Leveraging on technological advancements in mineral exploration
By Motive Mungoni
In today’s world, the technology of “things” even the technology of human beings is now within reach because of the incredible advancements of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). This has been termed the 4th industrial revolution. This revolution regardless of its nature or the premise on which it is built on, relies on mineral commodities for it to continue to grow. Despite the fact that there is now preference of critical mineral commodities such as lithium, nickel and cobalt over “dirty” minerals like coal and petroleum, the ICT sector is still dependent on mineral resources which are non-renewable.
A brief review of the minerals industry would show that countries which are richly endowed in the traditional strategic minerals such as gold, copper, diamonds, Platinum Group of Elements (PGEs) etc. are equally endowed with industrial minerals and base metals driving the 4th industrial revolution but unfortunately in unknown quantities. A good example is Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who have over 60 minerals whose quantities in terms of reserves are still to be determined. Unless there is exploration to determine the location, type of resource, defining its quantity and quality, that is, a geological evaluation of the mineral resources, they will remain sterilised or of no value. How do you unlock their value? There is need for mineral exploration. Though it is expensive, a mineral resource cannot be bankable until detailed exploration work has been conducted to ascertain its true value and other characteristics it has for it to be termed commercially viable for mining to commence. What then is mineral exploration? Are there exploration technologies nowadays that countries like Zimbabwe where meaningful exploration was last done in the 1960s can take advantage of? Besides the emerging minerals, is there enough geological data on the traditional minerals?
Mining a mineral resource without conducting exploration is mining blindly. Mineral exploration is therefore important and involves developing a deposit into a resource and then finally into a reserve. It is a long-term commitment and there must be careful planning of the participant’s long-term objectives to ensure viable budgeting. This unlocks value from a mere deposit to a mineral reserve and is as a result of increased geological knowledge and confidence. The high level of confidence results in low risk. Broadly speaking, in exploration there is need to consider mining, metallurgical, economic, marketing, legal, environmental, social and governmental factors to reach a stage of proven reserves. All this work should be done by a qualified and/or competent person who is an engineer or geoscientist with at least five years of experience in mineral exploration, mine development/operations or mineral project assessment, or any combination of these; has experience relevant to the subject matter of the mineral project and the technical report; and is a member or licenced in good standing of a professional association. This is important especially in Zimbabwe where aspiring miners have been robbed of their hard earned money by bogus individuals who are termed “belt locators”. The ultimate objective of all exploration is to predict, with the greatest accuracy possible, the shape, distribution, and concentration of mineralization. Exploration also leads to creating a geologic model which looks at the 3D perspective of a mineral. Purpose of ore deposit modelling is to predict the geology.
According to Eimon (1988) exploration can be divided into a number of interlinked and sequential stages which involve increasing expenditure and decreasing risk. How these phases are named varies. Firstly, there is literature review followed by a field visit as part of planning and reconnaissance exploration which involves remote sensing; regional geochemistry and airborne geophysics. The planning stage covers the selection of commodity, type of deposit, exploration methods, and the setting up of an exploration organization. This is then followed by targeted mapping, ground geophysics and geochemistry and then exploration drilling where pilot metallurgical studies are conducted. The assessment drilling is done ensuring there is enough sampling done (under strict quality control measures) after which a production shaft; decline is sunk or overburden is removed to access the ore body as part of the mine development.
Technologically mineral rich countries like Zimbabwe can take advantage of both the hardware and software advancements that have been made recently in mineral exploration. Firstly, looking at the hardware where hand-held XRFs can be used to quickly pick indicators or geochemistry data to allow timelines to be met and speedy collection of data in the field and the advent of GPS and computerised data management. This also applies to geophysics where air drones have replaced aeroplanes in terms of mapping to reduce costs and cover much ground within a short period of time.
One of the major developments in mineral exploration has been the increased use of computerized data management. This is the software aspect on exploration technology. It can also be applied on land acquisition management by the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development through adoption of a computerised cadastre system which will eliminate challenges on disputes arising from different land users with miners. Computer data management has been used to handle the flow of the large amounts of data generated by modern instrumentation as well as to speed up and improve decision making. Most resource calculations performed in exploration, in feasibility studies, or in routine mine grade control and scheduling use a specialized computer package (or packages) that deals with 3D data. At the early stages of exploration, the key features of the package will be to input drill information and relate this to surface features. Interestingly, the cost of exploration especially at the reconnaissance exploration has drastically gone down overtime even though the initial cost of acquiring is high, the benefits are immense because of the high quality of data collected. Companies like Rio Tinto have gone on to adopt real time exploration where with the help of hardware and software have ensured high levels of grade control thereby minimising dilution; monitoring of ground stability and other benefits.
Most mining operations have selected geological and mine modelling software that suits their budget, and geological and mining complexity. Occasionally, a mining house will standardize on one software package, e.g. BHP Billiton uses Vulcan software. The software modelling systems currently available include Surpac and Minex from the Surpac Minex Group, Maptek’s Vulcan, Mincom, Datamine, Mintec’s MineSight, and Gemcom. Development of these mining softwares can be localised to suit an environment such as Zimbabwe as the means to develop them is now within our reach. The government of Zimbabwe should be intent on investing in technologies for mineral exploration to make sure the country fully benefits from the rich base of mineral commodities. In the long term, the benefits accrued outweigh by far the costs incurred as the mining industry will no longer be mining in the dark.