Fresh perspective

Michel Jébrak examines “Innovation in Mining Exploration”

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

Michel Jébrak is a man of both academic knowledge and hands-on experience. He is a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and the author of 100 Innovations in the Mining Industry. Jébrak holds doctorates in mining exploration and in sciences from the University of Orléans in France, and he has travelled extensively in Africa, the Middle East and Australia, consulting for global mining companies, governments and international organizations. “As a geologist, administrator and teacher, I seek to understand how research leads to new discoveries and products, as well as to the creation of wealth,” says Jébrak, who is currently the mining entrepreneurship chair at UQAM. This year, he will be sharing his research and findings as a CIM Distinguished ­Lecturer.

CIM: What has been the focus of your research?

Jébrak: Over the last two years, I’ve been looking at similarities and differences between the situation in the global mining industry today and what it was in the late 19th century. I was really surprised by the similarities. At the end of the 19th century, you see a big increase in the number of organi­zations in North America, which resulted in a move of political power from London to New York City. There was also an increase in the demand for – and mining of – metals, as well as in the use of new metals. People were beginning to mine new copper, nickel and aluminum deposits. In order to sustain this change, there was a lot of innovation, especially in the metal­lurgical industry where people were able to develop new techniques.

CIM: How does this compare with what is happening today and what are the differences you observed?

Jébrak: Today, we also have a big increase in the number of organi­zations, especially operations in China. We have a shift in political power from New York City to Beijing. We also have new metals being introduced, although they are cur­rently niche markets.

While we have some innovation, it is not as abundant as it was in the 19th century. From 1840 to 1880, there was the industrial revolution, as well as many inventions and developments in transportation, which the mining industry used at the beginning of the 20th century. For instance, there was a lot of innovation at Bingham Canyon in the U.S., one of the largest copper deposits in the world. The project led to conceptual innovation because it was a low-grade copper deposit, which was not a typical target for mining companies at that time. There were also technical innovations that made mining Bingham Canyon possible, like crushers, discovered 20 years earlier, and the flotation process, which surfaced in Australia.

In order to meet the growing demand for metals, there was a significant amount of innovation. Today, we have a technological revolution, but for the mining industry, it is not what is known as disruptive innovation. In other words, it does not produce transformational change. For mining, I would say it is mostly business as usual.

CIM: But are we not innovating? There is research and development going on in Canada.

Jébrak: There is but it is dispersed across small research centres from coast to coast. In contrast, Australia has had a national innovation strategy in mineral resources for more than 20 years. It set up key centres in mineral exploration and in sustainable mining, recruiting some of the world’s best experts. New geophysical techniques, such as TEMPEST and airborne gravimetry, were developed by Australian companies. We are already behind, I am afraid. But we are organizing. The Canada Mining Innovation Council is a good example, but it needs more government funding and we need to move faster.

CIM: What is the risk if we do not ramp up our innovation research?

Jébrak: Canada will be left behind while the world moves forward with innovation. China is gradually be­coming a key player. They were not really on the map in terms of mining innovation 10 years ago. Now Chinese companies are among the world’s largest. The number of Chinese-re­fereed publications in mineral explor­ation is booming. New Chinese sci­entific journals on mineral deposits in English have emerged. There are 25,000 students studying geo­sciences in the University of Beijing, but less than 1,000 in the entire province of Quebec.

Book Michel Jébrak as a Distinguished Lecturer or learn more about the CIM Distinguished Lecturers Program.

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