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Improving Blasting Outcomes Using SoftLOAD Low-Density

J Rock1

ABSTRACT Candidates include polystyrene, sawdust, peanut shells,

bagasse (sugar cane waste) and rice hulls.
Sasol Roche Blasting Services (SRBS) and its former owners have been
in the process of developing and utilising low-density explosives over the High-density transport the transport of the bulking agent
last ten years. Many blasts have been fired in varying strata types in a needs to done in a compressed form to keep transport costs to
number of mining operations. This has led to a good understanding of the a minimum. One of the downfalls with polystyrene is the
product and the best methods to exploit its characteristics when designing high transport cost on a dollars-per-mass rate. Sawdust also
blasts. Unlike some other low-density products, SoftLOAD is a suffers from similar problems although it could be
homogeneous mix that is easily handled and able to be loaded at high
load rates.
compressed for transport if suitable equipment was utilised.
This paper discusses the physics of SoftLOAD low-density Easily handled the bulking agent needs to be able to be
explosives and how through correct utilisation, blasting outcomes can be handled easily and with minimal wastage and spillage. For
significantly improved. It also touches on the various side benefits that example, polystyrene beads have a tendency to cling due to
can provide the blast designer with a more controlled blast. static, while plant products can be very dusty.
Non-segregating depending on the density difference
INTRODUCTION between the explosive and the bulking agent, special
Sasol Roche Blasting Services (SRBS) is a joint venture formulation and mixing techniques must be used to prevent
company between Sasol Chemical Industries of South Africa and segregation.
Downer EDI, one of Australias largest engineering and Equivalent loading rate a low-density product needs to be
infrastructure companies. Both parent companies have built their able to be loaded at equivalent rates to the product its
reputation on a commitment to excellence, innovation, quality replacing. So if an ANFO product is being replaced with a
management and a service culture. The acquisition and formation low-density product then it needs to be able to be loaded at
of SRBS established a third supplier in the Australian mining the same volume rate.
explosives market. As the third supplier, it has the technical and
product expertise of Sasol Nitro, and the service and supply Low cost the cost of the bulking agent and of the product
knowledge of Downer EDI. itself must allow the mine to gain an economic advantage
SoftLOAD is a low-density explosive aimed at improving the from its use.
efficiency of the blasting agent. By modifying the density of the Readily available the bulking agent needs to be available
initial product, a final product with the results similar to that of in large quantities all year round with minimal fluctuations
ANFO but nearly half the density is achieved. SoftLOAD has due to seasonal changes.
many additional benefits over traditional explosives as it can be
tailored to suit the ground conditions and requirements in ways Although the many efforts have had good results in the trial
that long-established products cannot. phase, acceptance and ongoing large scale use has been thwarted
by a number of barriers:
BACKGROUND ANFO/Polystyrene the use of polystyrene has been
trialled extensively as a bulking agent due to its extremely
The idea of low-density explosives is not new and there have low density, cost and availability. However, the main
been many efforts to develop, commercialise and gain drawbacks with this agent are the handling issues and
acceptance for such products. Other products have been segregation. Wilson and Moxon (1989) achieved some
developed to address specific issues but havent gained wide limited success in laboratory work and field trials; however,
acceptance due mainly to difficulties with mixing and handling. the handling issues of large quantities of polystyrene beads
The principle method of creating low-density bulk explosives outweighed potential benefits.
has been to dilute normal explosives, such as ANFO, with inert
ANFO/Sawdust although generally easily handled,
bulking agents such as polystyrene beads or sawdust. These have
sawdust has a higher starting density than other agents
had limited success and application due to the inherent
(approximately 0.3 to 0.35 g/cm3). This in itself makes it
limitations of the products. In products where polystyrene beads
difficult to reach densities lower than around 0.68 g/cm3
have been the bulking agent, transportation of the beads and
without compromising the energy output. Given that
segregation of the mix have meant the product has only been met
low-density prilled ammonium nitrate is available at
with limited commercial acceptance. The requirement of a
densities as low as 0.65 g/cm3, the additional handling
low-density explosive product has several key requirements to be
facility is difficult to justify. This combined with the loss in
economically and operationally viable. The main component of
energy from a diluted ANFO mix makes it only suitable for
these products is the inert bulking agent. This bulking agent
heavily jointed friable or clayey material.
needs to have the following properties to be practical:
Low density the bulking agent needs to have a very low ANFO/Other blends ANFO is currently the reference
product used to compare all other bulk explosives in the
starting density (somewhere in the range of 0.08 to 0.12 g/cc).
industrial application. By adding a filler to ANFO, the
energy available is severely reduced as well as affecting the
1. Senior Drill and Blast Engineer, Sasol Roche Blasting Services, actual explosive reaction causing a severely slower velocity
2 Melba Place, Mt Thorley NSW 2330. of detonation.

