Mineral exploration is the process of finding ore (commercially viable concentrations of minerals) to mine. Mineral exploration is a much more intensive, organized and professional form of mineral prospecting and, though it frequently uses the services of prospecting, the process of mineral exploration on the whole is much more involved.
Stages of mineral exploration
Mineral exploration methods vary at different stages of the process depending on size of the area being explored, as well as the density and type of information sought. Aside from extraplanetary exploration, at the largest scale is a geological mineral Province (such as the Eastern Goldfields Province of Western Australia), which may be sub-divided into Regions. At the smaller scale are mineral Prospects, which may contain several mineral Deposits.
Province scale - area selection
Area selection is a crucial step in professional mineral exploration. Selection of the best, most prospective, area in a mineral field, geological region or terrain will assist in making it not only possible to find ore deposits, but to find them easily, cheaply and quickly.
Area selection is based on applying the theories behind ore genesis, the knowledge of known ore occurrences and the method of their formation, to known geological regions via the study of geological maps, to determine potential areas where the particular class of ore deposit being sought may exist. Oftentimes new styles of deposits may be found which reveal opportunities to find look-alike deposit styles in rocks and terrains previously thought barren, which may result in a process of pegging of leases in similar geological settings based on this new model or methodology. This behaviour is particularly well exemplified by exploration for Olympic Dam style deposits, particularly in South Australia and worldwide based on models of IOCG formation, which results in all coincident gravity and magnetic anomalies in appropriate settings being pegged for exploration.
This process applies the disciplines of basin modeling, structural geology, geochronology, petrology and a host of geophysical and geochemical disciplines to make predictions and draw parallels between the known ore deposits and their physical form and the unknown potential of finding a 'lookalike' within the area selected.
Area selection is also influenced by the commodity being sought; exploring for gold occurs in a different manner and within different rocks and areas to exploration for oil or natural gas or iron ore. Areas which are prospective for gold may not be prospective for other metals and commodities.
Similarly, companies of different sizes (in terms of market capitalisation and financial strength) may look for different sized deposits, or deposits of a minimum size, depending on their will and ability to finance construction. Often the major mining houses will not look for deposits of less than a certain size class because small deposits will not meet their criteria for an internal rate of return. This practise may result in larger mining companies relinquishing control of smaller ore bodies they find, or may preclude them from entering a terrane which is characterised by deposits of a particular type or style. For example, a mining major would not look for a relatively small, high-cost Kambalda style nickel deposit and would direct their efforts toward discovering a Mt Keith style deposit.
Often a company or consortium wishing to enter mineral exploration may conduct market research to determine, if a resource in a particular commodity is found, whether or not the resource will be worth mining based on projected commodity prices and demand growth. This process may also inform upon the Area Selection process as noted above, where areas with small-sized deposit styles will be ruled out based on likely economic returns should a deposit be found. This occurs because often smaller deposits are more expensive to run, and hence, carry greater risks of closure if commodity prices fall significantly.
Area selection may also be influenced by previous finds, a practice affectionately named subsurface control or nearology, and may also be determined in part by financial and taxation incentives and tariff systems of individual nations. The role of infrastructure may also be crucial in area selection, because the ore must be brought to market and infrastructure costs may render isolated ore uneconomic.
The ultimate result of an area selection process is the pegging or notification of exploration licenses, known as tenements.
Target generation - Regional Scale
The target generation phase involves investigations of the geology via mapping, geophysics and conducting geochemical or intensive geophysical testing of the surface and subsurface geology. In some cases, for instance in areas covered by soil, alluvium and platform cover, drilling may be performed directly as a mechanism for generating targets.
Geophysical instruments play a large role in gathering geological data which is used in mineral exploration. Instruments are used in geophysical surveys to check for variations in gravity, magnetism, electromagnetism (resistivity of rocks) and a number of different other variables in a certain area. The most effective and widespread method of gathering geophysical data is via flying airborne geophysics.
Geiger counters and scintillometers are used to determine the amount of radioactivity. This is particularly applicable to searching for uranium ore deposits but can also be of use in detecting radiometric anomalies associated with metasomatism.
Airborne magnetometers are used to search for magnetic anomalies in the Earth's magnetic field. The anomalies are an indication of concentrations of magnetic minerals such as magnetite, pyrrhotite and ilmenite in the Earth's crust. It is often the case that such magnetic anomalies are caused by mineralization events and associated metals.
Ground-based geophysical prospecting in the target selection stage is more limited, due to the time and cost. The most widespread use of ground-based geophysics is electromagnetic geophysics which detects conductive minerals such as sulfide minerals within more resistive host rocks.
Aerial photography is an important tool in assessing mineral exploration tenements, as it gives the explorer orientation information - location of tracks, roads, fences, habitation, as well as ability to at least qualitatively map outcrops and regolith systematics and vegetation cover across a region. Aerial photography was first used post World War II and was heavily adopted in the 1960s onwards.
Since the advent of cheap and declassified Landsat images in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mineral exploration has begun to use satellite imagery to map not only the visual light spectrum over mineral exploration tenements, but spectra which are beyond the visible.
Satellite based spectroscopes allow the modern mineral explorationist, in regions devoid of cover and vegetation, to map minerals and alteration directly. Improvements in the resolution of modern commercially based satellites has also improved the utility of satellite imagery; for instance GeoEye satellite images can be generated with a 40 cm pixel size.
The primary role of geochemistry, here used to describe assaying or geological media, in mineral exploration is to find an area anomalous in the commodity sought, or in elements known to be associated with the type of mineralisation sought.
