Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Canadian Diamond Industry

In my last post I mentioned that I was on my way up to Yellowknife in the North West Territories of Canada for a work trip. This is where Ekati Diamonds (and essentially the entire Canadian diamond industry) is based. When you think of diamonds Canada is not the first country that comes to mind but Ekati alone produces 3% of the worlds diamonds by weight, and 6% by volume.

Ekati started production in 1998 and was the first diamond mine to in Canada. Two geologists (Chuck Fipke and Stewart Blusson) followed the mineral trail and found the first kimberlite pipe in 1991, sparking the biggest mining claims rush in Canada's (and I think the world's) history. They each now own 10% each in Ekati Diamonds, (and are two of the richest people in Canada) with BHPBilliton owning the other 80%.

Diamonds are formed in the intense heat and pressure of the Earth's inner crust, and were spewed up into the upper crust approximately 40-60million years ago when the pressure became too much, forming large carrot shaped ore bodies called Kimberlite pipes. Ekati alone has over 150 such pipes on it's property, but only 6 of these have been considered economically viable to mine from. The first of these pipes to be mined was Panda, followed by Koala, Fox, Koala North, Beartooth and Misery. Panda and Koala have moved into underground production (the first of it's kind in Canada), with Koala North doing the same soon.

Ekati has a very well set up camp that has been built extremely well for the weather (sometimes down to -50 in winter). There are a few hundred accommodation rooms (most with separate bathrooms), a full mess hall with 24 hour snacks room, fully equipped gym, recreation room with pool tables, books and large screen televisions, three squash courts, a sports hall with running track, full maintenance workshop with offices, process plant, a full diesel powered power station and a very well equipped medical centre in case of emergencies.

Two other mines have become operational in the last few years in the NWT - Snap Lake (DeBeers) and Diavik (Rio Tinto).

You may have seen the TV show on the History Channel called "Ice Road Truckers". This is all about a road that gets built in winter across all the lakes between Yellowknife and the three mines, taking in supplies that can't be flown in (too big, too dangerous etc.). It can only be driven on for a few weeks of the year when the lakes are frozen enough to drive on.

You may think that the extreme weather means that things just stop during the winter, but it's business as usual. For communication, they have a satellite link and a high-speed microwave link between the mine and Yellowknife, shared between the three mines. All three mines have airports, with flights going up and back at least once per day (sometimes more). Sometimes of course the fog or snow means that you get stuck up at the mine, but this is only at certain times of the year and in cany case the buildings are all enclosed so you can get anywhere you need without going outside.

If you want to know more about the Canadian diamond industry, here is a good summary from the Canadian government.

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