EXPLO 2004 Perth, WA, 26 - 28 July 2004 153


Emulsion/Polystyrene used with limited success in both

the laboratory and field environments although the handling P1
issues associated with the polystyrene cause difficulties with
loading of the product. Loading rates have been significantly
lower than loading of standard products. This has met little
acceptance due to these handling issues.

In contrast to other low-density explosives, SoftLOAD is a
mixture of AN, fuel oil, emulsion phase and an inert bulking P2
agent. When combined in the correct sequence, a low density, 1
homogeneous and reliable product is the result. By utilising P3
specifically designed equipment, the product can be produced in 3a
batches equivalent in volume to 16.5 t of ANFO. The blend truck 2
3b 4
can deliver product at loading rates equivalent to 1200 kg per
minute. Expansion Volume

FIG 2 - Partition of energy model (Lownds, 1986).
It is generally accepted that bulk explosives produce two
breakage phases, shock and heave. Through the use of these two
phases of an explosives detonation, rock breakage is achieved. The areas and points in Figure 2 are represented thus:
Shock energy to produce an initial fracture network surrounding potential shock energy area 1;
the borehole, and heave energy to expand this network and thus
achieve the desired digability of the broken rock. It has been strain energy around the borehole area 2;
established by Singh (1999) that for AN based explosives, larger fragmentation and heave area 3a;
amounts of energy are contained in the heave phase, but strain energy in burden at escape area 3b;
effectiveness in utilising this energy depends largely on the rock
type or preconditioning and the extent that shock energy creates lost energy area 4;
the fracture network. initial pressure upon detonation point P1;
pressure upon end of shock point P2; and
Response of rock
pressure where no further work is done point P3
All materials have both elastic and plastic phases of deformation. (atmospheric pressure).
Each is a function of the makeup of the material along with the
force being applied to it. As can be seen in Figure 1, the same Due to the nature of the material being blasted, explosives
force applied to two different rock types will yield different work far more efficiently when breaking rock in tension than
displacements per unit of stress. The shallower the line or compression. Compression due to detonation also has a very
softer the rock the greater is the amount of elastic energy the small area of influence relative to the total area being blasted.
rock will absorb before reacting. (The reaction may be fracture, This is irrespective of the rock type or the surrounding geology.
plastic deformation, or movement). Alternatively, to achieve the The energy used in this phase of the detonation is poorly used, as
same displacement, less energy is required for rock type B than the requirement for highly crushed material is minimal. True
for rock type A. It is an accepted function of blasting that an area work on the rock does not begin to occur until point P2 when the
around the blasthole is pulverised or crushed as part of the rock begins its initial movement. This indicates that the actual
initial detonation of the product. This initial detonation or shock pressure required to move and subsequently break rock is far
energy consists of both kinetic energy and elastic energy. Of this, lower than the pressures provided by many of the available
it has been put forward by Lownds (1991) that only the elastic explosives. The reaction of elastic rock to the explosion
component of the shock energy contributes to the initial
expansion curve results in a tapering off of the stress in rock vs
fragmentation. In any event, as far as heave is concerned, all the
early energy-absorbing processes are wasteful. volume line due to the compression and crushing around the
borehole. This is demonstrated diagrammatically in Figure 3
where the interaction state is further along the expansion curve
Rock A Rock B than where it intersects with the elastic line of the rock.

