FEATURE-Chile's new Gaby copper mine steps into the future

CALAMA, Chile, May 21 (Reuters) - A 30-tonne truck the size of a house speeds down a desert track in northern Chile and suddenly halts within 50 meters (54.7 yards) of another vehicle.

There is no heated argument -- because there are no drivers.

The so-called autonomous, 330 tonne-capacity monster mining truck is one of 11 being put to use at the Gabriela Mistral, or Gaby, copper mine in northern Chile and which is owned by No. 1 copper miner Codelco.

Run by a computer program, and not a worker with a remote control, the trucks are the cutting edge of modern mine technology and Codelco is claiming a world first in rolling them out to haul mineral at its new mine.

“This is the world’s most modern copper mine in terms of the technology being put to use here,” Codelco Chief Executive Jose Pablo Arellano said at the inauguration of the mine this week in the heart of Chile’s Atacama, the world’s driest desert.

Gaby harvested its first batch of copper cathodes this week, building the large, open-pit operation in about two years and becoming one of the world’s very few brand new copper mines this year.

“We’re talking about a billion dollars invested here, where not too long ago, all there was, was desert,” said Arellano, spearheading a push to reverse slipping output at Codelco.

The mine is equipped with vanguard technology, from the autonomous trucks to a shiny new Electro Winning (SX/EW) plant that will churn out 5,600 copper cathodes, some 430 tonnes of quality copper, each day.

Gaby gets started two months later than planned, but still well ahead of the curve in an industry where most copper mines are at least a year behind schedule.

A study by London-based CRU Copper Consultants said earlier this year that of the world’s 40 major copper projects, those with output of 100,000 tonnes per year or more, most showed delays ranging from a few months to a few years.

Named after Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the mine is a site for sore eyes for international markets hungry for every pound of the 150,000 tonnes of copper it promises to add.

Appropriately enough, given its name, the mine employs more women than any other in Chile -- accounting for 25 percent of its engineers, geologists and mining technicians.

Gaby is the only greenfield expansion project at Codelco, in the middle of an ambitious expansion across its five divisions aimed at boosting output to 2.0 million tonnes per year by 2010, from about 1.7 million tonnes these days.

The company has other properties it could develop, each with significant challenges to overcome, ranging from low ore grade to high arsenic content of mineral.

At Gaby, Codelco’s main challenge was overcoming low ore grades.

“Our motto is that if it’s got copper in it, then we’ll find a way to get it out,” Codelco superintendent Gerardo Morales told Reuters at the base of a mountain of mineral rock being leached for its copper content by a sulphuric acid extraction process.

Gaby will have an average ore grade of about 0.4 percent over 14 years, falling gradually from 0.7 or 0.8 percent copper per tonne in the first three years in operation.

“This is a deposit of relatively low ore grades, one of the lowest there is these days, and as such the demands on efficiency are very very high,” Arellano said.

Gaby will likely produce around 80,000 tonnes of copper in 2008. Operations will ramp up to full capacity of about 150,000 tonnes per year of copper by August.

A second-phase expansion in coming years will boost output to about 165,000 tonnes per year.

Codelco's production came in at 1.583 million tonnes in 2007, not including its stake in a joint venture mine with Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc FCX.N, El Abra. (Editing by Simon Gardner and Matthew Lewis)