28 November 2023

New take on old idea makes tailing dams safer

Australia’s Phibion has perfected a novel, screw-propelled vehicle that makes mine sites safer and more sustainable.

The company’s MudMaster vehicle ploughs across the mud surface of mine-site tailing dams, extracting water and compacting the residue. This thickening process reduces the risk of a tailing dam collapse. It also reduces the surface area taken up by the dam. This aids revegetation and means land can be returned to communities. Phibion’s vehicles are at work on tailing dams across Australia, and in South and Central America.

Australian engineers get creative

Phibion was founded in 2005 to sell services to Australia’s significant mining industry. The company is based in Brisbane, Queensland where it manufactures its distinctive MudMaster vehicles. These vehicles are used to help compact tailing dams and make them less prone to collapse.

The company’s MudMaster is a triumph of engineering. It’s classed as an amphirol: an amphibious vehicle that sits on 2 giant, horizontal Archimedes screws. These screws propel the vehicle through mud – thick and thin. As it moves across the surface, the vehicle extracts water from the mud and compacts the residue.

‘We didn’t invent amphirol machines, but we did take them to a whole new level,’ says Ross Hafner, Global Sales and Marketing Manager, Phibion. ‘We re-engineered the concept, scaled it up and patented it. We are one of the first companies in the world to design an amphirol machine to work on a tailing dam.’

Phibion deploys its MudMasters on multiple types of tailing dam. When at work on alumina mines, for example, they typically reduce the surface area of the tailing dam by 50%.

Traditional earthmoving equipment can enhance the strength of the surface once the mud is firm. These machines contour the residue and prepare the solid part of the site for revegetation. Phibion calls its end-to-end service ‘Accelerated Mechanical Consolidation’ (AMC).

‘We deliver the AMC service worldwide and we work directly with local communities to deliver it,’ says Hafner. ‘We upskill local villagers and this means communities are involved day-to-day in regenerating their own environments. This helps mining companies deliver on corporate and social responsibility obligations.’

Engaging with local communities in South America

Exports are booming. Phibion provides its AMC service at tailing dams in South America and Jamaica. Clients include Minercao Rio do Norte (MRN), which has mining operations in Brazil.

‘We take a team to the dam site – including a senior trainer – and deliver the whole AMC service,’ says Hafner. ‘We begin training local workers straightaway. This involves teaching them how to manage associated AMC activities.

‘Our team in Brazil includes Indigenous members,’ he adds. ‘We taught them to effectively manage tailings and they have become trainers for the region. Now they teach people in the wider region to keep processing the tailing dam effectively.’

A large green vehicle driven by two float screws drives across a red, muddy section of a tailings dam


Helping mining companies meet new global standards

MRN has engaged Phibion in a 5-year project at one of its bauxite mines. The project includes increasing dam strength. It also involves helping MRN to meet new environmental standards for dams.

‘The 2020 Global Tailings Dam Standard aims to help companies improve the management and safety of their tailing storage facilities,’ says Hafner. ‘We were engaged by MRN to help them meet this standard.

‘We are part of a steady improvement in tailings dam management across mine sites in Central and South America. By compacting tailing dams, we make mine sites safer. People have less reason to fear a dam collapse. And by lowering risk, we make mining projects more sustainable.’

Austrade helps make new connections

Austrade advisors have helped Phibion build its business overseas. For example, advisors in Santiago provided referrals to legal, accounting and translations services. This assistance helps Phibion say “yes” to new clients and get a new project up and running quickly.

In Australia, Austrade helped Phibion to connect with Australian companies that were already active in Chile. This enabled executives to gain a better understanding of the mining industry in Chile before starting work there.

‘Austrade advisors have given us immense help when we’ve tried to enter new markets,’ says Hafner. ‘They help us get in front of the right people. When we have trouble getting meetings, Austrade can make them happen.

‘Austrade has also invited us onto their stand at major trade shows. This means we can project a presence at some of the region’s biggest shows, including Exponor, Expomin, Gecamin and Perumin.’

Phibion continues to innovate. The company has deployed its first fully autonomous MudMaster vehicle to execute AMC on a tailing dam in Australia.