Explosion Expansion Curve

For ce

Stress in Rock/Explosive Pressure

Elastic Rock

Interaction state


FIG 1 - Elastic systems. Rock Failure around

Borehole Crush Zone
Lownds (1986) has put forward a model, Figure 2, to examine
the partitioning of energy into brisance (shock), heave and losses.
Essentially, this model summarises the break down of the energy
of the explosives into its various components of available energy FIG 3 - Plot of pressure in gas and stress in rock versus volume
and losses. (Lownds, 1991).

154 Perth, WA, 26 - 28 July 2004 EXPLO 2004


If this is further expanded upon then once the interaction point one site that uses significant amounts of the product, no
is reached, the volume of the material will increase as the differentiation is made between ANFO and SoftLOAD. If a
pressure drops off (ie as the rock is converted from in situ to pattern is designed for ANFO/SoftLOAD, the holes are loaded
loose). Because of the lower density of SoftLOAD and its lower with whatever truck arrives at the shot. The experience gained
velocity of detonation (VOD), using the conservation of from using this product at these sites has reinforced the positive
momentum equation, the detonation pressure is far lower than features of this product. These can be summarised as follows:
that of ANFO. However, Katsabanis and Silva (2003) have
concluded that in the case of low-density explosive products, 1. Reduction of toe because of its very low shock
experimental results produced detonation pressures around component, SoftLOAD allows all drill holes to be drilled
50 per cent higher than ideal using Thermodynamic code. If to coal. The detonation will not punch into the floor of a
these results are incorporated into a plot of pressure in gas and shot like ANFO or heavy ANFO will. Rather than detract
stress in rock versus volume, the resultant curve is one that has a from the product, this actually enhances it by being able to
lower initial pressure, but an increased application of heave load the product all the way to the roof of coal. This allows
pressure due to the slower VOD (Figure 4). In effect this results all holes to be drilled to coal rather than having an
in a greater percentage of the useable energy in the product being uncertain drill floor, particularly in fairly undulating coal,
received as heave energy as opposed to the typical mix of shock due to standing off the seam and only drilling every forth,
and heave energy delivered by ANFO. fifth or sixth hole to coal. Loading to coal also reduces the
likelihood of leaving a hard band behind on top of the coal,
which sometimes needs to be ripped by dozers. In
comparison with ANFO, the only modification to the
ANFO pattern required is that all holes are drilled to the roof of
coal. Whereas with ANFO, every fifth hole is drilled to coal
with all other holes stood off coal. An example of this is at

Cullen Valley mine, which drills the interburden pass on a

5 m burden by 6 m spacing with a 171 mm drill on a 12.5 m
bench. All holes are drilled full depth to the coal seam with
no backfilling prior to loading product.
SoftLOAD 2. Protection of coal as mentioned previously, SoftLOAD
does not have that destructive punch into the bottom of the
hole that ANFO and heavy ANFO have so that when the
shot is designed to take advantage of this, cleanup of roof
Volume of coal can also become significantly easier as the gasses
generated, force their way into the coal-rock interface
FIG 4 - PV diagram of energy partition illustrating the lower initial separating the two strata. At Cullen Valley, the coal has a
pressure delivered by SoftLOAD resulting in a higher percentage density of 1.5 to 1.6 with overlying strata consisting of
of energy available for the heave phase of the detonation process. massive sandstones, mudstones and siltstones. Coal cleanup
is performed utilising the grader, dozer or straight-lipped
Figure 5 uses Lownds concepts to illustrate why energy is mud bucket on the coal excavator with minimal coal loss
wasted by ANFO but not by SoftLOAD in rocks where the and dilution. This minimal damage to the coal is directly
borehole pressure of ANFO causes elastic failure (crushing and attributed to the use of SoftLOAD.
plastic deformation) around the hole. 3. Reduction of cap rock with SoftLOAD, the explosive
column can be loaded higher in the hole. Due to the
Crushing and fracture part of environmental restrictions at Cullen Valley Mine, the
the expansionNon heave stemming height is absolutely critical to prevent an
segment of the energy overpressure exceedance. However, on the interburden pass
a sandstone cap of 2.4 m is present that in normal coal mine

