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Block Caving


Block caving is a method that is truly and wholly based on the

principles of caving, although recent developments have distanced
the method slightly from pure reliance on a natural cave, in order
to broaden the application of the method and enhance its
production capabilities. This has increased the attractiveness of
block caving even further.

Block caving is based on the assumption that ore fractures and

breaks by itself due to the presence of internal stresses and forces,
caused by the weight of the ore body and also the downward
movement of the broken rocks.

A minimum of drilling and blasting is required for the production


The deposit is divided into large blocks, probably square in shape

and a horizontal cross section of more than the absolute minimum
of 1,000 m^2. The minimum area of 3,000 m^2 would perhaps be
more usual in practice.

Each block is undercut completely by a horizontal slot. Gravity

forces due to the presence of millions of tons of ore and waste,
being in the block and above and around the block, act on the rock
masses and successive fracturing occurs in this way, affecting the
entire block in a gradual manner.

As the rock pressure increases at the bottom of the block, the ore is
crushed while travelling downwards, to a fragmentation that allows
removal through draw points or any other type of arrangement.


The method can be used in large and more appropriately, in

massive ore bodies, with these additional characteristics:
1) The ore body must be steep. Also, a large vertical extent is
2) After undercutting, the ore must be capable of potential
caving and breaking into suitable pieces.
3) The surface conditions must allow subsidence.

These requirements may seem to limit the application of the

method. The past few decades have however seen great expansion
in application and success in the operation of block caving. Typical
applications began by mining of iron ore and low-grade scattered
ores such as copper. Today, block caving is used and being
considered to be adopted in near future, by several large mining


Block caving requires more development work than any other

underground mining method. These usually include:

1) A system of loading and transport drift is to be arranged

below the bottom of each block.
2) Ore passes and finger raises are developed at the bottom of
the block just above the transport level.
3) Another set of drifts (grizzly drifts) is developed below the
production drifts to control fragmentation and to perform
secondary blasting wherever required.

4) Another set of finger raises is developed at the production
5) A full undercut is made at the base of the block.

In limited operations, it may be possible to omit the grizzly drifts

and the second set of finger raises.

The number of these roadways and finger raises under the block
can be very high and all excavations are subject to high rock
pressures. Therefore cross-sections are kept to a minimum and
often heavy reinforcements with perhaps concrete are required.

Generally in this method the development stage is time consuming,

expensive and complicated. It may take several years before
production reaches its maximum level.


Once the undercut is completed the ore should start falling down
itself into the finger raises and continue to do so as the mineral is
removed at the haulage drift level.

Theoretically, no production drilling is needed. In practice, it is

sometimes necessary and/or desirable to assist, promote or start the
fracturing and hence the caving process by means of drilling long
holes and blasting them. The space between these is usually high.
Secondary blasting of oversize rock is however a frequent and
especially in the beginning of production, a daily routine operation
in the method.

Mineral Transport

The conventional block caving method uses horizontal or near

horizontal drifts and finger raise for mineral transport. It uses
gravity to a great extent until mineral is loaded into rail cars or belt
conveyors in the transport drift.

The presence of grizzly levels is of course a constraint in the

production cycle, but it makes the production more smooth and
continuous. Despite the cost of driving grizzly levels, their
presence is almost certain in large block caving operations.

To obtain a good recovery from the method, it is important that the

upper surface of the caved area is subsided evenly. For this to
happen, the loading system from different places in the mine (draw
points at the bottom of the block) should be simultaneous.


