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Minerals Exploration: 9 Steps to a Discovery


October 17, 2022

The process of searching for new mineral deposits involves a series of steps. But first, a few words of introduction. 

The characteristics of these mineralized systems are now well understood by geologists.  

However, we have scoured our planet pretty thoroughly. And all the deposits sticking out of the ground have been found. 

Exploration geologists face the reality of discovering 'blind' deposits, those that are hiding below the surface. The demand for minerals and precious metals persists.

These are the 9 general areas to consider when exploring for minerals:

  1. Evaluate the Terrain & Geology
  2. Closeology: Are there Existing Mines nearby?
  3. Is the jurisdiction Mining friendly?
  4. Is the area safe?
  5. Review Past exploration activity
  6. Stake to secure title
  7. Start Prospecting
  8. If there is potential, begin Drilling 
  9. Discovery: Determining grade & deposit

What are the steps involved in exploring for minerals?

1. Evaluate the Terrain & Geology

Newfoundland coastline

Newfoundland coastline

The first task in the search is to determine where to look.  

Certain kinds of rocks or groups of rocks host gold and silver deposits.   Many types of rock do not host metals and minerals. 

Greenstone belts in Canada, Australia, northeastern South America and west Africa are prolific hosts to gold deposits, but the number of discoveries in these areas is decreasing.  

The Pacific Ring of Fire is another good place to explore. Some say the best place to find a new gold mine is within sight of an existing mine. But these areas have been combed over for many decades.

Certain parts of the world have the right kinds of rocks to host minerals but are not good places to search because they are unsafe and have unstable politics or financial regulations that are not commercially favourable.  

You would not try to explore Afghanistan despite its permissive geology because of the current situation. India has good gold geology, but it's unwieldy bureaucratic system results in long delays in securing permits even to start exploration activity.

2. Closeology: Are there Existing Mines nearby?

‘The SuperPit’; a large open pit gold mine at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia

‘The SuperPit’; a large open pit gold mine at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia

Reviewing the data available from the previous activity is essential to commence a search for new gold and silver deposits. 

Government departments of Natural Resources in countries like Canada and Australia have vast libraries with digitized versions of previous government-sponsored geological mapping and geochemical and geophysical surveys.  

Reports from the work of previous explorers are also available. Most of this information is available with a few clicks of your laptop computer. Reviewing this information can help to define where to go and search. 

3. Is the jurisdiction Mining friendly?

Government Building

Government Building

The legal and regulatory regime in a country is also an important consideration. 

A good example is Mexico which has had an unfriendly mining regime for many years.  

Despite its excellent geology, the result has been minimal precious metal exploration in that country.

Canada and Australia, on the other hand, are considered to be mining friendly. This friendliness has resulted in a lot of exploration and mining activity.

4. Is the area safe?

Security Personnel

Security Personnel

Regarding security, it is essential to consider the potential risks involved in exploration. 

In some parts of the world, there is a greater risk of violence or theft. In other parts of the world, the political situation may be unstable. 

Therefore, it is crucial to consider the security risks before exploring for minerals or gold.

5. Review Past Exploration Activity

This structure is the headframe at the shaft of the Red Lake underground gold mine in Ontario, Canada

This structure is the headframe at the shaft of the Red Lake underground gold mine in Ontario, Canada

In most parts of the world, some past exploration activity has occurred. And there is, in general, data and reports of this work. It is important to review this information since it often helps to select where to commence new exploration.

Serious explorers and economic geologists will do their research in addition to determining the best place to start a search.

6. Stake to secure title

Staking for Gold in the Yukon

Staking for Gold in the Yukon

The next step is to secure a title for the area chosen.   Explorers want to be sure that if they find something, they have the exclusive right to eventually mine it. 

This is done by applying for an exploration permit or staking claims. Many jurisdictions now have online systems where an application can be submitted and granted by 'keyboard staking'. All from your desk, irrespective of location.  