SoftLOAD has a greater blastholes would exist in the stemming zone. Using a
percentage of its energy 171 mm hole, stemming has been reduced to 1.8 m using
available for heave
imported gravel (10.5 times hole diameter) to break up this
cap material. Experience at other sites where SoftLOAD
has been used for regular blasting has utilised stemming
depths of 2.5 m of drill cuttings in a 229 mm hole (11 times
hole diameter). This reduction of stemming has lead to
better relief from the shot resulting in very good surface
Volume expression. Obviously when utilising lower stemming
heights, the accuracy of the stemming is critical. At
FIG 5 - With a higher percentage of shock energy delivered by
Whitehaven, a 7 m x 9 m pattern is used with a 229 mm
ANFO, energy is wasted in crushing the zone around the borehole.
hole. When loading these holes with heavy ANFO, a
Whereas SoftLOAD delivers a lower percentage of its total
energy as shock, therefore higher percentage of energy is
stemming height of 4 m was required to confine the product
available for the heave portion of the detonation process.
sufficiently to prevent flyrock and minimise the possibility
of an overpressure exceedance. This adjusted to loading the
heavy ANFO to 4.5 m from the collar with 1.5 m of
FEATURES OF LOW-DENSITY PRODUCTS SoftLOAD and 3 m of stemming. This has allowed better
The use of SoftLOAD for 99 per cent of blasts for over three fragmentation of the top 4 m of the bench.
years on the one site, as well as the many blasts conducted at 4. Protection of walls because of the lower shock energy
sites across the country have provided a great deal of knowledge levels in SoftLOAD on detonation, the explosive has less
and experience. The product has been used not just in trials but of a tendency to cause back break. This characteristic has
also in production blasting at several large open cut mines. At been particularly important at Cullen Valley Mine, as work

