Metal Mining Project, PhD Researcher, William D. Smith @ExplorePGE: GeoProject Series

metal mining

William D. Smith in front of the Mount Erzberg mine in Central Austria. ©2018 William D. Smith

NAME: William D. Smith

BIO: I undertook BSc (Hons) Geology at the University of Portsmouth, where my dissertation involved mapping and deciphering a remote and complex geological region in southeastern Brazil as a partnership with the Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto. I continued at Portsmouth to undertake a Master of Research Project in granite petrogenesis and its influence of ore-forming processes in southwest England. Work in this field is ongoing to help in building a new geochronological framework and petrogenetic model for the Cornubian Batholith, hopefully resulting in the in situ dating of mineralized lode systems. Since October 2017, I have been a PhD Student at Cardiff University, working closely with industry on pending Ni-Cu-PGE projects in northeast Canada.
In a more real-world sense, I have gained internships working as a chemical engineer on locked cycle froth floatation tests (aka taking metal out of rocks) amongst other projects. More recently, I had an internship as a junior exploration geologist working on novel W-Sn-Cu mineralization in southwest England, and this partnership is ongoing.


PROJECT INFORMATION: My research looks at solving macro-scale puzzles with micro-scale techniques in the hopes that we unearth new regions, prospective for metal mining. The stigma surrounding mining is best combatted by increasing our understanding of the way metals accumulate in Earth’s crust. Currently, a first-year PhD student at Cardiff University, working alongside an exploration company, as well as colleagues at Camborne School of Mines and Carleton University (Ottawa), exploring for magmatic sulfide occurrences in northeast Canada. Exploration adopts a holistic approach, geologists must be diligent, open-minded and above all, patient. Different deposit-types yield different metals in different settings and therefore a precise area of ‘expertise’ can be limiting. I have spent my very limited time as a researcher focussing on granite-related W-Sn-Cu epithermal systems and magmatic Ni-Cu-PGE sulfide deposits; two very different challenges. In this blog, I am concerned with the latter, where I will spend my next 4 years delving into the geology and metallotects of the Labrador Trough, a vastly under-explored orogenic belt in northeast Canada, bursting with primitive magma, perfect for magmatic sulfide genesis. Throughout my PhD, I will become well acquainted with the magmas here, and the pathway they have taken from the mantle to the surface, with the aim to better vector ore deposits to subsequently reduce time, expense, and carbon footprint.

What’s the purpose of your project?

With the ever-growing human population, coupled with the need to promote a greener economy, the minerals resources industry has the impossible task to find, extract and produce enough metals to support us at the lowest possible cost. Economic mines often take decades to discover and utilize, where exploration companies deploy a vast range of geological, geophysical and geochemical techniques to facilitate this process. There is not one unequivocal way to explore as each prospect is unique in its own right. Therefore, the only way to reduce this time is to better understand what drives the accumulation of metals and how we can accurately pinpoint their final location.

How are you setting up and testing your project?

Exploration always starts with significant data collection. This includes (i) a substantial literature overhaul, (ii) soil, rock and till samples, (iii) a range of geophysical data, and (iv) geochemical characterization of relevant rocks. Through compiling this preliminary data, you can identify anomalous zones and begin to reduce your >1,000 km2 target area to a smaller, more realistic prospect. Field geological observations are paramount to exploration. Detailed mapping and subsurface modelling can reveal the geometry of ore-bearing horizons, allowing you predict its whereabouts at depth. Mineralized rocks possess different geochemical signatures to those that are barren, where compartmentalizing the rocks of the region into those prospective and those not, significantly reduces and refines the process. This will extend further to mineral chemistry, which opens a window into the evolution of the magma chamber, allowing us to predict if this magma is favourable to precipitate metals. Lastly, isotopic signatures of ore-bearing rocks (especially oxygen and sulfur) provides constraints on the origin of the magma and the source of the sulfur responsible for the inception of mineralization.

Any results yet?

This is very early days, so nothing of major significance to report yet. The partner company has uncovered several regions prospective for nickel, copper, and platinum group elements, where they continue to work tirelessly to unearth the next major prospect. What I can say is that the magmatism covers over 10,000 km2 here and is chock-full of magmatic sulfide occurrences. Petrological, geochemical and isotopic analyses will reveal the history of these rocks and the ore-forming processes that they have been subjected too. So, perhaps in the near future, we can design a bespoke exploration criteria or identify a geochemical fingerprint for exploration endeavours here and elsewhere in the world.

What has been the most interesting/challenging?

Exploration geology is challenging in a variety of ways, and not all those ways are scientific – even once a prospect has been established, wildlife, climate, and access can remain problematic. What I find interesting about magmatic sulfide deposits are the intrinsic processes that must occur to ultimately generate exploitable ore. They are typically associated with large igneous provinces, where huge volumes of mantle-derived magma erupt through the crust all within a geological second (<5 million years). Reducing these enormous masses of igneous rocks to localized exploration targets requires time, money and patience (and experience), which is a challenge in itself. Explorers will face harsh winters, boiling summers, swarms of flies, and perhaps a bear or two. It is this unique blend of academic and real challenges that make this field of geology one of the most dynamic.

How will this project help society?

Economic geology is named so as it rides the line between geology and the public. It provides metals we need to enhance our batteries, drive our cars, and build our space stations. It is not yet possible to be sustainable through the efficient recycling of the metals we have already extracted, meaning that we must continue to extract in the hopes that one day we will no longer need to. You may think that ‘we’ve been doing it for years, so what’s the difference now?’, and the answer is that we have exhausted all the ‘easy ways out’, and so we must adopt new methods to uncover those harder to reach places. Research such as this directly impinges on the needs of society – it powers our technological advancement.

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