There are, of course, fees payable to secure the title, and once you are granted an area to explore, there are requirements to do exploration, spend money on the work and report the results.

7. Start Prospecting

Prospecting for minerals

Prospecting for minerals

So far, these steps have been completed without stepping outside your home or company Office.  

But the next step, actual exploration or prospecting, entails getting out into the field and beginning the search. 

Exploration geologists usually lead this activity. And it is assisted by other geoscientists with expertise in geochemistry and geophysics. The goal of exploration is to find a precious metal deposit of sufficient size, grade and configuration that eventually can be mined at a profit. 

The footprint of a gold deposit might be just a few hundred meters long and wide. The area chosen for the search could be tens of kilometres long and wide. It's a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.  

The actual exploration activity has to systematically cover the entire area to define what parts are not exciting or prospective versus those areas which are thought to be promising and where indications of mineralization might be defined.  

The work will usually entail geochemical and geophysical surveys, walking a lot of the area, and developing geological maps while integrating all of the information with the hope that indications of a deposit are realized.   

This process may take a year or two, or three. Results from the fieldwork take time to be processed and interpreted.  

The advent of computers and geographic information systems (GIS) has dramatically improved the exploration process. 

The result of the fieldwork is, hopefully, the definition of a target or targets that warrant the expensive process of drill testing. Drilling is the only technique that can determine if mineralization exists and if it is potentially economic.  

8. If there is potential, begin Drilling 

Drill cores produced by diamond drilling for gold

Drill cores produced by diamond drilling for gold

Most drill programs fail to make a discovery or confirm a potentially viable mineralized system.  

There is also the dilemma after the first few holes. Has the drilling revealed data to continue drilling?  

The grade might be too low. 

For gold systems, a grade of 1 gram per tonne over a width of, say 20 meters is about the minimum to make it.  

If the work is lucky enough to find higher grade gold, say 10 to 15 g/t, a width of several meters would be regarded as a viable find.

After a few tens of drill holes are completed, the exploration team needs to assess the mineralization's size, characteristics, and continuity to determine if the discovery is worthy of further drilling to define resources and reserves. 

9. Discovery : Determining grade & deposit

Gold Bars

Gold Bars

We have all heard of the significant gold discoveries where companies have found large zones of mineralization and sometimes higher-grade shoots. 

Most precious metal exploration ends up in defining deposits that are lower grade but profitable to mine with extensive machinery. These are 'low grade, higher tonnage' deposits.  

Even with the best technology, it is difficult to find these valuable deposits since they may be no larger than the size of a football field.

This is the challenge that exploration teams relish. 

The chance of making a significant discovery keeps people in the industry searching, sometimes for their entire careers.  

When a precious metal deposit is found, and drilling has confirmed continuity and size, more work is done to define an 'inferred resource'.

This is a good start, but more drilling and definition work is required to turn an inferred resource into a 'measured and indicated resource'. 

Once this has been accomplished, then it might be time to think about developing a mine.  

But that is another story. 

FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions

What are minerals?

Minerals are inorganic substances that occur naturally in the Earth's crust. 

They can categorize them based on their chemical composition, crystal structure, and hardness. 

Common minerals include quartz, feldspar, mica, amphibole, pyroxene, and olivine. 

Mineral exploration is the process of finding new mineral deposits. This exploration is done through geological surveys and mapping. 

Once a potential mineral deposit has been found, mineral extraction can occur. This involves mining the minerals from the ground and processing them to remove impurities. 

Minerals are used in various ways, including in construction, manufacturing, and jewelry making.

What are precious metals?

Precious metals are rare mineral deposits that have a high economic value. 

They are typically found in mineral-rich areas and are extracted through mining and mineral exploration. 

The most common precious metals are gold, silver, and platinum. These metals are prized for their beauty, durability, and rarity, and they are used in various industries, including jewelry making, electronics manufacturing, and investment. 

