I'm spending a few days in Toronto at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada annual conference.
This is one of the mining industry's largest events. Thousands of companies descend on the site to promote their projects. Financiers from across the globe come armed with billions of dollars slated for mineral investment.
Meetings with these individuals are often interesting. Yesterday my partner Phil O'Neill and I sat down with a fund manager who represents a group of the most famous investors on Wall Street.
He told us how these finance giants believe gold will be the best bet of the coming years. Their price targets are enormous.
But perhaps the most interesting meetings at this show are with the technical professionals. Geologists, engineers and logistics experts working on the front lines of the mineral industry.
These are the people tracking the very latest developments in the business. And their findings are fascinating.
One meeting in particular demands comment.
I talked yesterday with a professor at one of Canada's top economic geology universities. And the work he's doing there is groundbreaking.
One of his interests is mapping rock chemistry. This is an incredible development in geological science. One I was completely unaware of.
There's a problem when it comes to studying mineralization within ore bodies. The gold, copper or nickel is often hard to see. Very seldom are the target metals visible to the naked eye. The grains are often simply too small.
One way of dealing with this is by using "thin sections". Geologists cut slices of rock micro-meters thick. And then use special microscopes to try and pick out tiny grains of mineral.
This mineralogy work can be incredibly valuable. In some cases, geologists find the metal of interest tends to be found alongside certain other minerals. On one project I've been working with recently, higher-grade gold is usually found near grains of the mineral magnetite.
Identifying this relationship makes for a powerful exploration tool. On the gold project I mentioned, we can't see the gold in rock outcrop or drill core. But we can see magnetite. And whenever we do we pay close attention, as this magnetite-bearing zone may also be a gold-enriched area. Identifying mineral associations helps you find ore.
The other way that mineral relationships come in handy is in metallurgical planning. The location of mineralization within a rock is critically important to metallurgical recovery for a mine.
If a deposit contains gold grains that are completely surrounded by grains of another mineral like chalcopyrite, recovery can be very difficult. Especially if the gold grains are small.
On the other hand, if the gold grains are larger and sit at the edges of the chalcopyrite grains, recoveries are likely to be very good. Increasing the profitability of the mine.
Because of all this, geologists and mineral engineers always want to collect as much information as possible about mineral distributions in their target ore. But even advanced techniques like thin section work have their limitations.
In some cases grains are too small to be seen even under a microscope. And in some cases, the metal of interest doesn't even form distinct grains. Existing instead as "solid solution" inside the atomic structure of other minerals. In the latter case, a geologist with a microscope stands no chance of finding the gold, silver or copper. It will be completely unseen.
This is where my friend's research comes in. He is developing a technique for chemically "mapping" ore. Running a slice of rock through his process, the instruments will create a digital image of all the mineral grains. Most importantly this map shows the exact chemistry of every grain, down to a very small scale.
This makes seen the unseen. By pulling up the chemistry, even metals hiding within the atoms of other minerals can be identified. Giving users a powerful view of exactly where their target metal is held in the ore. And allowing them to hone their exploration and production regimes accordingly.
This may sound academic. But these are the sorts of technological developments that can lead to big successes in the field. The development of handheld meters for chemically identifying clays revolutionized exploration for porphyry copper-gold deposits. And analytical instruments with higher detection limits have made a huge impact on exploration, especially for gold and platinum group elements.
Professionals who embrace these technologies early give themselves a leg up in the ultra-competitive and uber-difficult world of mineral development. One reason to keep up on your science.
By. Dave Forest of Notela Resources