While it will always be the case that mining exploration will involve some level of uncertainty and risk, this does not mean mining companies are doomed to commit significant time, energy and funds to fruitless exploration operations. In reality, exploration operations are complex, and this will always be the case. However, there are a few things mining companies can do to help drive better success rates and more profitable exploration operations, while also protecting the environments and societies in which they operate.
With the depletion of near-surface resources, mining companies are increasingly looking to explore and mine resources at greater depths. They are also looking to explore mineral resources in more remote geographic areas which pose unique challenges and require new technologies to be developed.
The first step in mining exploration is to identify a potential area of mineralisation. To do this, geoscientists will study geological maps and aerial photographs, as well as conduct fieldwork to gather information about the geology of the area. Once an area of interest has been identified, geophysical surveys are conducted to gather more information using a variety of techniques such as magnetic, gravity, and electromagnetic methods to map the subsurface and identify areas of mineralisation.
Drilling is then used to determine the potential and quality of the minerals present. If the results are promising, further drilling and testing will be conducted to confirm the presence of a mineral deposit and to determine its size and grade.
Key approaches to exploration drilling
There are two key approaches to exploration drilling: reverse circulation (RC) drilling and diamond drilling. RC drilling is a faster and cheaper method that uses air to lift cuttings to the surface. Diamond drilling is a more precise method that uses a diamond-tipped part to cut through the rock. Although this method is more expensive, it provides a core sample, which is a more accurate representation of the mineral deposit.
Once a mineral deposit has been discovered, a feasibility study is conducted to determine the economic viability of extracting and processing the minerals. This study will consider factors such as the size and grade of the deposit, the cost of mining and processing, and the market price for the minerals.
If the feasibility study indicates that the deposit is economically viable, a mining company will begin the process of developing the mine. This can include building infrastructure such as roads, power lines, and processing facilities, as well as obtaining the necessary permits and approvals from government agencies.
The challenge for mining companies with this process is the key variable; the data. Without an accurate picture of the area and its potential, any decision on exploration operations and subsequent investments will be simply based on an ‘educated guess', and this is where digital tools and data management systems can support accurate and efficient drilling operations.
Profitability in the process
Mining exploration has evolved significantly over time, both in terms of the technology used and the approach to finding new mineral deposits. In the past, exploration was primarily carried out by prospectors on foot, using simple tools such as gold pans and rock hammers. Today, exploration is conducted using a variety of advanced technologies, including geophysical surveys, remote sensing, and drilling.
In recent years, there has been a shift towards more advanced and sophisticated exploration methods including modelling and geostatistics which help to better understand and interpret the data collected during exploration. Additionally, there is an increased focus on finding new mineral deposits using artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques.
Digital tools are also employed in mine planning and management, such as scheduling, monitoring, and controlling mining operations, as well as in decision-making, such as risk management and cost optimisation.
Digital in action
When assessing geological and exploration planning models, mining companies need to be able to understand and communicate any impacts on production and product quality. Currently, this is a laborious effort involving the sourcing of information from multiple sources and systems. This effort can be challenging if there is not a level of trust that the information is up-to-date. This also then hinders a site's ability to react to operational demands and changes in real time and could lead to decisions being made based on inaccurate data. It also makes it almost impossible to review past decisions and apply key learnings to future operations, particularly if the data is poorly archived.
Exploration geoscientists from Apollo Silver, Seequent's client, were looking to take a more holistic approach to exploration information management that would establish a complete technology solution and new standards for managing and effectively using all their exploration data assets.
The integration of Seequent's MX Deposit and Leapfrog Geo has been critical in delivering Apollo Silver's multi-disciplinary exploration team with a suite of data logging and modelling tools that improve workflow by increasing efficiency, enhancing decision-making, and supporting better communication between project team members and management.
As a result, Apollo Silver's operations are running more smoothly and efficiently than ever before, with both management and exploration teams reaping the benefits of a real-time, highly scalable, system for logging and managing drilling and sample data.
Clarity in decision-making
The use of advanced technologies and data analysis techniques are becoming more prevalent. Collaboration is a key requirement of geological modelling and decision-making. As projects are becoming increasingly complex, transparency, teamwork and stakeholder engagement are required to ensure all operational aspects and key information is considered and channelled to the right people at the right time. Understanding and improving workflows and addressing challenges using a robust peer-reviewing process is the key to unlocking value from your deposit and progressing your projects to the next stage.
With digital systems delivering data clarity, mining companies can make informed decisions that will protect not only profitability but also investment and efficiency.
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