Research driving the change of the mining industry

Gold: With a production value of $12.3 billion and 182 tonnes mined in 2020, gold is Canada’s most valuable mined commodity, and the country ranks fifth among the largest global producers. However, in order to continue delivering strong results in the long term, the industry must address a number of key challenges, including a shift to exploring new mining sites, delivering strong sustainability performance, and attracting new talent.

According to Ross Sherlock, director of the Mineral Exploration Research Centre (MERC) at Laurentian University’s Harquail School of Earth Sciences (HES), research and innovation can help improve outcomes in these priority areas.

“[Mining companies] are currently focused on brownfield exploration, since gold that is discovered adjacent to existing operations can be mined tomorrow,” he explains. “With greenfield exploration, it can take over a decade until new mining sites produce results, and this can make securing investments difficult.”

The capital costs for bringing new mines into production are typically high, and the timeline is lengthy. According to Dr. Sherlock, one Gold Fields project in South America involving a greenfield discovery began with land acquisition in 2007 and the first hole drilled in 2011.

“From a maiden resource declaration in 2013 followed preliminary economic analysis and feasibility studies in 2015 and 2017, and the construction of the mine, which will begin production during Q1 2023.”

Brownfield explorations, he claims, can extend the life of existing operations while also tapping into already depleted resources. “Some of these mines, like Timmins and Kirkland Lake, have been in operation for more than a century, but you won’t find gold there forever.”

MERC’s Metal Earth project, a seven-year applied R&D effort that brings together geoscientists, data scientists, and geophysicists “to advance the fundamental science that will discover the next generation of orebodies,” prioritises facilitating the shift to greenfield exploration.

Despite the fact that “there is no silver bullet” for eliminating the risk of exploration, Dr. Sherlock explains that MERC and HES work to foster a deeper understanding of ore systems as well as enable geoscientists to better interpret complex multi-parameter datasets to navigate within a data-rich work environment.

“The industry generates a lot of data, but it’s not always used efficiently,” he observes. “I’d describe it as ‘data rich but knowledge poor.'”

Using data science tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), neural networks, or machine learning requires that “the data is in good shape,” according to Dr. Sherlock. “Mining firms typically have decades of data – some digital, some not.” It can be difficult and time consuming to organise this into a useful framework.”

Data, on the other hand, can assist in identifying patterns in known deposits, which can then point to areas with similar metal endowment. This can “enable industry to enter new jurisdictions with confidence, whether in Northern Canada or South America’s Guiana Shield, and potentially shorten the time to discovery,” he says. “The goal is to improve area selection and, as a result, reduce risk in greenfield exploration.”

“We believe the discovery of orebodies has a big multiplier effect in the creation of new wealth for society.”

Data about mineral deposits, he says, can be a valuable tool for land-use planning in addition to improving outcomes for exploration companies. “For example, when local stakeholders like First Nations communities are aware of the mineral potential on their traditional lands, they can make informed decisions about where to implement conservation measures and where to allow exploration.”

Many mining operations are located in remote areas, and the benefits to local communities can include an inflow of funds as well as other economic opportunities such as jobs and training. Dr. Sherlock believes that how businesses operate in their local communities is an important criterion for assessing their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance.

“Efforts to operate sustainably, which includes a dedication to meeting ESG standards at home and abroad, are earning Canadian mining companies a solid reputation,” says Dr. Sherlock, who hopes that this commitment to sustainability can also help to address the sector’s challenge of attracting youth.

“Canadian mining companies offer good, well-paying jobs and interesting work – but finding talent remains challenging,” he says. “We need to change the perception that mining is dirty, low-tech, manual labour and environmentally destructive. There is lots of technology and sophistication in the industry, which also offers rewarding high-tech careers.”

According to Dr. Sherlock, resource development can leave a lasting positive legacy, and MERC aims to make a difference by providing cutting-edge tools for solving geoscience problems and discovering new resources, as well as training highly qualified personnel for careers in industry, academia, and government.