Sights set on safety and sustainability

Dr Chengguo Zhang applies his fundamental and practical research to mitigate underground rock dynamic failures and reduce mining impact on the environment – both of which are global challenges facing the mining industry.

Dr Chengguo Zhang received his Bachelor of Mining Engineering from the China University of Mining and Technology and moved to Australia in 2010 to undertake his PhD. His PhD saw him working closely with industry on an applied research project to understand the mechanisms of mine subsidence. 

It’s great that we’re bringing all this power together to promote safe and sustainable resource extractions.

Dr Chengguo Zhang, Lecturer, UNSW Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering

“The impact of longwall mining on groundwater is still not fully understood so I was primarily exploring the interaction between caving mechanisms and water bodies,” he says.

“Mining beneath rivers and their catchment areas can have a very adverse impact on both the water resource and the mining operation. My research concerned developing better knowledge about the interactions between longwall mining, water bodies and surface subsidence in order to promote more sustainable mining practices.”

After receiving his PhD in 2015, he worked as a Research Associate at UNSW. This time his research focus was rock mass failure, especially rock dynamic failure, which he says is a huge global challenge facing the mining industry as it poses significant safety risks to the workforce.

“Dynamic failures in coal mines (usually called coal bursts) have been responsible for many fatalities and injuries in underground mines around the world in recent years. In Australia, it is an increasingly dangerous phenomena which has been exacerbated by the fact that we are having to dig deeper to access coal reserves. Australian coal mines have typically increased in depth from 200-400 metres to 500-600 metres,” he continues.

In 2018, Zhang was appointed a Lecturer in the new School of Minerals and Energy Resources Engineering and he has found himself in a position where he is now working on a wide variety of part fundamental/part applied research projects which encompass his two key research strengths.

He is involved in six Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP) projects, in addition to several School, Faculty and international projects. In several cases, his research has been translated into practice, leading to concrete benefits for mining companies. 

“Today my research continues to explore rock mass behaviour and the different conditions and stress environments rock is subject to. Once we understand this we can start looking at controls and ways to prevent or mitigate this behaviour.” Zhang says.

“I am also working on projects that are exploring the interaction between the caving mechanisms caused by mining and its interactions with groundwater, so have gone full circle back to the topic I focused on in my PhD.”

Although he is primarily a mining engineer, Zhang says he is very interested in broadening his research aims and collaborating with multidisciplinary colleagues to make sure the research is viewed from every appropriate angle. For example, he proposed to work with experts in CT scanning and high-end technologies to determine the rock failure at the micro-scale, and he is also talking with civil engineers about the geotechnical aspect of rock behaviour.

“In addition to that, this year I won funding to collaborate with professor from UNSW Electrical Engineering to look at the improvement of instrumentation in underground mines. This project is about optimising monitoring in order to collect and analyse data more effectively to better understand the rock behaviour and stress environment.”

Zhang says the decision to merge the Schools of Mining and Petroleum Engineering at UNSW will only increase these opportunities for collaboration at a time where the two disciplines are merging in practice in the real world. “It’s great that we’re bringing all this power together to promote safe and sustainable resource extractions.”

As for the future, Zhang has his sights set on two main areas of growth. “Firstly, I’d like to promote my research aims to PhD students and encourage them to get in touch if they are interested in discussing opportunities,” he says.

“Secondly, I’m very keen to develop strong linkages and collaborations with international organisations. I’ve already got great connections with Chinese mining research organisations but I’m definitely keen to grow my research collaborations with other international colleagues in industry as well.

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