Geologists are constantly looking for better ways to ‘see through rock’
In the old days, geologists would scrape up soil samples looking for traces of the copper, gold, molybdenum or other minerals they were looking for in deposits close to the surface. More recently, they’ve discovered more definite signals that come from much deeper – sometimes hundreds of metres below the dirt and glacial till.
They don’t exactly know how the trace elements make it to the surface, but the science of figuring it out is at the cutting edge of mining exploration and something scientists at Vancouver’s Mineral Deposit Research Unit are taking on in a bigger way.
“We don’t understand it very well,” said MDRU director Craig Hart, but they know ore bodies do give off volatile components that show up in surface soils.
“It might be gases, it might be things that are attaching to hydrogen ions streaming to the surface. It could be microbes digesting and coming up through the column of material, but there is a big push on right now to try to (understand the process),” he added.
Geologists refer to the science as penetrating geochemistry and the MDRU has secured a significant donation from the mineral-analysis company Acme Labs and hired expert Peter Winterburn to head an exploration geochemistry initiative.
“It used to just be a prospector out there with a hammer smashing rocks, and there was an expectation that those (mineral) deposits would be exposed on the surface,” Hart said.
Now, Hart added, geologists understand they have to be more clever and “look for ways that we can see through the rock” to find British Columbia’s next big mine.
The tools are geochemistry and geophysics — measuring the differences in the magnetic, electrical or gravitational fields of rock formations — and it is the MDRU’s job to refine their methods for exploration companies to use for zeroing in on the most promising targets for physical exploration.
Located on the University of B.C. campus, the Mineral Deposit Research Unit was founded in 1989 out of the mining-exploration sector’s need for more research and better training for its employees.
Its biggest reason for being, however, is to conduct research projects, which apply cutting-edge science to the industry’s problems.
For geophysics, for example, the MDRU has developed sophisticated modelling software to take two-dimensional maps of geo-magnetic data and extrapolate them into three-dimensional models of the geology that those maps show.
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