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Regional to local structural controls on hydrothermal mineralisation – Practical tools for finding, delineating and mining ore deposits

Michael A Etheridge (SRK Consulting) Level 2, 118 Alfred St, Milson’s Point, NSW 2061, Australia, metheridge@srk.com All hydrothermal ore deposits require the transport of large quantities of relatively insoluble metals in solution from some source region to the site of deposition. This metal transport takes place principally by percolation of the fluid through the rock, and the low solubility of the metals means that very large fluid fluxes are required. Further, these large fluid fluxes must be channeled at the point of deposition through relatively small (deposit scale) and normally impermeable rock volumes. To illustrate the magnitude of the problem, the transport of 1 million ounces of gold to a deposit requires a minimum volume of about 1012 litres or 1 km3 of hydrothermal fluid to have passed through the deposit! The formation of an ore deposit therefore presents, first and foremost, a severe hydrodynamic problem, leaving aside the geochemical issues associated with efficient extraction of the metal from the fluid. A simple analysis of this hydrodynamic problem provides the foundation for the principles of structural control, and, more importantly, for a set of simple, practical structural geological tools for discovering, delineating and efficiently exploiting mineral deposits. Darcy’s Law, active faults and structural control Darcy’s Law describes the fundamental physics of the percolation of fluid through a porous and permeable medium. Application of Darcy’s Law to the problem of the percolation of a hydrothermal, largely aqueous fluid through a rock mass leads to the following important conclusions. 1. Under the range of likely fluid pressure gradients within the earth, only abnormally permeable rocks will permit the required fluid fluxes. The simplest way to create abnormally high permeability in rocks is to fracture them. This leads to the unsurprising conclusion that fractured rocks (ie, fault zones) are the most likely conduits for the transport of large fluid volumes to and through deposit-sized rock volumes. It therefore follows that hydrothermal mineral deposits must generally form in fault / fracture zones, and, hey presto, a simple explanation for the universal observation of some form of structural control! 2. There is a problem with this simple conclusion, however. The reactive hydrothermal fluid will be passing down pressure and generally down temperature as it passes through the fault zone. As it does so, it will be precipitating a wide range of dissolved species, particularly quartz, thereby filling the fractures and reducing the permeability on which it relies for efficient transport. In other words there is a built-in negative feedback in the system. This simple conclusion suggests that the notion of “structural preparation”, whereby the fault zone simply sits around waiting for the mineralizing fluid to come by, is flawed. 3. To make an ore deposit the permeability of the fractured zone must be maintained throughout the flux of very large volumes of highly reactive fluid. The simplest and probably the only practical way to achieve this is to repeatedly re-fracture the rock by moving on the fault zone during fluid passage. This leads to the fundamental conclusion that structural control of ore deposits only takes place on faults that were active at the time that the hydrothermal system was active. 4. Permeability is unlikely to be the same everywhere in an active fault zone. Observation of fault zones and simple considerations of the creation of fracture permeability lead to the next simple conclusion that permeability will be highest in those parts of the fault zone where damage is greatest. This will generally occur where the fault bends, branches or steps away from its average orientation, and deformation of the rock around the fault is required to accommodate the irregularity. The most

