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Mine the Gap: This Strange Metal Snake Shreds and Slithers through Narrow Underground Coal Seams

On a typical day, the reptilian machine slithers through narrow gaps deep underground like some prehistoric beast forgotten by evolution, spits copious liquid at its prey, which fights back with clouds of black dust, and sinks a pair of spinning helix jaws into its exposed flank, over and over again.

Meet the GE Fairchild F330 continuous miner, one of the strangest devices made by GE. The machine weighs as much as a fighter jet, stretches the length of a bus, and crawls through cracks no taller than a one year old. It can mine narrow coal seams sandwiched between soft sedimentary rock, and extract coal miners used to leave behind. “There are coal seams so low and narrow that it would be impossible to get to them without the F330,” said Craig Setter, general manager at GE Mining.

The F330 is the only system in the world that can safely separate high-quality, low-ash coal from rock at the mine face. Purer coal helps preparation plants above ground reduce dust and coal refuse.

The machine cuts the coal with a pair of unique helix shearers, each powered by a 155 horsepower electric motor. The jaws move the lumps onto a conveyor belt running along its flat back. It takes about 12 minutes to mine a 20-foot gap.

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The highly targeted movement of the shearers allows the machine to extract coal largely uncontaminated by other types of rock. The F330 also douses the coal seam with water to create a safer environment for miners, minimize coal dust, and dilute methane.

When a coal seam has been fully extracted, the F330 conducts a final pass through the mine, drills through the supporting pillars to extract the remaining coal, and allows the roof to collapse as it leaves.

Watch a video of the machine at work:

The F330 is not the only unusual machine made by GE Mining. The business unit also designed a “mine cruiser” that can whisk up to 14 miners through underground mazes. It has a 4.3-liter, 4-cylinder diesel engine sporting a special “water jacket” to prevent sparks and excess heat. Says GE Mining’s Sean Lynch: “All the components are designed to go into a hazardous zone.”

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