The term is used to differentiate this form of mining from extractive methods that require tunneling into the earth. Open-pit mines are used when deposits of commercially useful minerals or rock are found near the surface; that is, where the overburden (surface material covering the valuable deposit) is relatively thin or the material of interest is structurally unsuitable for tunneling (as would be the case for sand, cinder, and gravel). For minerals that occur deep below the surface—where the overburden is thick or the mineral occurs as veins in hard rock— underground mining methods extract the valued material.
Open-pit mines that produce building materials are commonly referred to as quarries. People in some English-speaking countries are unlikely to make a distinction between an open-pit mine and other types of open-cast mines, such as quarries, borrows, placers, and strip mines.
Open-pit mines are typically enlarged until either the mineral resource is exhausted, or an increasing ratio of overburden to ore makes further mining uneconomic. When this occurs, the exhausted mines are sometimes converted to landfills for disposal of solid wastes. However, some form of water control is usually required to keep the mine pit from becoming a lake.
Most walls of the pit are generally dug on an angle less than vertical, to prevent and minimise damage and danger from rock falls. This depends on how weathered the rocks are, and the type of rock, and also how many structural weaknesses occur within the rocks, such as a fault, shears, joints or foliations.
The walls are stepped. The inclined section of the wall is known as the batter, and the flat part of the step is known as the bench or berm. The steps in the walls help prevent rock falls continuing down the entire face of the wall. In some instances additional ground support is required and rock bolts, cable bolts and shotcrete are used. De-watering bores may be used to relieve water pressure by drilling horizontally into the wall, which is often enough to cause failures in the wall by itself.
Waste rock is piled up at the surface, near the edge of the open cut. This is known as the waste dump. The waste dump is also tiered and stepped, to minimise degradation.
Ore which has been processed is known as tailings, and is generally a slurry. This is pumped to a tailings dam or settling pond, where the water evaporates. Tailings dams can often be toxic due to the presence of unextracted sulfide minerals, some forms of toxic minerals in the gangue, and often cyanide which is used to treat gold ore via the cyanide leach process.
Nickel, generally as laterite, is extracted via open cut down to 0.2%. Copper is extracted at grades as low as 0.15% to 0.2%, generally in massive open cut mines in Chile, where the size of the resources and favorable metallurgy allows economies of scale.
Materials typically extracted from open-pit mines include:
This list includes only those large open-pit mines for which an article exists in Wikipedia.