This will also enable prediction of the likely shape and plunge of the damaged / dilational zone in the fault. the practical application of structural geology to mineral exploration and mining involves the following simple steps. branches) in fault zones. It can aid fluid mixing by sucking fluid both from the surrounding wall rock and along the fault zone. • Carefully map (in 3-dimensions) those fault zones that were active during mineralisation. In general. which will suck fluid towards the damaged zone. Structural control at the regional to project scale Most ore deposits have length scales of 10’s to 100’s of metres. An increase in local porosity causes a transient local reduction in pore fluid pressure. However. thereby further enhancing fluid flow in the zone. delineation of and mining of ore deposits. open fractures).000 or smaller scales). it is important to realize that any form of local damage on a fault zone will enhance permeability and fluid flow in the damaged region. 1:100. simply because permeability enhancement is likely to be highest there. bends. Focus on those fault zones that were active during mineralisation. jogs and branches. the practical application of this principal must take account of the other important conclusion that ore deposits generally only form during periods of fault activity. bumps. 5. but by no means always. tenement-scale areas of higher potential can be identified through mapping of the threedimensional active fault network and analysis of the overall kinematic framework of the network. This is a form of positive feedback that may be critical to generating the particularly unusual conditions required to form an ore grade deposit. In conclusion. there is another important consequence of this local fluid pressure drop.Structural controls on hydrothermal mineralisation conceptually obvious form of fault irregularity is the “dilational” bend or jog. . and the pressure drop alone will change the solubility of species in the fluid. the task is to identify the main elements of the fault network that were present and preferably active during the mineralizing event(s). even in a “compressional” bend or jog. We will now examine examples of the application of these principals to the efficient and effective exploration for. However. the most favourable irregularities are at the classical dilational bends. Both of these processes may lead directly to precipitation of metal in the zone of maximum fluid flux. jogs. • Determine the timing of mineralisation in the event history and match it to the history of movement on the fault zones in the region. Fluid flow is therefore maximized and deposits localized on irregularities ( ie. These zones of local damage and permeability enhancement in fault zones have another important influence on fluid flow and deposit localisation. The fact that these irregularities commonly extend away from the main fault strand also provides an explanation for the widely observed phenomenon that deposits occur on second or third-order structures rather than on the main fault. dip or continuity of the faults. • Determine the direction and sense of movement on the faults. and thereby dramatically enhancing local permeability. This requires that the timing of mineralisation must be matched with the history of movement on the fault zone. creating space (ie. However. Although the direct identification of the deposit-scale fault irregularities is unlikely. This is a specific case of Sibson’s ‘seismic pumping’ mechanism. The damaged zone undergoes (fracture) porosity enhancement as well as permeability enhancement during fault movement. It is therefore difficult to impossible to identify deposit-scale targets at regional scales (eg. At these scales. so that you can predict whether the mapped irregularities are likely to have generated damage and/or dilation. The principal outcome of this simple consideration of the hydrodynamics of fluid flow is a clear explanation for the common observation that ore deposits are localized on irregularities in fault zones. where the walls of the fault zone move apart. Note that reactivation of pre-mineral faults may be important. paying particular attention to even the slightest change in strike.

this understanding is becoming increasingly reliant on the availability and geological interpretation of highresolution airborne geophysical surveys. focussing damage and dilation there. Structural control. shear-hosted and breccia styles. and especially on understanding of the tenement to deposit scale structural controls. sediment-hosted base metal deposits in Africa and northern Australia. Appropriately processed and imaged magnetic data provide geologists. it is also essential to proper assessment of more advanced exploration opportunities. older faults may have been cut and offset by younger pre-mineral to syn-mineral faults. four-dimensional understanding of the geological and metallogenic evolution of the mineral belt or province. the Yilgarn Craton. We will present three examples of the application of structural control at the regional scale. It is becoming increasingly common to fly such survey at heights as low as 20-30m and at line spacings of 50m or less. especially to identify those with upside potential. However. but continuity of grade is much harder to demonstrate. grade is strongly correlated with the amount of structurally induced dilation (i. and is even more important to the economics of most projects. exploration will increasingly be for deposits covered by younger sediments / volcanics or geologically blind in the bedrock. In most styles of mineralisation. 2. and especially structural geologists. continuity and grade to make a mine. One of the keys to using geology to help to target for concealed deposits is four-dimensional geological interpretation of high-resolution airborne magnetic surveys. In our experience. grade is proportional to vein density or amount of stockworking / brecciation). as outcropping to subcropping deposits become rarer. It relies on a robust. Size can be relatively readily assessed by step-out drilling. This is because their inherited irregularities are generally unsuited to the reactivation kinematics. drill targeting and resource estimation For the past 15-20 years. However. Western Australia. the distribution and continuity of grade is fundamentally controlled by structure. Papua New Guinea). with an unparalleled opportunity to build robust geological models of the upper parts of the earth. pre-mineral faults that were reactivated during mineralisation are generally an important part of the regional to local structural controls.. It is particularly important to identify both pre-mineral faults that may have been reactivated and those faults initiated during the mineralizing event. To discover these deposits will require an increased emphasis on predictive geology.g. 3.e. Also. The greatest risk in exploration is that an initial drill-intersection will not lead to a mineralised body of sufficient size. In most epithermal. Stratiform. Combined with an understanding of the timing and geometry of mineralisation from outcropping areas or mines in the district. it should be possible to significantly reduce the risk of one of the riskier parts of the exploration process – targeting those first few drill holes. Porphyry copper and epithermal gold in modern convergent arc systems (e. It is critical to the grass-roots or greenfields component of exploration now eschewed by much of the industry.. it is after the initial discovery that an understanding of structural controls really comes into its own. Gold in Late Archaean granite-greenstone terranes. with secondary dependence on geophysics. porphyry. thus providing the irregularities to focus dilation. Especially in less well-exposed regions. However. and geology a distant last. This is the structural component of the “project generation” phase. . drill targeting has been overwhelmingly reliant on surface geochemistry. esp. 1.Structural controls on hydrothermal mineralisation Intersections between and large-scale irregularities on fault zones that were active commonly represent priority areas for follow-up.

