De Beers Group CEO Philippe Mellier highlighted in a keynote speech to Britain’s top engineers the role that innovative engineering plays in the modern diamond industry. “The story of diamonds is a story of engineering,” he told the Royal Academy of Engineering. One pioneering development he featured was De Beers’ SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), airborne technology that works in places where traditional survey systems struggle to operate. SQUID – an industry first – records how components of the earth’s magnetic field change in different directions. “It can do this from a height of about 25 metres above ground while attached to a rapidly moving helicopter. The sensitive magnetometers can detect changes in magnetic fields that are 100 billion times weaker than a typical fridge magnet.” Its first test survey in the Northern Cape, South Africa, detected an anomaly that drilling later confirmed as kimberlite.
The technology behind this surveying equipment is mind-boggling to the layman. The press release on De Beers' engineering reads, "At the heart of a SQUID is a device called a Josephson junction: two superconductors made of niobium, separated by a thin insulator through which electrons can pass. An electric current is applied to SQUID, and minute variations in magnetic fields can be detected as changes to the system’s electrical resistance. As niobium only acts as a superconductor temperatures close to -273 degrees centigrade, it is necessary to cool the SQUID by housing it in a cryostat: a container that uses a refrigerant such as liquid helium to maintain it at an ultra-low temperature. The system that we have developed is a complex piece of apparatus made up of six SQUIDs, four magnetometers, an altimeter and GPS equipment, plus a wireless network system to transmit the data it collects back to the helicopter." De Beers estimates that estimate that it may make their surveys 33 - 50 percent more productive in the search for diamonds.
Mellier also highlighted some of the ground-breaking engineering undertaken at De Beers’ mining projects around the world. At the new Gahcho Kué mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories, due to start operations later this year, the water level of a lake had to be lowered to access the diamonds that lay underneath. Resupplying such a remote site isn’t easy. Each winter a 120km ice road is built to allow long haul shipments to the site, inaccessible by road for the rest of the year. Water is pumped up from beneath so the ice becomes more than a metre thick. He also spoke about the expansion of the Jwaneng Mine in Botswana, marine mining, the production of synthetic diamond material and high-tech sorting machines.