Precious metals are also popular for investors seeking to hedge against inflation or protect their assets from economic downturns.

What is mineral exploration?

Mineral exploration is finding mineral deposits that can be mined economically. It generally involves four main steps: mineral prospecting, mineral evaluation, mineral development, and mineral production.

Mineral prospecting is the initial stage of exploration, during which geologic and geochemical surveys are conducted to identify potential mineral deposits. These surveys help to assess the likelihood of finding minerals at a particular location.

Once a suitable location has been identified, a mineral evaluation is conducted to determine the deposit's size and grade. This information is essential for assessing the economic feasibility of mining the deposit.

If the deposit is determined to be economically viable, mineral development will begin. This process involves building infrastructures such as roads and processing facilities.

Finally, mineral production can begin. This stage includes extracting and processing the ore to extract the valuable minerals. Mineral exploration is an essential part of the mining industry, as it helps ensure that mineral deposits are discovered and developed cost-effectively.

What is gold exploration?

Gold exploration is the process of searching for new gold deposits.  

Gold is commonly found in two deposits: lode (primary) deposits and placer (secondary) deposits. Lode deposits are created when mineral-bearing rocks are brought to the Earth's surface through volcanic activity or tectonic processes. 

Placer deposits, on the other hand, form when mineral-bearing rocks are eroded and the resulting mineral-rich debris is deposited in a new location. 

Geologists use various techniques to determine whether a particular area contains gold deposits, including geological mapping, sampling, and drilling. 

If gold is found in a deposit, further investigation is required to determine its size, grade, and mineralogy. Once a gold deposit has been discovered and assessed, mining can begin.

What is staking?

Mineral staking is claiming a piece of land for mineral exploration. To stake a claim, mineral explorers must first locate an area likely to contain minerals. They then mark out the boundaries of the claim and register it with the appropriate government agency. Once a claim has been registered, mineral explorers have the exclusive right to explore and develop the land for mineral resources. Mineral staking is integral to mineral exploration, as it allows mineral explorers to secure their rights to a particular piece of land. Without mineral staking, it would be much more difficult for mineral explorers to find and develop new mineral deposits.

What is open pit mining?

Open pit mining is a type of surface mining that is typically used to mine mineral deposits such as coal, iron ore, copper, gold, and silver. 

The mineral deposit is excavated from an open pit, and the mineral is extracted. Open pit mining is one of the most common types of mining, and it is typically used when mineral deposits are close to the surface. 

This type of mining can be hazardous, as there is a risk of collapse. In addition, open pit mining can hurt the environment, disturbing wildlife and damaging vegetation.

What is diamond drilling?

Diamond drilling is a mineral exploration drill that uses a rotating cutting head to remove cores of rock from the Earth. The diamond-tipped drill bits are usually made of natural or synthetic diamonds. 

Diamond drilling is more expensive than other types of mineral exploration drilling, but it can provide a higher quality of data. 

Because the cores are not disturbed by the drilling process, they can be used to provide information about the geology of the area being explored. 

In addition, because diamond drill bits can withstand high temperatures, they can be used to drill through volcanic rock and other complex materials. As a result, diamond drilling is an essential tool for mineral exploration and should be considered when planning any exploration project.

What is the largest gold deposit in the world?

The largest gold deposit in the world is in the Witwatersrand Basin in South Africa. The basin, which is around 2 billion years old, extends for about 400 kilometres and contains an estimated 40,000 tons of gold. 

Most of the gold is in a relatively small area known as the Main Reef. 

Although the Witwatersrand Basin is the largest gold deposit in the world, it has not been extensively mined due to its deep underground location. 

As a result, the gold that has been mined from the basin represents only a tiny fraction of the total gold that is thought to be present. Mineral exploration companies are currently working to develop new technologies that will allow them to access the gold that remains buried deep within the Witwatersrand Basin.