EXPLO 2004 Perth, WA, 26 - 28 July 2004 155


has to be undertaken underneath high walls. Whereas other 10. Burden distance burden distance is critical in the use of
techniques such as pre-split of the high wall imposes an SoftLOAD. Because the nature of the product relies
additional step in the drill and blast process, being able to heavily on the pre-existing joint and fracture network,
utilise a product as part of the firing of the shot and not burden (and spacing) need to be as consistent as possible.
having to drill substantial additional holes reduces the costs Whereas with overburdening of ANFO, the product crushes
involved significantly. Where pre-split techniques are the zone surrounding the hole and subsequently establishes
employed, previous studies by Brent and Armstrong (1998) an additional fracture network for the gases to expand into.
and Hunter, Fedak and Todoeschuck (1993) have shown With SoftLOAD, because the product will expand into the
that by using low-density products as opposed to decked existing fracture/joint network, this will only occur for a
charges, the stability of a highwall can be significantly certain distance out from the hole that is a function of hole
improved. However, with the reduced amount of back break diameter.
produced by SoftLOAD, presplitting becomes
unnecessary due to the blast leaving relatively clean walls. 11. Susceptibility to water Like ANFO, SoftLOAD achieves
the optimum results in dry conditions. The product works
5. Reduction of environmental outputs in one set of trials effectively in dewatered holes as long as the blast is not
conducted by Lewandowski (2000), SoftLOAD when permitted to sleep for an extended period of time.
compared to ANFO and heavy ANFO, reduced ground
vibration by approximately 20 per cent. These trials were
conducted on a side-by-side basis with all design CASE STUDIES
parameters kept as consistent as possible. As well, these
trials found that SoftLOAD reduced overpressure readings Cullen Valley
by around 9 dBL when loaded to similar parameters of
Cullen Valley Mine is owned by Lithgow Coal Company and is
those used for ANFO. This result has been repeated time
located approximately 30 km from Lithgow in the Western
and again at other sites where other ANFO products have
Coalfields of New South Wales, Australia. The mine is
been used in comparison to SoftLOAD.
principally focused on areas above and around the old Tyldesley
6. Improvement in heave SoftLOAD, being a low-density underground workings near the township of Cullen Bullen. Coal
explosive, has the majority of its energy partitioned towards is mined by open cut methods at a rate of 750 000 tpy and is
heave energy. Lownds (1986) has calculated that the trucked to the local power stations. The combined measured,
tangential strain energy of ANFO can be as high as 22 per indicated and inferred reserves are in the vicinity of 65 million
cent depending on the rock type being blasted. Once this tonnes. Primary overburden removal is undertaken using a D11
energy is expelled, it performs no more work. Whereas dozer and a Leibherr 994 with three CAT785 haul trucks.
with SoftLOAD, because a high percentage of the energy The overburden at the Cullen Valley Mine varies from 10 m up
is utilised as heave energy, a far greater efficiency of work to around 30 m, with the interburden remaining fairly consistent
is realised resulting in greater movement of the mass. at around 12 m. The overburden consists mainly of slightly
7. Cost benefits because of the density difference between weathered to weathered strata. Interburden consists of mainly
ANFO and SoftLOAD, in a typical blasthole the amount of hard siltstones with a cap of 2.4 m of very hard sandstone. The
SoftLOAD used will be approximately 60 per cent of the mine has three points for blast monitoring varying in distances of
amount of ANFO. As an example, Table 1 has been prepared 300 m to 2500 m depending on the location of the blast. Given
to demonstrate the savings in quantity of the product. the location of the town, vibration and overpressure from
blasting must be minimised as far as possible and the limits must
never be exceeded.
TABLE 1 With the mine being such a compact operation, the timing of
Comparison of SoftLOAD and ANFO loading densities. each process is critical for the next to commence. Drill and blast
has a significant impact upon the downstream processes and a
Product ANFO SoftLOAD consistent result from blasting is very important for excavation
Density 0.81 kg/m 0.47 kg/m operations to continue uninterrupted. The drilling and blasting at
Cullen Valley has continually adjusted several of the design
Hole diameter 270 mm 270 mm
parameters to deal with location specific issues. These have
kg per metre 46.4 kg/m 26.9 kg/m included varying the pattern, timing, stemming and hole sizes to
deal with such issues as proximity to neighbours, cap rock,
available area and drill availability.
8. Reduction of fines due to the partitioning of shock and
heave energies, a reduction of the Crush zone When open cut mining first commenced in mid 2000, the
immediately surrounding the hole results. This translates to initial blocks were less than 300 m from the nearest residence.
a lower quantity of fines produced. This characteristic is The initial blasting program commenced based upon the
particularly important in blasting commodities such as coal parameters submitted in the mines Environmental Impact
and iron ore where the creation of fines results in a Statement. Vibration must not exceed 10 mm/s, with no more
detrimental effect upon its product and ultimately its than five per cent falling within the range of 5 mm/s to 10 mm/s
revenue. It also results in a reduced amount of dust at the three monitoring points. Overpressure must not exceed 120
produced from the shot itself. dB, with no more than five per cent falling within the range of
115 dB to 120 dB, again at the three monitoring points. The
9. Absence of fume at sites where fume has been a blasting program commenced with 159 mm holes using a 4 m by
consistent result of blasting, the use of SoftLOAD has 5 m pattern on an 8 m bench height with 2 m of stemming. This
eliminated this problem. It is believed to be the result of the kept the MIC to under 55 kg with the average vibration reading
significant excess of fuel in SoftLOAD along with the for the first six blasts being 4.6 mm/s. The environmental results
slower VOD that ensures consumption of all the oxides of of the first series of blasts were acceptable however complaints
nitrogen. from the town were grounds for some anxiety early on in the
Like any new product, the product has its limitations that have project and resulted in a rethink of the techniques used. Single
been found to be: row firing was employed to decrease the size of the shots. This
produced confusing results as in several instances, one row when

