Safety standards for the mining industry have never been more stringent. Should a mine experience an incident which results in an injury or even a fatality, the subsequent legal consequences and financial penalties can be severe.

A potential risk in open-pit mines concerns the ultra-large tyres on off-the-road (OTR) vehicles. Over the past couple of decades, there have been recorded instances of these tyres catching fire and, in some cases, actually exploding – with potentially serious consequences.


“When a tyre is under load on the road, it is continuously flexing. Over time, flexing and the resulting heat lead to the accumulation of tiny rubber (carbon) particles and other flammable compounds inside the casing. When a tyre is inflated with compressed air, oxygen is added to this mix. Now, if heat is added by a bad repair or some kind of mechanical failure, the stage is set for a potentially lethal explosion,” explains Tom Sowry, Marketing Director of NitraLife.

However, nitrogen tyre inflation has proven to be very effective at preventing tyre fires and explosions, he says. Certain mines use nitrogen tyre inflation to protect tyres against lightning strikes. The power of lightning is such that it will earth through the tyre to ground, and has in the past been the cause of tyre fires. “There have instances of mines parking their vehicles with air-inflated tyres in safe areas during lightning storms – an expensive exercise when one considers the cost of downtime.”

Cost is another reason why the mining sector has increasingly adopted nitrogen tyre inflation. Nitrogen permeates through tyre walls approximately four times more slowly than oxygen, and 117 times more slowly than water vapour. Under the sometimes very harsh conditions under which OTR tyres operate, nitrogen inflation ensures that tyre pressures remain optimal for longer.

“Tyres at the correct pressure flex less, and are less likely to overheat, a factor that is a major cause of premature tyre failures. Based on many years’ experience and customer feedback, we conservatively estimate that nitrogen tyre inflation extends OTR tyre life by at least 10%,” Sowry says.

“Oxygen and water vapour degrade rubber, gradually weakening tyre casings. By removing those elements, tyres last longer, particularly if they are being used in harsh climatic regions where heat and moisture are prevalent.” he continues.

Oxygen and water vapour also rust the steel rims of OTR vehicles, as tyre beads do not seat well on rust-pitted rims. This leads to consistent pressure loss and the risk of tyres running under-inflated. In addition, for most of their operational time, haul trucks drive on the steep gradients of unsurfaced pit ramps, which places tyres under even greater stress. In these testing conditions, correct tyre inflation is essential.

In South Africa, most mining companies recognise the value of nitrogen tyre inflation. “At present, almost all large mining houses in this country have nitrogen inflation as a technical standard,” Sowry concludes.


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