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Revolutionizing the drill site

by Virginia Heffernan on March 15, 2012 Technology

Once upon a time, an uptick in mineral exploration spending promised a similar bump in new discoveries. But that’s no longer true. Even though annual exploration spending is at an all-time high of $18 billion – double what it was two years ago – greenfields discoveries remain elusive and reserves are not being replaced.

For anecdotal evidence of this decoupling, one just needed to attend the New Discoveries and Developments session at PDAC 2012. Many of the “new” finds featured are actually historical discoveries that have been dusted off and revived in response to higher metal prices.

Richard Hillis of the Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre in Australia (DET CRC) blames surface cover for the dwindling discovery rates and says if the industry doesn’t figure out better ways to explore for buried deposits, it is doomed to decline.

"We can make money out of reserves under cover, but we're not terribly good at finding them," he told delegates at PDAC 2012's keynote session on dealing with uncertainty. Fortunately, he and his colleagues at DET CRC are taking on the challenge with a $115 million, 8-year project designed to devise innovative means to make exploration under cover more efficient and less expensive. Here are some of the projects that could revolutionize the way companies look for buried mineralization:

  • wireline logging systems that can replace or significantly reduce the need for drill core
  • coiled tubing drill rigs that speed up drilling though cover and eliminate the need for manual handling of drill rods
  • carbon fibre drill rods that can be embedded with sensors for real time transfer of information (e.g. mineralogy, geochemistry and even structural information) to the surface
  • a “lab-on-the-rig” that can analyze data as soon as it reaches the surface to allow decisions on the fly rather than having to wait days or weeks for results.

Many of these initiatives are already at the pilot stage and DET CRC will leverage agreements with service companies such as Boart Longyear to commercialize them. The group will use the giant mineralized province around the Olympic Dam mine as a test case for the new technologies, drilling the area off on a 5 km by 5 km grid.

It’s an exciting initiative that has the potential to improve discovery rates, not just in Australia where cover has always been a challenge, but worldwide.