Canadian mining industry to develop tools for improving detection of mineral deposits

Guest Contributor
May 23, 2013

Unprecedented collaboration

The Canadian mining industry is banding together to develop tools and technologies to enhance its ability to remotely sense and assess hard-to-find mineral deposits. The Footprints Project has attracted $8 million in cash and in-kind from 27 participating firms augmented by $5.1 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to bring in academic researchers from 17 universities across Canada.

The initial five-year phase of the project will coordinate existing exploration techniques and create new tools in the areas of data management, data integration and visualization and apply them to three existing mining sites (see box).

"To address the challenges of the industry, no single company has the time, money or intellect to do it on its own. This is the first time in Canada so many companies are funding a single project," says Dr Francois Robert, Barrick Gold Corp's VP and chief geologist, global exploration. "The benefits to a company like Barrick is it will allow us to better detect deposits at depth in Canada and globally and better find high grade ore from the fringes."

Robert says the number one challenge of mining in Canada and globally is the declining rate of new mineral discoveries. The clock is ticking on known resources and mining companies are under increasing pressure to find the next generation of ore bodies. At the same time, existing exploration techniques are limited in their ability to make new finds as they are typically hidden by lakes and gravel and at depth.

"The majority of sponsoring companies are large companies but there are also service providers from the mining supply chain. If these projects are successful, they will commercialize the technologies and the big companies will use the technology," says Robert, who first pulled key industry players together to discuss their common R&D needs in early 2010.

mining council playing key role

In addition to the mining industry's Exploration Industry Consortium, industry support is being coordinated by the Canada Mining and Innovation Council (CMIC). The Footprints project is the first of several that its industry members are planning under the council's Exploration Technology Initiative.

"Industry drove this at the highest levels with many VPs and CEOs engaged. The management structure was put in place before we applied to NSERC. It's the largest investment ever made in the mining field by this industry," says CMIC president and CEO Carl Weatherall, adding that it effective plugs one of the innovation gaps cited by industry. "Collaboration is key to boosting innovation in this industry and there's expertise in all three sectors. We're also working with the National Research Council, the Saskatchewan Research Council and academia across the country."

In addition to helping secure NSERC support for the Footprints project, CMIC is also spearheading an application to the Business-Led Networks of Centres of Excellence program. It has submitted a letter of intent to the current competition which will announce the results by the end of the year.

NSERC CRD grant largest in history

NSERC is supporting the Footprints Project through a Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) grant, the largest single award of that grant type since it was established in 1978. Laurentian Univ will serve as the project's administration centre and Dr Michael Lesher — a Canada Research Chair holder in mineral exploration at Laurentian — will co-lead the initiative along with Dr Mark Hannington, a professor of earth science at the Univ of Ottawa.

The CRD grants provide 50% of industry contributions as long as half is cash. As an open-ended grant type, it can be used if the Footprints Project extends beyond the first five years.

footprints study sites

Canadian Malartic gold mine

Reopened in 2011 after 28 years

(Osisko Mining Corp, Montreal)

Highland Valley BC Copper

Largest open pit copper mine in Canada Recently extended to 2027

(Teck, Vancouver)

McArthur Millennium uranium mine

World's largest high-grade uranium mine

(Cameco Corp, Saskatoon)

"Industry will pull out deliverables as it goes on and there's likely to be more than one round," says Janet Walden, NSERC's acting president. "This project has pan-Canadian reach which is extraordinary and is led by Dr Lesher and Dr Hannington who have high credibility ... It will also be training more than 40 highly qualified personnel which is hugely important."

With the shift in emphasis towards targeted, industry-revelant research, CRD grants have soared in popularity. They are expanding at a rate of 10% annually, accounting for expenditures of $64 million in FY12-13.

two key models

In planning its strategy for collaborative R&D, Roberts says industry examined several existing models and is following two which hold the most potential. The first is the Consortium for Research and Innovation in Aerospace in Quebec (CRIAQ), a highly successful industry-led research consortium that involves all the major aerospace players in Quebec and is expanding nationally.

The second is Australia's longstanding Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program which currently has 38 active centres some of which are devoted to or related to mining. These include CRC Mining and the Deep Exploration Technologies CRC which has multi-project research programs in drilling, logging and sensing that have attracted more than $100 million in cash and in-kind.

If the Footprints Project is successful, there are several others in the pipeline currently being roadmapped that could lead to new projects addressing other innovation challenges facing the mining sector. The ultimate objective is to establish a permanent research centre or network at the scale of CMIC that is self-sustaining.

"We'll see after the first 10 years. This is the first time that companies and researchers have worked at this scale on a defined program, so it's a good step in the right direction," says Robert. "It's a coordinated research effort and a significant step for Canada. The challenge now is to deliver."

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