Under favourable conditions, the method is indeed an economical

one. It can easily be the most economical underground mining
method. Its drawbacks are:

a) Comprehensive developments that are required and the very

long time lag between start of the development operations and
when production starts, especially when it reaches its full capacity.
The initial capital investment is therefore high. In a typically large
operation today, block caving can be the most capital-intensive
method amongst all underground mining methods.

b) Although there are numerous remedial actions available to the
mining operational engineer but still both fragmentation and
caving are operations that cannot always be predicted or
controlled. In other word, cavability, as a natural process, is
potentially unpredictable and uncontrollable. This may create
certain hazards that make the method risky. Unexpected hang-ups
of large boulders can cause serious problems that cannot be solved
easily, specially in the surrounding material that is already broken
or at least fractured. Recent developments in the application of the
method, such as new equipment and design practices, have
however decreased the level of these risks drastically.

It is for these reasons that block caving has gained enormous

popularity recently. In some cases, increased use of large diameter
long holes has made the method look like a combined method
between block caving and sublevel caving.

Advanced Block Caving


Block caving is a distinct caving method, applied mostly to large

and massive ore bodies. Inherent to the method is low cost and
high production capability, especially when it reaches full

Areas of sufficient size are undercut so that the ore will cave
naturally. Drawing the ore from the bottom causes further caving
to occur, until all the ore in the block is broken into suitable sizes.
If applicable and when properly applied, block caving results in

lowest cost per ton of extracted ore, than any other underground

There are mainly three different systems of working practiced:

1) Block system-The horizontal area is divided into blocks,

square or nearly square in shape. Then drawing of the ore is
carried out evenly from all the blocks so that the top of the
ore body is kept horizontal.

2) Panel caving- Divide the horizontal area into panels and then
ore is drawn from the bottom of the panels in a retreating
manner and so that the top of the ore in each panel is kept
inclined (diagonal).

3) Mass caving- The ore body is not divided at all. The whole
deposit is attacked at the same time. Developments are made
for all the reserve and when retreating, undercutting and
hence loading is carried out. The caved area therefore
proceeds upwards simultaneous with the undercut. Ore
removal is carried out in a way that an inclined plane is kept
at the top of the ore body (diagonal).

The total number of active draw points or active area is determined

by the size of the block and part of it that can be caved safely and
without undue pressure on workings below etc.

The main advantage of mass caving system is the flexibility that it

adds to the design and operation. Cross section area of the block,
being the most important dimension, is variable and within the
control of the mining operational engineer in this system. It is
equal to the area of the undercut, which can easily be varied to
increase or even to decrease caving progress speed.

Suitable Ore Bodies

Block caving, in its various forms, can be applied to deposits of

various shapes with ore of various strengths. Although success of
operations is directly related to suitability of the ore body but there
are several different designs available that enhance this criterion.
The adoption of mass caving system is only one example. The past
few decades have seen considerable improvements in nearly all
aspects of block caving. Still, if unsuitable ore bodies and if
improperly applied, it can lead to excessive ore losses, indeed more
than any other method.

Good judgement, proper planning, systematic work procedures and

careful supervision and are the key to successful operation.
General and local experience can help greatly. However, the
important requirements are described below.

a) Ore characteristics

Important points to note are:

1) Proper or minimum fracture pattern is required.
2) Ore hardness, although not determinant of cavability, is
a relevant parameter.
3) The ore body must be of sufficient extent to enable the
undercut to be extended if needed in order to increase
the block weight and hence assist caving.
4) Large and massive ore bodies usually meet all these
5) Vein type ore bodies must be wide and dip steeply to
meet the requirements of the method.

6) The overburden must be of a type that breaks and caves
when the underlying ore is removed. The weight of the
overburden on the ore is necessary to break it into
manageable pieces when travelling downwards.
7) The most favourable overburden is the one that breaks
into coarse pieces that resist attrition.
8) A soft overburden that breaks into fine particles is
undesirable since the waste rock particles can seriously
dilute the ore. Such fine particles can reach the draw
points before the larger size ore particles. This may be
enough reason to decide against the adoption of block

b) Ore types and shape

A fairly uniform distribution of grade values in the ore body is

required by the method. The method has been applied where grade
values range from low to high, but most often the method is
applied to low-grade ores.

