one terminal owner’s wish in terms of throughput means that Steve and colleagues have a multitude of issues to examine, such as: site area and dimensions, existing operations, space for proposed works, incorporating for future expansion, personnel safety, environmental protection, equipment selection, and projected costs. He remembers a particular project where the operator had planned to increase coal capacity over a number of stages on a tightly constrained site. The terminal had no ability to enlarge its already congested footprint, while there were multiple constraints due to ongoing terminal operations—Steve and colleagues had to innovate. They performed the detailed design of the inbound system including a new tandem rotary railcar dumper, a new inbound conveyor system, a receiving collection hopper, a 60ft-deep dumper pit, a wet scrubber dust collection system, and access structures and maintenance equipment. CWA staff also performed the detailed design of the outbound system, including procurement specifications for a new shiploader and the detailed design of associated foundations, conveyor, and a one-of-a-kind material distribution system that allows loading from two separate yard conveyors at proportional feed rates. One particular innovation which CWA was very proud of was the idea to design adjacent conveyors which simultaneously allowed for the unloading of trains and the loading of ships at the terminal.

CapEx vs. OpEx — CWA’s aim is not to just manage capital costs (CapEx), but to consider the operating costs as well (OpEx). Steve says there is a balance to be struck; relatively high capital costs can be recouped within a number of years due to lower operating costs.

Coal: Stigmas, Supplies, Solutions

The International Energy Association (IEA) says the shift towards renewable energy systems will drive a huge increase in the requirements for transition minerals such as copper, nickel and zinc[vii]. However, there is still a large requirement for steel-making coal; the BC Mining Jobs Task Force report says electric vehicles can require up to four times the amount of copper as a standard combustion engine and 600kg of metallurgical coal[viii]. Steve acknowledges the need for greener forms of energy production but, as the supply of viable alternatives is currently limited, he believes there is still a requirement for steel-making coal. The ban on thermal coal exports from 2030 will have a limited impact on British Columbian supplies due to 95% of coal mined in the province being steel-making coal. Looking further ahead, what could existing coal terminals do with their extensive infrastructure should tougher restrictions be imposed? Steve says some terminal operators are already finding solutions by diversifying their operations and making the transition into other bulk material handling operations. He adds, however, that metallurgical coal will be a vital part of the Canadian economy for some time yet, due to its importance as a transitional material.

Steve Yee, P.Eng. — VP  of Project Development at CWA Engineers Inc.

Steve Yee has over 35 years of experience in the planning and implementation of marine terminal, mining and heavy industrial projects. Specializing in marine terminal planning, design, and development, he has worked on projects throughout the world. Steve’s most recent projects involved the design of coal and potash handling infrastructure, marine berth upgrades, and bulk material handling systems.

CWA Engineers Inc.

CWA Engineers Inc. (CWA) is a multidisciplinary engineering and project management firm that provides professional services in a wide range of industries including ports and terminals, mining and minerals, construction materials, wood products, marine infrastructure, energy, asset reliability, and the public sector to industry-leading clients around the world. Founded in 1997, CWA currently employs over 100 engineers, technologists, designers, and support staff. Our head office is located in Vancouver, British Columbia. As a mid-sized firm, CWA is organized to respond quickly and efficiently to our clients’ needs on a wide range of projects. CWA offers a diverse range of services including planning, engineering, procurement, construction management, commissioning, and ongoing maintenance and operations support to see a project through its entire lifecycle from concept to completion and beyond.

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