156 Perth, WA, 26 - 28 July 2004 EXPLO 2004


fired had ground vibrations less than 1 mm/s while the adjacent Because Throw blasting is a major component of the budgeted
row when fired produced ground vibrations around 4 mm/s. This overburden removal of the site, the powder factors are relatively
effect was thought to be the result of either the inherent scatter of high for this type of environment. So although, the monitoring
the pyrotechnic detonators used or the blasts being over old points arent as close as some operations, overpressure from
underground workings. The scatter theory was discounted due to blasting is a major issue from an environmental standpoint. The
the fact of each shot consisted of a single row of eight holes and use of high powder factors in the front rows is the typical design
therefore the likelihood that vibrations were somehow being process employed to get the front of the shot moving to achieve
channelled by the underground workings thought more logical. the maximum possible throw. In the initial blasting, this was the
However, these first blasts did provide a great deal of practical case with the front rows loaded up with high powder factors in
experience in the use of SoftLOAD in a highly environmentally order to get the front of the shot moving. The result of this was
sensitive location. many small rocks being thrown long distances from the face with
Since these initial blasts, more than 500 shots using rather ordinary results for the quantity cast and fragmentation.
SoftLOAD have been fired, all in compliance with On top of this, the overpressure results were unsatisfactory. Other
environmental requirements. Generally, vibration and blast areas of concern at this site have been the end wall control
overpressure have been well below the requirements. Although following the blast and reducing the amount of oversize from the
the blasting at Cullen Valley has had its share of poor results in stemming zone of the shot.
terms of fragmentation, they have generally been straightforward Based on work by Laing (2001), it was decided to trial
reasons that were subsequently rectified. An example of this is SoftLOAD in the face row of holes of the blast. This was a big
the trialling of 203 mm holes in interburden where a band of step downloading this row from using a product with a density of
massive hard sandstone is encountered in the top 2.4 m. To keep 1.2 g/cc to one with a density of 0.45 g/cc. The first trial resulted
the overpressure results below limits a stemming height of 2.6 m in excellent results for overpressure with feedback from the site
was used (this was also a function of the proximity of the blast to being comparable cast and fragmentation to that when Heavy
the blast monitors). This, however, resulted in large blocky ANFO was used in the front row. Subsequent blasts were
material on the surface of the shot. By returning to the 159 mm conducted using this design as the standard blast design.
holes and utilising 1.8 m of stemming (11 times hole diameter), Additional work conducted with product involved the use of a
the cap rock issue was addressed while still remaining well 1.5 m deck to decrease the collar height from 4.5 m to 3 m
within the environmental limits. The hole size has now been (13 times hole diameter) to improve fragmentation in the
increased to 171 mm while still utilising the 1.8 m of stemming stemming zone without detriment to the environmental readings.
with results still producing the required fragmentation. This has had marked impact on fragmentation with
The use of low-density explosives at the Cullen Valley Mine environmental result all coming in under the required limits. The
has enabled the operation to progress in an environmentally use of SoftLOAD is now a regular part of blasting in this face
responsible manner while also being economically viable. The row, in the end row for wall control, and in the top of the hole to
Lithgow Coal Company has stated that given the proximity of the eliminate stab holes and achieve effective breakage of cap rock.
mine to the township of Cullen Bullen, the mine would not have
been able to effectively control the environmental issues due to CONCLUSION
blasting without the sole use of SoftLOAD.
From many years of production blasting in varied conditions, it
Whitehaven has been proven that SoftLOAD has the blasting equivalence of
ANFO. Due to both environmental and economic issues at
Whitehaven Coal Mine is located approximately 30 km from Cullen Valley, the mine would not exist were it not for the unique
Gunnedah in the Namoi Valley region of New South Wales, blasting properties of SoftLOAD. SoftLOAD low-density
Australia. The mine has an open cut reserve in the current mine explosive is a product that provides the blast designer with many
plan of just over two and a half million tonnes with a mining advantages over conventional bulk explosives. These advantages
schedule of approximately 750 000 t per annum. Primary include effective wall control, outstanding heave characteristics
overburden removal is undertaken using two D11 dozers (one and consistent fragmentation, along with increased control over
with a carry dozer blade) and a Leibherr 994 with three CAT 785 environmental outputs. These features combined with the
haul trucks. economic advantages make SoftLOAD an extremely viable
The overburden at the Whitehaven mine varies from 45 m alternative.
deep at the Northern end of the mine to approximately 27 m at
the Southern end. This consists mainly of hard-cemented
conglomerates that vary in depth from 25 m at the Southern end
of the pit to 30+ m at the Northern end. At the Northern end of The author wishes to thank the Project Managers of Cullen
the pit, this conglomerate overlies up to 10 m of hard siltstones. Valley and Whitehaven Mines for willingness to try new ideas as
The mine has three environmental monitoring points located at well as Mick Lownds for his continued support and
distances of 1780 m, 2850 m and 2850 m in different directions. encouragement.
The standard pattern on-site using a 229 mm hole is a 7 m burden
and 9 m spacing with the main production holes loaded with REFERENCES
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158 Perth, WA, 26 - 28 July 2004 EXPLO 2004