Wide veins, thick beds and massive deposits of homogeneous ore

with suitable overburden are good conditions.

The ore must be of enough strength that it can be supported while

blocks are being developed and the undercut is being made. But it
must be brittle enough to break up easily when caved.

Boundaries of the deposit should be fairly regular and sides of the

ore body should dip steeply. This is only for economic reasons. It
is not be possible to extract any ore that extends into the walls of
the planned block. Also anything in the block must be mined.
Therefore, no selective mining is possible at all. Selective mining

is perhaps more irrelevant to block caving than any other
underground mining method. It is sometimes thought that the draw
points providing low- grade ore can be closed earlier. This is not
advisable since an important consideration in block caving the
progress of the cave upwards. This can only be achieved by
drawing ore from the bottom of the block.

Some dilution from the overburden and/or from the surrounding

strata is inevitable and some ore is also lost in the block, similar to
sublevel caving. Dilution is necessary in order to push the ore
down towards the draw points and ore loss must be tolerated since
at some point during the draw, dilution level becomes so high that
the average grade of the output from a draw point is below cut-off
point. Production therefore stops at such time but the amount of
ore in the output from the draw point has not reached zero. In
addition to this, some extracted clean ore is also left between draw
points such as in sublevel stoping and shrinkage stoping methods.
This will further reduce recovery.

c) Cavability

Rock mechanics science is used to determine cavability of rock

masses. Providing indicative values has now become possible,
although there is no general consensus regarding cavability
criteria. Both large companies and academics, often independently,
have carried out lots of research in the last decade or so but a
comprehensive formula is yet to be found.

The intensity of the fracture pattern is undoubtedly a critical

parameter that determines cavability. Some sets of fractures in the
ore body are required to promote caving. A good cave requires
several sets of these. Ideally a combination of some vertical
fractures together with some horizontal ones are required for
caving to start and proceed upwards in a continuous manner.

Since initial caving of an ore body is almost always obtained by
the action of gravity on the planes of weakness, it is doubtful that
caving will occur without these planes of weakness unless the
material is as un-cohesive and runny as perhaps sand.

One or even two vertical fractures alone would not promote

caving, unless the ore has a very low tensile strain. Horizontal or
nearly horizontal fractures, on the other hand, act as bedded
deposits. In such cases, although they would perhaps break as a
result of stress from above, but the size of the broken ore pieces
would be too large to handle and therefore too much secondary
blasting will be required. This is why a combination of vertical and
horizontal fractures is required for a successful block caving.

In the initial stages of ore evaluation for choosing a mining

method, the fractures in the ore body need to be studied, mainly for
their frequency and orientation.

The more closely spaced the fractures, the more readily the ore will
cave. In the ideal ore body, all the fragments will break into small
enough pieces, to pass through the draw holes.

This type of ore body is perhaps non-existent. Therefore a

sufficient percentage of the fragments must pass through these so
that the secondary blasting costs would not become out of
proportions. At least 50% of the ore should break to size 1.5m or

In the initial stages of ore extraction, fragmentation is poor. The

highest secondary blasting costs seem to be in the first 30% of ore
extraction. During this period, breaking is only done by the action
of gravity on the fracture planes.

As drawing the ore down continues, stress on the block increases
and attrition helps to give a better fragmentation.

The fracture patterns in an ore body can only be physically seen

and counted and their orientation determined either from the cores
obtained or examining the ore from development openings.

d) Choosing among different systems

As mentioned above, the ore body can be developed in blocks,

panels or mass caving. Whichever the system, the suitability of the
method as a whole, to a large extent depends upon rock suitability.
Where the ore is soft or highly fractured, breaks into fine particles
and a fairly high rate of production can be obtained, the block
system can be used.

In this type of rock and generally speaking in block system,

excessive weight may damage the workings if the size of blocks is
too large. This system of working is not used widely any longer.