Ridgeway gold deposit. . Granny Smith is one of the lowest cost gold producers in Australia. and for the mine management to be committed to near-mine exploration – not common occurrences in our experience. Capitalizing on the information available in the mine requires a strong commitment to a consistent and predictive mine mapping program. Placer and Delta formed the Granny Smith Joint Venture in order to build a strategic tenement / resource holding within about 40km (potentially economic ore trucking distance) of the mine. The effective integration of structural geology with geostatistics can significantly reduce risk in pre-feasibility and feasibility stages of projects. Australia. Delta Gold. The mine can and should provide key information on timing of mineralisation and fault movement. 1. The original reserve of about one million ounces at Granny Smith has since grown to over 8 million ounces of production + resources from four deposits. an even more important application of structural control information is to resource estimation. Examples will be presented of the detailed analysis of structural controls at the following mines. A new discovery in Asia which must remain anonymous. syn-mineral fault kinematics and the geometry of mineralised bodies. as well as to extensive pre-mine drill data provides an unparalleled opportunity to determine the detailed structural controls on the distribution of metal at the 1 to 10 metre scale. Ghana. This can then be projected ahead of mining into the estimated reserve to improve and update it. mine planning and production scheduling can realize real savings and deliver more metal to the mill. However. and the cost per ounce of discovery has been about US$5 per ounce of gold.Structural controls on hydrothermal mineralisation Application of knowledge of structural controls early in the drill program can lead to significant efficiencies in drilling. The Kalgoorlie Superpit gold mine. After exploring independently in the region for some time. 3. grade control and mine planning It is in the mine where a clear understanding of structural control can pay off in the most direct way. it does require a commitment from the explorers to visit and become familiar with the mine. Placer acquired CSR Ltd’s interest (60%) in the Granny Smith mine in 1988 for what appeared to be well above market price. 2. Integration of the mine mapping with the detailed data on metal distribution from blast-hole or face assays can be used to build a very robust model of the controls on metal distribution after a short period of mining. 2. Feedback of this understanding into grade control. An excellent example of where this knowledge has been applied productively is in the Granny Smith Joint Venture between Placer Dome and Delta Gold in the Archaean Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia. Structural control. An understanding of the mine-scale structural controls can also lead to a significant improvement in the probability of discovery in near-mine and district exploration. Access to mine openings. emerged with the other 40%. The value of determining the structural controls on and timing of mineralisation for discovery and improved resource estimation will be illustrated by the following examples. Western Australia. As a result. Australia. However. and to an earlier decision as to the likelihood of adequate grade continuity. 1. who made the original discovery. Ernest Henry copper-gold deposit. Ashanti gold mine.

. The positive feedbacks in such systems may also encourage periodic large departures from equilibrium in the metal-bearing fluid. fertile pluton. we ascribe this rarity to the following. fluid / rock interaction and phase separation) to both bring and deposit the metals. commonly with above background levels of base and precious metals of economic interest. defining and exploiting ore deposits. From a structural control viewpoint. Properly applied structural geology can then contribute substantially at all stages of the exploration. are relatively rare. Only those parts of fault zones that were substantially and repeatedly dilating are likely to have the extremely high fluid fluxes and the pressure fluctuations (that encourage fluid mixing. Most fault / shear zones show obvious signs of substantial fluid-rock interaction and large fluid/rock ratios. 2. However. with the establishment of precise timing relations among structural and hydrothermal events / processes. planning and mining process. It also requires attention to the detail of mapping the three-dimensional shapes and kinematics of the potentially fertile fault / shear zones at the scale of the deposit. This scenario defines a clear approach to the application of structural geology to discovering.Structural controls on hydrothermal mineralisation Summary and Conclusions It is increasingly recognized that large-scale fluid migration is a relatively common phenomenon in the crust. It requires a four-dimensional approach to the geology. 1. The highly dilatant parts of faults need to be active at just the right time during a fertile hydrothermal event. and that cut into the partly frozen pluton at the optimum time and place for efficient and rapid extraction of the maximum amount of metal-saturated fluid. and especially large ones. An example of this would be structures that are activated in the roof zone of a fractionating. ore deposits.