Expert-Interview / “It’s dark behind the hoe.” – About the wounds and wonders of nature

Andreas Kirchhof, a native of Roßla in the Harz Mountains, gets to the bottom of things in the truest sense of the word. He is a trained drill and blast hewer. During his geotechnical engineering studies in Freiberg, Saxony, he was already working on the PC 1715, the GDR’s standard computer, without a hard disk and with only 2 disk drives. At the beginning of the 90s, he dealt with the calculation of pressure tunnel systems in sandwich construction using the boundary element method and developed a programme for this purpose. Later, as managing director of an architecture and engineering firm with 120 employees, he was in charge of project development, structural engineering and special civil engineering. We already have 12 years of intensive cooperation for Latrace and Archiveda® as well as for numerous customer projects.

Do you like to get to the bottom of everything? Where does your enthusiasm for depth and geotechnics come from?

Diving into the mountain is like entering another world. Maybe you can really compare it a little with diving. Here, too, you enter a world that otherwise remains closed to you as a “normal” person.

There is a saying in mining that applies worldwide: “It’s dark behind the pickaxe”. The pickaxe is the miner’s tool that he uses to hammer out the rock. He can only see as far as the tip of his pick and never knows what is behind it. Since he cannot see into the rock, he has to be prepared for anything.

It is different from the surface of the earth. There, the house in which man lives and works is standardised and precisely calculated. We know how heavy the stone in the outer wall of the house is. We know how much load we can put on it without it breaking. It’s completely different underground.

There we have to work with the “material” that nature has given us. We have only limited possibilities to change this material according to our wishes and requirements. And that’s not all. We often don’t even know the material we will encounter in the next minutes, hours or days as we excavate the cavity.

That’s why it’s so important to observe closely and use all means and possibilities to get to the bottom of things – to be able to draw conclusions about what might be waiting for us as miners behind the ‘pick’.

What is the connection between geotechnical engineering and IT and how did it come about that you were already jointly responsible for the Goldisthal Pumpstation in the 1990s?

I studied geotechnics at the Freiberg Mining Academy. As chance would have it, I was supposed to deal with the control of rock testing machines in my diploma thesis. In these rock testing machines, rock samples are subjected to compressive and tensile forces. My task was to connect the sensors on the rock samples to measure certain parameters during the compression and tensile test with the control system of the rock testing machine by means of software in order to be able to control the rock testing machine depending on the condition of the sample.
This actually marked my path. At that time there were hardly any engineers who understood both the craft of their field, in my case geotechnics, and at the same time something about programming. In addition, there was hardly any standard software that went beyond writing programmes, spreadsheets and databases. Geotechnical problems were far down the list of priorities for software developers. Even if one wanted to tackle the problem, there was quite a bit of perplexity between geotechnical engineers and software developers because no one understood the other.

It was exactly this gap that I was able to fill. Surprisingly, it has remained the case that I fill gaps, because this connection between IT experts and the users/users is still missing in many industries to this day.

As a result, I was always there when something new needed to be tried out. This was also the case with the Goldisthal pumped storage plant project. Until then, stability analyses for such projects had almost always been carried out analytically. Now, for the first time, we were able to develop and carry out stability calculations using numerical methods with the help of existing computer technology.

We exchanged a lot about energy regulation. A key moment for me was our conversation about the “supply channels”. What do these stand for in a geological context?

To put it in a nutshell, I would like to use a miner’s saying again: “The mountain is alive.”

What is under our feet can be thought of as a living organism. Independently of us, the mountain is also subject to constant change. Only we humans hardly notice these changes, because from a human point of view they happen infinitely slowly. Every child learns at school that, to exaggerate, we live on a glowing sphere. And everyone knows that there is always an exchange between warm and cold when there is contact. Cold becomes warmer, warm becomes colder (laws of thermodynamics). Theoretically, warm things could also get warmer and cold things could also get colder, but this has never been observed in nature.