When the fracture pattern is more dispersed, the rock is of more

strength and the expansion of the rock is limited in one direction
such as steeply dipping veins, the panel system may be more

The necessity of leaving pillars between panels depends upon:

i) Strength of the rock
ii) Whether or not the waste after ore removal will
reconsolidate to permit recovery of pillars

If the ore body is massive and fairly suitable (soft), having a fairly
widely spaced fracture pattern, then mass caving should be
considered. In this type of work it may be necessary to undercut a

large horizontal area before caving starts, hence a type of boundary
cut-off (pillar) is recommended.

Experience in similar ore bodies should help but the final plan in
such cases should be decided upon after experimenting in local

Technical Matters

As indicated before, block caving can be applied where the rock

mass is of sufficient breaks, fractures and planes of weakness, that
the mass will break when:
i) The block is of sufficient size for the weight on the top.
ii) The block is undercut.

The mineral caves from the bottom and progresses upwards. For
different minerals there are different rates of caving which depends
on the structure of the mineral.


If the ore is drawn faster than it caves, a void may be created over
the caved material, which would create a dangerous situation. The
non-caved portion or a large part of it may suddenly drop into the
voids causing a destructive air blast through the openings.

These arches may also become stable if the rock has sufficient
strength, in which case caving below the arch produces voids and
above the arch, the ore compacts.

In these cases it may be difficult to promote caving to restart. The
main way to do this is usually to enlarge the block perhaps on
both sides. It is not uncommon that a rectangular block enlarged on
one side does not cave for a long time.

Rate of draw

The caved mineral should be removed rapidly to:

i) Prevent packing of the mineral in the undercut.

ii) Allow the caving to proceed upwards.

The rate of draw varies, depending upon cavability of the mineral.

The speed by which the top ore plane travels downward can be
anywhere between 15 cm and 1.2m per 24 hours.

When undercut is made by blasting, the material should be

immediately removed so that no small part of the undercut is left
unbroken, since any of these act as pillars between the roof and
floor and seriously affect the caving procedure. Also they may
transfer the load on the openings below the undercut level.

Ore caves by the virtue of its own weight and that of the
overburden, preferably to suitable sizes. If oversize pieces occur,
they must be blasted to go through the openings.

Caving usually extends through the ore and through the

overburden up to the surface. The surface subsides as the ore is
removed. Ore drawing is continued at a pre-determined rate until
the material drawn is not of economical value due to dilution. The
cut-off point can be determined either by visual or sampling and
assaying method as in sublevel caving method.

Dilution control

Well-controlled draw is required to minimize dilution. If the waste

rock breaks into same size or larger size pieces than the ore itself,
control of dilution can be easier than when rock breaks into smaller
pieces. In the latter case, dilution can be substantially higher.

The amount of ore loss and dilution are again the most important
determinants of the application of the method. There is really no
reliable solution to the problem of predicting the end result. Values
in other mines are good indicative.

Height of blocks

Higher blocks are desirable because they are more economical

with constant development cost. Also, if drawing is done properly,
the ratio of the overburden in the mineral drawn is minimized.
Unless the overburden breaks much finer than the ore, in which
case, especially for higher blocks, theirs ratio (overburden material
to clean ore) will tend to increase markedly since finer materials
infiltrate coarser ones and travel down towards the draw points
more rapidly.

Where overburden breaks into coarser pieces, the problem of

dilution is greatly reduced, but control has to be exercised in any
case. This can be a deciding factor in the application of block
caving. In other words, if overburden breaks into pieces much finer
than the ore, dilution can then be economically excessive.

Maximum height is usually determined by:

- Height of the deposit.
- Dip of the ore body.

- Characteristics of the ore and the capping.

The cross-sectional area of each block should be large enough so

that the weight on the top of the undercut causes the start of
caving. Also, in larger blocks, working and design are more
flexible, such as haulage etc.

