Aug '13

Hot on the trail

Researchers track the footprints that lead to mineral discoveries

By Virginia Heffernan

With funding for the $13-million Footprints project in place, geoscientists have gathered at the Canadian Malartic mine in northern Quebec to investigate the subtleties of the low-grade disseminated gold deposit and its surrounding rocks.

In late June, researchers also headed for the Highland Valley copper porphyry camp in British Columbia, and the McArthur River uranium trend in the Athabasca Basin of Saskatchewan, to examine how characteristics surrounding those ore bodies could potentially be interpreted as signals of economic mineral deposits.

The Canadian Mining Innovation Council (CMIC), which spearheaded the Footprints research project, chose the three camps as areas of focus because they represent the most significant deposit types in Canada. Funding for the project was provided by a $5.1-million grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) – the largest grant ever awarded through NSERC’s Collaborative Research and Development program – and $7.5 million in cash and in-kind contributions from industry sponsors.

The project aims to improve the odds of finding buried ore deposits by identifying subtle indicators, or footprints, in the surrounding rocks.

“Commonly, buried deposits are so deep that you can’t detect the actual mineralization and you have to look for peripheral signs that define the ore system, such as the halo of alteration in the surrounding rocks,” explained Alan Galley, CMIC’s exploration research director.

To detect these signs, researchers will tease indicators out of both new and existing data using sophisticated processing and interpretation tools and techniques, like Gocad three dimensional (3D) earth modelling software, to integrate geological and geophysical data at different resolutions, and multivariate statistics to query different types of data simultaneously.

Although the legacy data collected over the years in these mature camps will play a significant role, the teams will be gathering new information as well. Filling in petrophysical data gaps like magnetic properties and density, for example, will make 3D geophysical inversions more meaningful, explained Michael Lesher, professor of economic geology at Laurentian University. Lesher, who is co-leading the project with the University of Ottawa’s Mark Hannington, said: “We want to bring added value to what the companies have already done. We’ll be defining the footprint so that companies know what parameters to look for.”

Lesher and Hannington will be working closely with industry project leader Francois Robert, vice-president of global exploration for Barrick Gold. Robert came up with the initial footprints concept when he identified the need for a different approach to exploration at a time of declining discovery rates.

By the time the Footprints project received official approval in May, the number of participating universities had grown to 24, while the number of industry sponsors had increased to 27, including 14 service providers that will assist with data processing. Having service providers on board will help ensure the project results have commercial spin-offs, said Galley.

“This is a great way for the research community to work with industry: a logical thing for Canada to be doing given that we are world leaders in mineral exploration and mine financing,” added Lesher.

To foster communication between the two groups, lead researchers will work in the offices of the three main industry partners – Osisko (Canadian Malartic), Teck (Highland Valley) and Cameco (McArthur River) – for about 50 per cent of their time. Mira Geoscience, an industry partner that has customized the Gocad 3D geological modelling system for the mining industry, will provide software training for research project staff from its Montreal office.

The project will differ from most one-on-one collaborations between universities and industry in that all the partners will be working together, constantly sharing data and ideas. Exploration insights from the Highland Valley area, for instance, could well apply to low-grade disseminated gold deposits such as Canadian Malartic that some believe may be porphyry-related.

As for accessibility, industry partners will have the opportunity to use the results exclusively for one year before they are released to the public. Students will be permitted to publish their theses as soon as they are finished. Lesher said the first results should be coming out in a matter of months, and a full progress report will be released to the partners at an annual general meeting at the PDAC conference in March 2014.

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