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Prospecting and exploration for minerals

in search for orebodies
For a geologist in the mining business, exploiting an existing orebody is the easy part of the job. The hardest part is to find new ore deposits and to define their extent and metal content (grade). But how do you find these accumulations of metallic minerals in the earth's crust? The mining company has to ensure that the deposit is economically viable and needs a guarantee of ore production over a sufficiently long period of time, before the heavy investments required to set up a mining operation will be considered. Even after production starts, it is necessary to locate and delineate any extensions to the mineralization, and to look for new prospects that may replace the reserves being mined. Investigating extensions, and searching for new deposits, are vital activities for the mining company.

Prospecting involves searching a district for mineral deposits with the view to mine it at a profit. In other words to transform the mineral deposit into an orebody. Exploration, while it sounds similar to prospecting, is the term used for systematic examination of a deposit. After an interesting area is chosen, an application for exploration permit is made. Approval by officials is needed before exploration activities can commence. It is not easy to define the point where prospecting turns into exploration. A geologist prospecting a district is looking for surface exposure of minerals, by observing irregularities in colour, shape or rock composition. His experience tells him where to look, to have the greatest chances of success. Sometimes he will stumble across ancient, shallow
Gold panning in the wind.

Table 1: Exploration activity sequence in general

Area selection and review of existing data Application for permit Air borne survey Geochemical survey


Geopysical survey on surface Trenching Drilling Environmental impact study Application for mining permit Feasibility study


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mine workings, which might have been what led him to prospect that particular area in the first place. Gravity methods such as panning is used for gold prospecting in alluvial river beds. In areas with limited access to water wind panning can be done towards the wind direction.

exploration activities
The first step is to conduct a review of historical and existing data, See table 1, Especially from closed down mines and terminated exploration there often exist core samples and other relevant information which can be accessed. This can result in great savings in time and money required for new activities. One of the cheapest phases of property exploration is preparation of a comprehensive, detailed and accurate geological map which often starts with basic instruments such as tape and compass. The accuracy can be enhanced by using air photos to help locate outcrops, major fault zones and basic topographic control. Each step adds some more costs, but it also improves the accuracy and detail of the resulting map. Soil-covered ground is inaccessible to the prospector, whose first check would be to look for an outcrop of the mineralization. Where the ground cover comprises a shallow layer of alluvial material, trenches can be dug across the mineralized area to expose the bedrock. See picture to the right. A prospector will identify the discovery, measure both width and length, and estimate the mineralized area. Samples from the trenches are sent to the laboratory for analysis. Even when minerals can be found on the surface, determining any extension in depth is a matter of qualified guesswork. If the prospector's findings, and his theorizing about the probable existence of an orebody are solid, the next step would be to explore the surrounding ground. Exploration is a term embracing geophysics, geochemistry, and finally the more costly activities viz drilling into the ground for obtaining samples from any depth. Table 1 shows the sequence in time of various exploration methods. Efficient mineral exploration depends on increasingly sophisticated map
exploration drilling

Are there minerals in the trench? International Gold Exploration AB, IGE conducts exploration works in Burundi.

production for planning purpose and access routes, for geological, geophysical, geochemical and structural mapping. Today detailed aerial topographic maps are available in many parts of the world giving the explorer basic information to determine where to find areas with good mineral potential.

geophysical exploration
After their introduction in the 1950s airborne geophysical surveys became commonly used as a first step in geophysical exploration. Large areas can be effectively covered in a short period of time. The most

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Airborne and surface geophysical survey map indicates where drill holes will be located, ref Lappland Goldminers, photo Patrick Trdgrdh.

common aero-geophysical maps are magnetometer maps which record the variations in the earths magnetic field with high degree of accuracy. The optimal selection of altitude and spacing as well as choice of instrumentation is important. From surface, different geophysical methods are used to explore subsurface formations, based on the physical properties of rock and metal bearing minerals such as magnetism, gravity, electrical conductivity, radioactivity, and sound velocity. Two or more methods are often combined in one survey, to acquire more reliable data. Results from the surveys are compiled, and matched with geological information from surface and chips or core samples from any previous core drilling, to decide if it is worth proceeding with further exploration. If yes, the information form basis for future drilling campaigns. As geophysical survey is commonly conducted from the air to begin with, information from the surface surveys are compared and added to the airborne mapping.

