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Research at Laurentian University’s Mineral Exploration Research Centre aims to improve area selection for exploration companies by providing data on mineral deposits. Pictured here are students in the field.Supplied

Gold: with a production value of $12.3-billion, and 182 tonnes mined in 2020, gold is Canada’s most valuable mined commodity, and the country ranks fifth among the largest global producers. Yet in order to continue delivering strong results over the long term, the industry has to address a number of key challenges that include a shift to exploring new mining sites, delivering a strong sustainability performance and attracting new talent.

Research and innovation can help to improve outcomes in these priority areas, says Ross Sherlock, director of the Mineral Exploration Research Centre (MERC) at the Harquail School of Earth Sciences (HES), Laurentian University.

“[Mining companies] are currently focused on brownfield exploration, since gold that is discovered adjacent to existing operations can be mined tomorrow,” he explains. “With greenfield exploration, it can take over a decade until new mining sites produce results, and this can make securing investments difficult.”

Capital costs for bringing new mines into production tend to be high, and the timeline is extensive. One Gold Fields project in South America involving a greenfield discovery, for example, began with land acquisition in 2007 and the first hole drilled in 2011, says Dr. Sherlock. “From a maiden resource declaration in 2013 followed preliminary economic analysis and feasibility studies in 2015 and 2017, and the construction of the mine, which will begin production during Q1 2023.”

Brownfield explorations can extend the life of existing operations, yet they ultimately tap already-depleted resources, he says. “Some of these mines, like Timmins and Kirkland Lake, are 100-year-plus operations, but you’re not going to find gold there forever.”

Helping to facilitate the shift to greenfield exploration is a priority for MERC’s Metal Earth project, a seven-year applied R&D effort that brings together geoscientists, data scientists and geophysicists “to advance the fundamental science that will discover the next generation of orebodies.”

Even though “there is no silver bullet” for eliminating the risk of exploration, “what we bring to the table are different analytical tools,” says Dr. Sherlock, explaining that MERC and HES work to foster a deeper understanding of ore systems as well as enable geoscientists to better interpret complex multi-parameter datasets to navigate within a data-rich work environment.

“The industry generates a lot of data yet doesn’t always use it efficiently,” he notes. “I would call it ‘data rich, but knowledge poor.’”

Applying data science tools like artificial intelligence (AI), neural networks or machine learning first requires that “the data is in good shape,” Dr. Sherlock says. “Mining companies typically have decades worth of data – some digital, some not. Trying to organize this into a useful framework can be challenging and time consuming.”

However, data can help to identify patterns in known deposits that can then point to areas with similar metal endowment. This can “allow industry to enter new jurisdictions with confidence, whether that’s in Northern Canada or South America’s Guiana Shield, and potentially shorten the time to discovery,” he says. “The outcome we’re looking for is to improve area selection – and thereby reduce the risk – in greenfield exploration.

" We need to change the perception that mining is dirty, low-tech, manual labour and environmentally destructive.

Dr. Ross Sherlock
Director, Mineral Exploration Research Centre

“We believe the discovery of orebodies has a big multiplier effect in the creation of new wealth for society.”

In addition to improving outcomes for exploration companies, data about mineral deposits can also provide a valuable tool for land-use planning, he says. “For example, when local stakeholders such as First Nations communities know about the mineral potential on their traditional lands, they can make informed decisions on where to implement conservation measures and where to facilitate exploration.”

Many mining operations are located in remote locations, and benefits for local communities can come as an inflow of funds and other economic opportunities, such as jobs and training. Dr. Sherlock believes how companies operate in their local environment is a key criterion for evaluating their environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance.

“Efforts to operate sustainably, which includes a dedication to meeting ESG standards at home and abroad, are earning Canadian mining companies a solid reputation,” says Dr. Sherlock, who hopes that this commitment to sustainability can also help to address the sector’s challenge of attracting youth.

“Canadian mining companies offer good, well-paying jobs and interesting work – but finding talent remains challenging,” he says. “We need to change the perception that mining is dirty, low-tech, manual labour and environmentally destructive. There is lots of technology and sophistication in the industry, which also offers rewarding high-tech careers.”

Resource development can create a lasting positive legacy, says Dr. Sherlock, and MERC aims to make a difference by providing cutting-edge tools for solving geoscience problems and discovering new resources while training highly qualified personnel for careers in the industry, academia and government.

Gold is Canada’s most valuable mined commodity

$12.3-billion: Value of gold produced in Canada (2020)

182 tonnes: Gold production of Canadian mines (2020)

5th: Canada’s rank as a global gold producer

23: out of Canada’s top 40 miners are primary gold miners

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