But, on the other hand, when the cross section area is large, the
speed with which the ore lowers in the caved area is low and hence
undesirable. The cost of roadway maintenance is also an important
factor here.

Draw point spacing

The more finely the ore breaks, the closer the draw points should
be. However, draw points are also used to gain access to the
undercut to blast any large blocks. Therefore their number should
be sufficient. Spacing perhaps should not exceed 15mx15m.

The spacing between draw points is first determined roughly

between 5-15 m apart, depending on the expected size of the
broken ore pieces and by experience in other mines. They can
easily be modified at later stages when working a particular block.
Most mines that have been in operation for some time, have
changed their draw point spacing design from time to time, to
optimize draw and meet varying conditions.

Weight problems

If there is any non-caved ore in the block, then excessive pressure

is exerted on the premiters of the block. Roadways should
therefore be driven outside this zone. It is difficult to pre determine
this zone and is only found through experience.

The best thing to do is to make sure a steady draw of mineral is

taken and any unbroken rock is broken soon, since it could act as
pillar and hence transmit the load to the sides.

Opening up of only sufficient area is important to assure caving

while excessive pressure is avoided.


The amount and type of developments required in this method

depends on the characteristics of the ore and the type of caving
method used. For example, if mass caving is applied and the ore
body is massive, the amount of development work is very high and
easily more than any other underground method.

Also, if the ore is relatively hard and the ground is generally hard,
then less number of draw points is required. If the ore is expected
to break into small pieces, then draw points should be more closely
spaced. This will necessitate more roadways, which will lead to a
higher initial investment level.

The details of developments design in block caving are more

variable than in any other underground method. They are almost
unique in any particular mine. Case studies are best ways for
gaining experience.

Undercut level- The undercut level is directly and with some
distance above the production level.

Undercutting consists of driving a series of narrow parallel drifts at

the undercut level. From these, long horizontal holes are drilled
and charged. When blasted a thin slice (1-2m) of vertical ore is
extracted and hence the undercut is created.

As the blasted ore is removed and dumped into the draw points, the
ore above starts to fall by the action of gravity.

Production level and haulage level- Whatever the arrangement,

the method will require a set of production levels and a haulage
level. Another set of drifts (between the two levels above) may be
provided called gathering level or grizzly level.

Subsidence- Subsidence occurs above the block up to the surface.

In the initial stage, if ground is hard it may start on the surface with
an area less than the area of the undercut. If it is soft it may
approach the area of the undercut. In any case it is always smaller
than or equal to the undercut area.

But eventually it becomes larger than this area and the surface
within the plains of some 45 degrees in all four sides of the block
is mostly affected. No permanent structures or shafts should be
within this area.

Block weakening

Block weakening essentially consists of either: increasing the
magnitude of the forces in the block by enlarging the block cross
sectional area or directing the forces available due to the weight of
the overlaying strata to the volume inside the block.

The block to be worked can be limited laterally by driving a series

of drifts or raises or both, along the boundaries of the block. This
also limits the horizontal extent of the caving.

Another attempt is to work narrow shrinkage stopes along the

boundaries. This is most useful in hard ground.

These stopes can extend horizontally in two directions i.e each one
stope covers two sides of the block.

This action can be completed before the undercutting is started or

be done simultaneously. These two systems also promote the initial
cave to start. Where the ground is competent, these actions may be
quite useful.

Equipment- The equipment for this method should be selected

with high capacity in mind. Development equipment should be as
highly mechanized as the layout of the mine allows. Multi boomed
jumbos together with high capacity mucking equipment should be
used. Thee have been lots of improvements in the speed of these
machines in the past few decades.

When production is to be drawn from chutes, they should be

designed for high rates of production. Sometimes scrapes are to be
used in which case the distance is to be minimized and machines as
large as possible.

If LHDs are used, they should be 4 or 6 m^3 capacity, although
they are not used very often at all. On the haulage level, high
capacity trains should be used, perhaps 9 tons mine cars and 20-30
mine car trains. Loading onto these mine cars should be multiple
points or if possible continuous.