Magnetic surveys measure variations in the earth's magnetic field caused by magnetic properties of subsurface rock formations. In prospecting for metallic minerals, these techniques are particularly useful for locating magnetite, pyrrhotite and ilmenite. EM (Electromagnetic) surveys are based on variations of electric conductivity in the rock mass. A transmitter is used to create a primary alternating electromagnetic field. Induced currents produce a secondary field in the rock mass. The resultant field can be traced and measured, thus revealing the conductivity of the underground masses. Electromagnetic surveys are mainly used to map geological structures, and to discover mineral deposits such as sulphides containing copper or lead, magnetite, pyrite, graphite, and certain manganese minerals. Electric surveys measure either the natural flow of electricity in the ground, or galvanic currents led into the ground and accurately controlled. Electrical surveys are used to locate mineral deposits at shallow depth and map geological structures to determine the

depth of overburden to bedrock, or to locate the groundwater table. IP (Induced polarization) surveys are conducted along grid lines with readings taken at receiving electrodes planted in the earth and moved from station to station. The electrodes, connected to a receiver, measure the chargeability (the capacity for various minerals to build up a charge of electricity) and resistivity effects on current forced into the ground and bedrock. The minerals detected by IP surveys are generally the same as for EM methods. Gravimetric surveys measure small variations in the gravitational field caused by the pull of underlying rock masses. The variation in gravity may be caused by faults, anticlines, and salt domes that are often associated with oil-bearing formations. Gravimetric surveys are also used to detect high-density minerals, like iron ore, pyrites and lead-zinc mineralizations. In regions where rock formations contain radioactive minerals, the intensity of radiation will be considerably higher than the normal background level. Measuring radiation
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levels helps locate deposits containing uranium, thorium and other minerals associated with radioactive substances. Seismic survey is based on variations of sound velocity experienced in different geological strata. The time is measured for sound to travel from a source on surface, through the underlying layers, and up again to one or more detectors placed at some distance on surface. The source of sound might be the blow of a sledgehammer, a heavy fallen weight, a mechanical vibrator or an explosive charge. Seismic surveys determine the quality of bedrock and can locate the contact surface of geological layers, or of a compact mineral deposit in the ground. Seismic surveys are also used to locate oil-bearing strata. All results from the survey are superimposed on maps which will show dozens or often hundreds of anomalous patterns which are useful when optimum location of drill holes are decided. See picture to the left

geochemical surveying
Geochemical surveying is another exploration technology featuring several specialities, the main one being to detect the presence of metals in the topsoil. By taking a large number of samples over an extended area and analyzing the contents of each metal, regions of interest are identified. The area is then selected for more detailed studies. The geochemist will take stream samples on a regional basis covering many square kilometers of the supposed favourable terrain. That survey will be followed by more detailed sampling of variations in chemical composition of drainages and by soil sample grids in anomalous areas. The area chosen might be relatively acidic or the metal ions in the ground water being neutralized by a bed of limestone. Rapid and accurate analytical methods such as atomic emission spectroscopy (ICP) have made it possible to determine many elements, commonly 30, in each sample which generates a vast amount of data. Exploration commonly includes programs of soil sampling. This entails digging holes at certain intervals to collect soil samples from identified horizons. The samples are placed in
exploration drilling
Airborne geophysical surveys.

bags, dried, screened to collect the finer material and analyzed for pathfinder elements. A soil sampling survey might result in thousands of samples which need computer programs for efficient data handling. Geochemical surveys can also be conducted on rock chips from outcrops or rocky debris. Biochemical surveys might use leaves or bark in forested regions or plants and sage brush in arid environment.

exploratory drilling
The next and most expensive part of the exploration sequence is drilling. For a driller, all other exploration methods are like beating about the bush. Drilling penetrates deep into the ground, and brings up samples of whatever it finds on its way. If there is any mineralization at given points far beneath the surface, drilling can give a straightforward answer, and can quantify its presence at that particular point. The expenditure for drilling comprises about half of the total exploration costs mentioned above.