Regional geochemical exploration has traditionally involved use of stream sediments to target potentially mineralised catchments. Regional surveys may use low sampling densities such as one sample per 100 square kilometres. Follow-up geochemical surveys commonly use soils as the sampling media, possibly via the collection of a grid of samples over the tenement or areas which are amenable to soil geochemistry. Areas which are covered by transported soils, alluvium, colluvium or are disturbed too much by human activity (roads, rail, farmland), may need to be drilled to a shallow depth in order to sample undisturbed or unpolluted bedrock.
Once the geochemical analyses are returned, the data is investigated for anomalies (single or multiple elements) that may be related to the presence of mineralisation. The geochemical anomaly is often field checked against the outcropping geology and, in modern geochemistry, normalised against the regolith type and landform, to reduce the effects of weathering, transported materials and landforms.
Geochemical anomalies may be spurious or related to low-grade or sub-grade mineralisation. In order to determine if this is the case, geochemical anomalies must be drilled in order to test them for the existence of economic concentrations of mineralisation, or even to determine why they exist in the place they exist.
The presence of some chemical elements may indicate the presence of a certain mineral. Chemical analysis of rocks and plants may indicate the presence of an underground deposit. For instance elements like arsenic and antimony are associated with gold deposits and hence, are example pathfinder elements. Tree buds can be sampled for pathfinder elements in order to help locate deposits.
Resource evaluation is undertaken to quantify the grade and tonnage of a mineral occurrence. This is achieved primarily by drilling to sample the prospective horizon, lode or strata where the minerals of interest occur.
The ultimate aim is to generate a density of drilling sufficient to satisfy the economic and statutory standards of an ore resource. Depending on the financial situation and size of the deposit and the structure of the company, the level of detail required to generate this resource and stage at which extraction can commence varies; for small partnerships and private non-corporate enterprises a very low level of detail is required whereas for corporations which require debt equity (loans) to build capital intensive extraction infrastructure, the rigor necessary in resource estimation is far greater. For large cash rich companies working on small ore bodies, they may work only to a level necessary to satisfy their internal risk assessments before extraction commences.
Resource estimation may require pattern drilling on a set grid, and in the case of sulfide minerals, will usually require some form of geophysics such as down-hole probing of drillholes, to geophysically delineate ore body continuity within the ground.
The aim of resource evaluation is to expand the known size of the deposit and mineralisation. A scoping study is often carried out on the ore deposit during this stage to determine if there may be enough ore at a sufficient grade to warrant extraction; if there is not further resource evaluation drilling may be necessary. In other cases, several smaller individually uneconomic deposits may be socialised into a 'mining camp' and extracted in tandem. Further exploration and testing of anomalies may be required to find or define these other satellite deposits.
Reserve definition is undertaken to convert a mineral resource into an ore reserve, which is an economic asset. The process is similar to resource evaluation, except more intensive and technical, aimed at statistically quantifying the grade continuity and mass of ore.
Reserve definition also takes into account the milling and extractability characteristics of the ore, and generates bulk samples for metallurgical testwork, involving crushability, floatability and other ore recovery parameters.
Reserve definition includes geotechnical assessment and engineering studies of the rocks within and surrounding the deposit to determine the potential instabilities of proposed open pit or underground mining methods. This process may involve drilling diamond core samples to derive structural information on weaknesses within the rock mass such as faults, foliations, joints and shearing.
At the end of this process, a feasibility study is published, and the ore deposit may be either deemed uneconomic or economic.
The ultimate goal of mineral exploration is the extraction, beneficiation and profitable and beneficial sale of mineral commodities.
Mineral exploration and development does not cease upon a decision to mine. Exploration of a brownfields nature is conducted to find near-mine repetitions, extensions and continuity of the existing ore body. In-mine exploration and grade control drilling is a major concern of operating mines and can be an effective tool in adding value to existing mineral operations.
Often the lessons learned from studying an exposed ore body, both empirically and scientifically, are invaluable to the exploration geologist and geophysicist, for they get to see the proof of their concepts and the errors of the assumptions they used in the search for the ore body. It is always the case that the exact nature of the ore body does not exactly match the models used to find it.
Greenfields vs brownfields
Exploration is termed either Greenfields or Brownfields depending on the extent to which previous exploration has been conducted on the tenements in question. Greenfields alludes to unspoilt grass, and brownfields to that which has been trodden on repeatedly. While loosely defined, the general meaning of brownfields exploration is that which is conducted within geological terrain within close proximity to known ore deposits. Greenfields are the remainder.
Greenfields exploration is highly conceptual, relying on the predictive power of ore genesis models to search for mineralisation in unexplored virgin ground. This may be territory which has been drilled for other commodities, but with a new exploration concept is considered prospective for commodities not sought there before.
The success rate of exploration and the return on investment is low because exploration is an inherently risky business. Figures for success rates depend on the commodity in question but a good strike rate can be measured in the oil industry; the supergiant Prudhoe Bay oilfield was found on the 12th well drilled into the area. Within gold deposits a discovery hole may be one in one thousand and within some base metals commodities strike rates range from one in fifty to one in one hundred.
Greenfields exploration has a lower strike rate, because the geology is poorly understood at the conception of an exploration program but the rewards are greater because it is easier to find the biggest deposit in an area earlier, and it is only with more effort that the smaller satellite deposits are found. Brownfields exploration is less risky, as the geology is better understood and exploration methodology is well known, but since most large deposits are already found the rewards are incrementally less.
- Mineral resource classification
- Mineral industry
- Ore genesis
- Exploration logging
- Drilling rig
- Prospectivity Mapping
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