Generally speaking in such method because ore is that of run-of-

mine and hence not sized, the best high capacity haulage system
i.e. belt conveyors, cannot be used. Trains are used instead.
But, if say, the processing plant is very far, then the possibility of
preparing the ore on site and then transporting it by belt conveyors
should be considered.

Ventilation- Quite a simple layout required. Through ventilation is

possible. If electrical or air powered equipment are used, little
volume of air is needed but if diesel equipment are used substantial
volumes are needed.

General Considerations

Productivity and Costs- The method is suited to high rates of

production since it is used for low-grade ores. Production has a
wide range.

The success of the method is dependent on the rate of production.

OMS of 150-350 tons are expected for production manpower only.
Overall OMs could be 30-50 tons.

With year 2000 prices, for development costs, the value of $5-$8
per ton of ore recovered is typical. It is very sensitive to the height

of the block. The total operating costs (production costs) can be
$10-$14 per ton.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages include:
1) Mining is inexpensive compared to other methods, since little
drilling and blasting and small amount of development cost
per ton of ore extracted is involved. It is the only method in
which cost per ton of mined ore can easily be compared to
that of surface mining.

2) Centralized and concentrated production permits efficient

supervision and therefore higher values for OMS. Also good
control of safe working conditions is possible. Safety can be
very high in this method.

3) Control of ventilation is less complex than other methods,

due to fixed and solid roads, high number of openings and
concentration of working. Ventilation efficiency can be very

4) Production can be kept at a relatively high rate, allowing high

output equipment such as belt conveyors to be used.

5) The method can be applied to ores of relatively low grade.

Application of other methods often cannot be justified where
ore is of low grade.

Disadvantages include:

1) Development costs are higher than any other method before
production starts. Block caving, especially the mass caving
system, has requires the highest possible amount of initial
investment amongst all underground mining methods, in the
form of drivage and support installation of many long
roadways. This amount of initial capital may net always be

2) Maintaining the drifts in the draw area can be costly and can
interfere with production. Maintenance of grizzly and
transport roadways may also be difficult and expensive.

3) Varying production level cannot be accomplished easily and

quickly. The output of each block is constant and higher
production can only be achieved by preparing another block.
Enlargement of the block may present problems in roadways

4) If the current of ore downwards stops, more weight is exerted

on the drifts below. If these stoppages continue for a long
time, they may cause the complete loss of the block and
consequently all the developments below.

5) Adverse conditions result in very low recovery. There is

always a danger of loosing large amounts of ore if good draw
practice is not followed. Practising good draw requires large
amount of knowledge and experience, preferably local

6) The method is almost totally inflexible as regards changing to

another methods, selectivity, changing the working
procedures etc. Irregularities along the boundaries will not
present technical limitations but can diminish economics of

the method, which is by far the most important advantage of
block caving.

7) Generally, it is a high initial investment and therefore a high-

risk method. If successful, the ore will be mined the lowest
possible cost per ton and if not, a high amount of initially
invested capital can be totally wasted.

Relative to sublevel caving, the method has these advantages:

1) Final mining cost per ton is lower.

2) From a given area, it gives a higher output per day.

3) Development costs per ton is lower.

4) Ventilation is more easily controlled and less complicated.

Finally, if an ore reserve is thought suitable for caving, block

caving method should first be considered. If it cannot be applied,
which will probably be due to too distant or insufficient number of
fractures, then sublevel caving should be chosen.

Generally, it is only caving methods and especially block caving

whose cost can be so low as to be comparable with surface mining.
It is therefore anticipated that many mines will convert to caving
methods from other smaller scale underground methods in near
future. This will also be inevitable in large surface mines, where
depths are increasing and many such mines will soon reach a
situation where caving methods will produce cheaper ore than their
present system of working.