There are two main methods of exploratory drilling. Core drilling, yields a solid cylinder shaped sample of the ground at an exact depth. Percussion drilling yields a crushed sample, comprising cuttings from a fairly well-determined depth in the hole. Beyond that, the drillhole itself can provide a complementary amount of information, particularly by logging using devices to detect physical anomalies, similar to the geophysical surveys mentioned above. Core drilling is also used to define the size and the exact boundaries of mineralization. This is important for determining ore grades being handled, and vital for calculating the mineral reserves that will keep the mine running in the future. A strategically placed underground core drilling may also intersect new ore bodies in the neighbourhood. The core is an intact sample of the underground geology, which can be examined thoroughly by the geologist to determine the exact nature of the rock and any mineralization. Samples of special interest are sent to a laboratory for

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From prospecting to mining

To quantify the mineralization, and to define the shape, size and metal content of the deposit, the step by step procedure in exploration activities is required. At every step of the procedure, the geologists examine the information at hand, to recommend continuing the exploration efforts. The objective is to be fairly certain that the deposit is economically viable by providing a detailed knowledge of the geology for a clear financial picture. Ore is an economic concept, defined as a concentration of minerals, which can be economically exploited and turned into a saleable product. Before a mineral deposit can be labelled as an orebody, full knowledge is required about the mineralization, proposed mining technology and processing methods. The environmental impacts of mining and mineral processing are carefully studied and need approval. In case no serious negative impacts are found, the owners apply for permission to conduct mining operations in the area. A prerequisite for this application is owner's confidence of sustained profitability over a long period of time. At this stage a comprehensive feasibility study is undertaken covering capital requirements, returns on investment, payback period and other essentials, in order for the board of directors of the company to make the final decision on developing the prospect into a mine. The costs for a feasibility study is quite substantial and could reach an amount of approximately of 5% of the required capital costs for the entire mining project. Based on all geological documentation and the study the owners get a good idea of how to mine the deposit; whether it will be surface open pit mining or underground operations with or without backfilling of the excavated stopes. In the majority of cases mining will start with open pit excavation gradually turning into underground mining once the waste to ore ratio becomes too excessive at deeper horizons. Fig 1 shows initial mining plans at the Suurikuusikko gold mining project in northern Finland.

Fig 1. Two computer generated views of Agnico Eagle's Suurikuusiko gold mining project showing both surface and underground mining.

analysis to reveal any metal contents. Cores from exploration drilling are stored in special boxes and kept in archives for a long period of time. Boxes are marked to identify from which hole, and at what depth, the sample was taken. The information gathered by core drilling is important, and represents substantial capital investment. To obtain fast geological information at less costs, reverse circulation methods are commonly used. Instead of core

samples the geologist gets access to drill cuttings (chips) throughout the hole length which are checked and mapped for mineral content after laboratory analyses. Reverse circulation drilling as a method is rapidly gaining popularity for surface drilling applications. Compared with core drilling equipment, which are readily disassembled, the rigs are truck mounted and restricted to accessible terrain and better road conditions.

Exploration Results Mineral Resources Inferred

Increasing level of geological knowledge and confidence

Ore Reserves

Indicated Measured

Probable Proved

Consideration of mining, metallurgical, economic, marketing, legal, environmental, social and governmental factors (the modifying factors)
The 2004 Australasian code for reporting exploration results, mineral resources and ore reserves.

hans Fernberg
exploration drilling


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Whats in the cores?

exploration drilling