Michael Gribbons and David Ballantyne weren’t seeking financial success when they designed an air quality monitoring and control system for underground mining clients.
There was a deeper motivation at play. As friends for 25 years and business partners for five, both felt there was an unresolved legacy issue left to address with hardrock mining in Sudbury.
Raised in multi-generational mining families, both knew of the physical toll that poor working conditions underground had taken on their grandfathers, fathers and uncles from cancer and respiratory diseases.
Just as strong unions improved mine health and safety, and Sudbury’s ongoing regreening efforts is healing a scarred industrial landscape, Gribbons and Ballantyne decided to tackle “the last frontier” by dramatically upgrading the neglected mine ventilation control market.
“From a financial standpoint, this was not really relevant in our lives but we have things that have sort impacted our lives, whether positively or negatively,” said Gribbons.
The partners are co-owners of High Grade Controls Corp., a high-tech electronics company, who’ve spun off Maestro Mine Ventilation to become a world leader in advanced mine ventilation monitoring equipment.
Beginning with two employees five years ago, they’ve expanded to 10 fulltime and a half-dozen part-time assembly technicians.
With Coleman Mine in Sudbury as their first client, their system is now installed in more than 70 mines globally, including the top 20 global mining companies such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Glencore, Vale, Mosaic, Potash Corp, Barrick, Goldcorp, and Newmont.
The purpose of mine ventilation is to remove toxic fumes and noxious gases generated by the exhaust of underground diesel equipment and from blasting. Ventilation also facilitates the flow of air to cool down miners working at depth.
The Maestro system monitors carbon monoxide and other various hazardous gas concentrations, as well as measuring airflow around the clock.
The system also alerts personnel on surface on air sensor malfunctions – that otherwise would go unnoticed unless manually checked – and offers real-time air quality monitoring, such as precisly on how long an area needs to stay clear after a blast.
Gribbons said those efficiencies can make mines more productive by giving operators an extra 30 minutes to an hour at the face where the drilling, blasting and mucking takes place.
“Full-time monitoring equipment can validate that, in fact, the area is safe.” The technology appeases two crowds, he adds.
“Operational guys need to get the muck out, and health and safety guys say, We have to do it safely.”
On the cost savings side, keeping the ventilation system operating is a mining company’s biggest expense as the electrically-powered fans can consume more than 60 per cent of a mine’s electrical budget.
Through their ventilation control systems, their clients report energy savings averaging 30 per cent.
Similar to Voice over Internet Protocol, their device plugs into a network switch and easily eliminates significant costs in installing extra infrastructure, labour and skilled programmers.
Fuelled by feedback from their clients, a fourth, more data-sophisticated, version of their system is in the works.
Outside of the mining industry, Gribbons projects their technology can be transferred for applications in other sectors.
“The whole reason for High-Grade Controls was to develop different markets, different verticals. It’s in the pipeline, but it’s too early to talk about.”