Pulling dust from diamonds 2008

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Ultra 600 pipe can withstand temperatures well below zero. It's going to need to where it's headed.

By MARINO ECCHER

meccher@journalsentinel.com

Posted: Jan. 28, 2008

Nothing that moves through its pipes would look good on an engagement ring. Still, Port Washington-based Ultra Tech will have a hand in the diamond business beginning this summer.

Ultra Tech, a division of concrete pumping specialist Construction Forms Inc., recently completed an order for 23,000 feet of pipe bound for the Diavik Diamond Mine, in Lac de Gras in Canada's Northwest Territories. The mine sits just 136 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The pipes are part of a network that will be used to carry mining dust out of the mine as it's unearthed, said Brad Fine, marketing director for Construction Forms. Once mining is complete, the pipes will carry a backfill paste of dust and other excavated waste back into the mine to refill each area.

Ultra Tech does between $5 million and $6 million in non-concrete pipe applications each year, Fine said. Construction Forms and Ultra Tech share a facility in Port Washington that employees about 150 people, he said. The company has stepped up marketing efforts for non-concrete orders in the past year, he said. While he declined to say how much the diamond mine order was worth, he described the deal as "a pretty fair-sized chunk of business."

Fine said Ultra Tech was selected because of the ability of its Ultra 600 pipe to withstand outside temperatures as low as 60 degrees below zero and transport the abrasive backfill paste under high operating pressure. Also an advantage is the company's ability to manufacture the custom pieces and pipe bends called for by the network.

Traveling the 'ice road'

The order had to be completed and shipped out this month so it could reach the Northwest Territories in time to travel to the mine via "ice road," a man-made highway across a series of frozen lakes that supplies a number of mines in northern Canada, he said.

While the pipes for the mine were a standard Ultra Tech line, Fine said completing the order was "a little tricky because of the weather and the time to deliver the product."

The Diavik mine sits on the Tibbitt to Contwoyto Winter Road, which stretches from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories to the inactive Lupin Mine in Nunavut. The road is managed by a joint venture that includes the Diavik mine and other mines in the area.

About 85% of the road runs over frozen lakes, according to information provided by the management group. Because the ice of the lakes must thicken sufficiently to support vehicles - about 27 inches for light vehicles and about 40 inches for fully loaded trucks - the road can only be used for about 10 weeks each year, usually from the end of January to early April.

A loaded truck can travel at no more than 16 miles per hour on the road, meaning the 230-mile trek from Yellowknife to the Diavik mine takes about 15 hours - longer for a heavy load. The 2,500-mile haul from Port Washington to Yellowknife takes a little more than 40 hours.

Summer installation

The Diavik mine began extracting above-ground diamonds in 2003, according to Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. The Ultra Tech pipes, set to be installed this summer, will coincide with the start of the mine's underground operation later this year. The mine produces about 10 million carats of diamonds annually and is expected to operate until at least 2019. Construction Forms' Fine said once the details of the order and the timeframe for shipping the pipes were in place, the logistical challenges did not pose any serious difficulties. "Distance isn't really a problem," he said. "There was no particular problem once we got it scheduled."

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