June/July 2009

Student Life

Fired-up talent: Industry has much to gain from supporting research at Canadian campuses

By S.D. Craggs

The economic downturn over the past year has resulted in hard times for the mining industry. As a result of fewer job opportunities, many are turning to academia to weather the storm. However, government spending cuts to science programs at universities, particularly on the East Coast, have resulted in NSERC grants being reviewed and often cancelled for many projects already in progress. With government spending on the wane, there could not be a more important time for industry involvement with university programs.

My experience working on government- and industry-sponsored projects has generally been very positive, and the support offered by the sponsor of my ongoing PhD project, Alexco Resource Corp., has been exceptional. However, for many students, this unfortunately is not always the case.

While doing research for a consortium of oil companies, I was warned off working in the mining industry by a colleague who said that mineral exploration companies are narrow-minded and don’t care about the bigger regional story behind ore body formation. He said that when the oil and gas companies have a bit of spare cash they invest in new technologies and techniques to better define their targets. The mining industry, on the other hand, he claimed, invests in bigger machines to dig the mountain out more quickly.

Clearly, my colleague’s comment was made with tongue placed firmly in cheek, and it is not a statement that I entirely agree with. However, the mining industry would do well to take a leaf out of the oil and gas industry’s book.

The advantage of strong industry involvement in university programs is clear — while undergraduate and graduate students are by no means the finished article, their enthusiasm to learn could not be stronger. As such, for a relatively small outlay per year, companies can play an active role in the development of potential employees. In addition, the mining industry should not automatically dismiss research that is at first glance purely academic. Cutting-edge technologies often arise from seemingly innocuous projects that have no apparent direct impact on the industry. While industry partners commonly look for an answer to a specific problem, sponsorship of a project will often result in additional information that will add to the understanding of their prospect.

Alexco Resource Corp. was looking for a structural geologist to understand fracture geometry and how it interacts with mineralization at its Keno Hill Ag-Pb-Zn mine in the Yukon. They have been very supportive of my efforts to understand the timing and regional controls on ore body formation. The company appreciates that the key to the discovery of additional ore bodies lies in understanding the structural controls on ore body formation. The answer to this question will form part of my thesis, but in addition, Alexco will gain insight into the regional tectonics and geo/thermochronology of the district. While this may appear to be unnecessary for the company, it is essentially free information, and the more information one has about a region, the more accurately one can target new areas for exploration.

While the industry as a whole does appear to be changing and sponsorship is improving, the use of structural geology techniques as a means to better defining ore bodies and targets is still sadly underused. As a structural geologist I have a clear bias and it would be remiss of me to suggest that structural geology is the be-all and end-all of mining geology. However, it is imperative that mining companies use an amalgamation of geochemistry, mapping and stratigraphy, structural and engineering geology, and other branches of geosciences to refine their targets and ultimately save money. Investment in industry-specific university projects at all levels can only help with this.

Simon Craggs is a first-year PhD student in structural geology at the University of New Brunswick. He graduated with a BSc (Hons) from the University of Leeds (UK) and an M.Sc. from UNB. He has also worked for the Fault Dynamics Research Group at Royal Holloway University of London and is the current president of the Geological Association of Graduate Students at UNB.

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