Sometimes we can experience the forces of nature very impressively with geysers and volcanoes etc.. Unfortunately, these major events are often associated with catastrophes. But the whole thing also happens on a “small scale”, hidden in the mountain in a slowness unimaginable to us. Beautiful examples of this are minerals. But ore mining also benefits from this, as ores accumulate in such passages / “channels”. This very, very small digression already shows what strong connections exist between humans and the earth on many levels.

How would you describe the relationship between time, pressure and development in the context of mineralogy, tunnelling and geology?
“Time means change. In geology, pressure in the right direction is called stress. Not to forget temperature. Pressure and temperature cause changes in the mountain over long periods of time. As already mentioned, the formation of minerals is the result of such processes of change.
But there are also changes that we do not want, for example in tunnel construction. Miners and miners inflict wounds on the mountain. And the mountain strives to close them with the means at its disposal (pressure, temperature). Minerals are a kind of by-product of this wound healing.
A typical example of such a wound closure is a water intrusion.

A look at history shows how fascinated people were by this “phenomenon” and how early attempts were made to explain the origin of minerals. The use of minerals can be traced back at least 6000 years.

Even Aristotle (384 to 322 B.C.) worked on the description of minerals.

In the 9th century, the secret society of the “lute brothers” in Basra (today’s Iraq) dealt with mineralogical questions.
As a former student of the Freiberg Mining Academy, I must of course mention Abraham Gottlob Werner, who designed a system for classifying minerals and published it in 1774.

The book “Geologisches Grundwissen” (Geological Basics) from 1976 contains a very simple and descriptive definition of minerals: “Mineral formation takes place within the framework of various geological processes. The very different physical and chemical processes that occur in the process can be classified into three groups of mineral-forming processes:

  1.  the magnetic succession includes the minerals that were precipitated from the magma in different ways.
  2. the sedimentary sequence includes all minerals that are newly formed or reformed as a result of weathering and precipitation from mostly aqueous solutions
  3. minerals formed by the transformation of previously formed minerals due to increased pressure and temperature conditions belong to the betamorphic sequence.”

This “simple” definition already shows how comprehensive the field of mineralogy is and how important the knowledge is also for mining, the raw materials industry and tunnel construction. After all, we are also talking about mineral raw materials. Sand is also such a raw material; it consists of tiny minerals.

At this point I would like to leave it at that. There is still an infinite amount to say on the subject.
For those who are particularly interested in this topic, I recommend the standard work “Lehrbuch der Mineralogie” (Textbook of Mineralogy) by Prof. Dr. Hans Jürgen Rössler.”

What do you see as the future of digital communication?

For me, digital communication means overcoming borders, e.g. national borders.

What do you particularly appreciate about working with Latrace?

The formulation of clear goals and a reflective approach make working with Latrace easy, interesting and structured for me.

Who are your role models and what are your goals for 2022?

That the things we have prepared and built together with Latrace over the last two years now bear fruit. Currently we are well on schedule for this.”
You ask about my role models. There are a few of them, but the following four personalities particularly impressed me:

1. Alexander von Humboldt
2. Otto von Bismarck
3. Steve Jobs
4. Albert Einstein

At first glance, they are very different. You don’t have to (and I don’t) agree with everything they did or didn’t do – but each of them thought outside the box. All four of them are, in their own way, kind of polymaths and, against all odds, did not let themselves be dissuaded from their ideas, thus shaping the development of humanity. They are “living” people who made mistakes and were sometimes wrong.

What do you love about and in your home country? (Favourite places, favourite food, favourite activity)

For me, home is where I feel most comfortable. My absolute favourite place is the “Al Nawforaa” café in the old city of Damascus, an almost magical place for me.
My favourite food comes from my birthplace: ash cake. It’s not a cake, but it looks a bit like one. The best way to describe it is as a kind of casserole made of potatoes, eggs, milk and white bread.
Favourite activity: Any work that helps something grow and thrive in the wild, you can also say digging in the ground.

Contact: Goldland-Agentur

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