Winter Soldiers

The world’s demand for iron ore results in mining and transport operations in some of the harshest environments on the planet, including north of the Arctic Circle.
A five-axle Volvo FH16 with tipping trailer.

The Kaunis Iron mine is located near the town of Pajala in Swedish Lapland, close to the border with Finland and inside the Arctic Circle. The open cut mine began operations in 2010, with the first ore production in 2012.

After its original owners experienced financial difficulties the mine was closed in 2014 and re-opened under new Canadian owners in June 2018 and has since moved into Swedish hands. It employs around 500 people.

The mine produced 2.3 million tonnes of its high-quality iron ore during 2023, and production is expected to grow to 3.2 million tonnes by 2027.

The iron ore is among the best in the world with a concentration of 68 per cent, well above the market normal of 62 per cent and as such commands a premium price because it produces better quality steel.

There are many contrasts between the Kaunis operation and what we are familiar with in Australia in terms of iron ore mining, most notably due to the climate.

Consider the Kimberley region in Western Australia with its dry heat and red rocks, while Pajala, being located north of the Arctic Circle, experiences the “midnight sun” during June and July when the sun stays above the horizon for six weeks.

This is offset by very short days during the mid-winter months with sunrise not until after 9.00am and full darkness is present by 4.30pm.

Temperatures as low as minus 44 degrees Celsius are common during winter. To take comparisons even further, the crushed iron ore at Kaunis is black, not the familiar red found in Australia.

The frontal areas of the trucks are protected by moose/reindeer bars.

Mikael Wahlberg oversees the transport operations at the mine. With a background as a truck mechanic, Mikael commenced at the mine as a dumper truck driver in 2012, then drove the road trucks for two years and has been at the forefront of managing the fleet and getting the ore delivered since the recommencement of mining operations in 2018.

The remote location of the mine dictates that the ore is delivered by road 160 kilometres to a rail head using a fleet of 33 bespoke Volvo side tipping truck and trailer combinations.

There is a maximum of 117 and an average of 100 truck movements every 24 hours, delivering 6,500 tonnes of ore to the rail head, from where it is transported in railway wagons a further 226 kilometres to the “ice-free” port of Narvik in Norway before being shipped to steel works in various countries such The Netherlands and China.

The specialised ten axle combination vehicles are 22.25 metres long and are built around five axle Volvo FH16 rigids powered by 750hp engines, each towing a five-axle tipping trailer. The side tipping combinations operate under special permits at 90 tonnes gross based on ten tonnes per axle, delivering a payload of 62.5 tonnes.

Usually operating 24/7 across 365 days per year, each truck travels around 350,000 kilometres during a 12-month period; the fleet’s annual total of 12,000,000 kilometres roughly equal to circumnavigating the globe 300 times.

The trucks are on indexed repair and maintenance plans and Kaunis Iron enjoys a strong relationship with WIST, the Volvo dealer for northern Sweden.

One factor in common with Australia is the sometimes agonising wait for approvals and permits, and in 2017 the paperwork relating to the certification of the trailer drawbars was a final piece in the puzzle which came through allowing the combinations to operate at 90 tonnes GVM.

The trailing axle on the trucks is lifted when unladen. The tyres on trucks’ twin steering axles are studded, as are two axles on the trailers, and the drive tyres have a rugged tread pattern to aid traction.

The truck combinations are approved to 90 tonnes.

There are 34 tyres on each truck and trailer combination and as safety comes first, then price, various brands and types are regularly tested.

It’s not just about handling the winter ice and snow, as during summer roadworks and poor surfaces present additional challenges to tyres. The long hours of darkness are illuminated with roof mounted LED light bars and the frontal areas of the trucks are protected by moose/reindeer bars.

The low temperatures sometimes cause incidences of brakes freezing on if a truck is parked for more than an hour.

This isn’t an issue with loaded trailers and the usual procedure is to back up a little to release the brakes when starting off with empty trailers.

The Volvo’s are speed limited to 82 km/hr and both trucks and trailers are equipped with on-board weighing systems in deference to the risk of overloading and breaching the 90-tonne permit, with some tolerance for the build-up of ice which occurs during the colder months.

In a move to reassure drivers the police were invited to test weigh some samples of loaded trucks with good results. Mikael currently has 130 drivers on staff and despite the challenging weather and isolated location, due to the company’s reputation he has no difficulties recruiting.

“It’s not hard to get drivers and it’s not a problem for us,” he says.

Mikael Wahlberg Kaunis Iron Fleet Manager.

“In the beginning it was a little hard to fulfil our needs, and many drivers came from countries south of Sweden and found it too cold in winter. I don’t think it’s the pay that is the attraction, although we pay a little more than standard, most of them seem to enjoy the work. Of the 130 drivers some leave for a while and some come back. It’s not a big problem.”

The weather is a major factor in just about every aspect of the transport operation. “This has been a cold winter and the temperature was minus 44° Celsius last week,” Mikael tells us.

Which makes the minus 16 ° on the day of Prime Mover’s visit seem balmy by comparison. Weather at that extreme level adversely affected rail travel across the north of Sweden and Norway but the Volvo’s kept operating right through it. Assessment of the existing ore reserves indicates the mine has a future life of at least 30 years.

Planning ahead for a reduced-carbon future, a Volvo electric truck was trialled during 2022.

The electric Volvo FMX was equipped with a lift-up rear steer axle and operated at a gross weight of 32 tonnes, delivering a payload of around 15 tonnes.

The month-long trial was a worthwhile learning experience and resulted in extra cabin insulation being installed as the absence of heat soak from a conventional diesel engine resulted in a driver environment which was too cold even with an all-electric HVAC unit fitted. A more extensive test of Volvo electric trucks is planned for later in 2024.

The side tipper bodies on trucks and trailers utilise Hardox steel plate. Due to factors such as the fine texture of the crushed ore causing it to settle during the 160-kilometre road trip and with a moisture content of up to seven per cent, the lower sections of the loads can actually freeze and this presents difficulties when unloading at the rail head.

To counter this, special vinyl liners are used as well as shakers mounted on the sides of the bodies.

A heated side tipper trailer body has recently been developed and will be trialled as a method of ensuring smooth and safe unloading during winter. Two tipping units with stainless steel inserts are also currently being assessed.

Volvo 700 horsepower trucks have been trialled, as has a 500hp version and the new 780hp 17-litre engines may find their way into the fleet in the future.

In contrast with much of Australia’s long haul fleets, the Kaunis Mine trucks are equipped with relatively small fuel tanks holding just 278 litres of diesel.

This is a factor in fuel load management with the trucks refuelling at the rail head site after unloading and therefore seeing a reduced weight to maximise payload when they return to the mine to get the next load of ore.

Average fuel consumption across the fleet is 5.5 litres per 100km during summer and 5.8 litres per 100km during winter.

AdBlue is consumed at a rate of approximately six per cent of the diesel use.

“Nobody ever likes filling up the diesel tank but I think with 90 tonnes it’s OK to get those results,” says Mikael.

Diamonds have actually been found in the mine but not in a worthwhile quantity.

The real value remains in the iron ore which will be the reason for the mine’s existence for the next 30 years.

Sustainability, excellent facilities and skilful and innovative management of its mining and transport operations will keep Kaunis Iron in its strong position on the world iron ore market.

Kaunis Iron produced 2.3 million tonnes of its high-quality iron ore last year.
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