By Andrew Wareing
As the demand for raw materials continues, the mining industry is looking for new and better ways to find them.
The volunteers with the Ontario Mineral Exploration Technologies (OMET) program are the ones who are getting a sneak peak at some of the new and innovative methods people in the industry are devising to locate those resources.
The OMET program, just in its first year, is a four-year, $8-million program developed by the Ontario Geological Survey with Laurentian University's Mineral Exploration Research Centre.
Through the program, mining companies, academic institutions, individuals or collaborations of all three vet their ideas for applying new technology and techniques toward the search for Ontario's mineral wealth. The OMET management board, based on recommendations by its expert technical advisory committee (ETAC), funds a few of these projects for further development.
The first allocations of funds for further development of these techniques are to be revealed at the Ontario Mineral Exploration Symposium in Toronto on Dec. 11 and 12.
"The focus of the program is to identify new technical advances that can assist the exploration industry in Ontario," says ETAC chair John Gingerich.
"(The program) looks for good science, but downstream also looks for the possibility of transfer of technology to the entire exploration community and not just to a few individuals," Gingerich says.
"The (basis) of Ontario's economy is in its mineral resources," says OMET program co-ordinator Ed Debicki. "We're still endowed with a wealth of mineral resources, but they're more difficult to find.
We're having to look deeper because the ones that were closer to the surface have already been found. We are going to need more innovative techniques to look deeper into the Earth's crust to find them."
Debicki says the first order of business for the program was the formation of an 11-member ETAC to give proposals a peer review. To date, the group has examined 23 proposals.
The ETAC includes a variety of industry geologists, geochemists and others involved in the mineral resources industry.
"It's important to note that these 11 individuals bring 300-plus person-years of experience," says Debicki.
"The program has not been without its startup issues," says Gingerich. "Everyone on the committee is busy with full-time jobs and they are leaders in the exploration community. It's very demanding and challenging. But we've succeeded."
The group focuses on several areas including geological study and how theory and experience elsewhere in the world are applied to Ontario's geology. One area is the use of current airborne and very long frequency (VLF) radio techniques to determine mineral abundances in the ground.
Areas also include the study of geochemistry, analysis and detection of certain trace chemicals in the ground, and the use of satellite and global information system (GIS) information.
"We have all this technology collecting valuable reams of information," says Debicki. "It is a help to the industry if the software can be developed to collect this information, process it and come up with a meaningful way for people to be able to use it.
"All these things are pieces to a very large puzzle in explaining the resources available in Ontario. We need to be able to collect this information, process it and find where the good places are to explore."
Debicki says collaborations between industry members and educational institutions are encouraged, as are projects that bring additional or matching funding. Funding of proposals can range from $20,000 to $350,000, with the average expected to be somewhere in the $100,000 to $150,000 range.
"At the end of the day I expect we will be funding about 10 to 15 projects per year, but that's just a guess on my part at this point," Debicki says. "It could be fewer or more."
"The challenge might come a while down the road when people begin to see what the program is doing and word starts getting around," says Gingerich. "We could get to a point, say, where we can only pick three (proposals), but have 11 proposals that all score equally."
Even if a proposal is unsuccessful, Gingerich says the committee will provide recommendations for the submission.
The challenge for the mineral resource development industry is in the unique nature of Ontario's geology, says Debicki. Thousands of years of glacier movements have created blankets of glacial gravel deposits that make finding new resources a challenge. In the James Bay lowlands 600-million-year-old limestone is a different challenge.
New discoveries of diamond deposits in the James Bay lowlands and elsewhere, as well as the search for platinum and palladium deposits, have joined the old standbys of gold, nickel and copper in Ontario mineral exploration.
Gingerich applauds the program because it looks not just to short-term solutions concerning one or two projects, but to the benefit of the entire industry.
The effort is worth it, says Debicki, pointing out that mining and mineral exploration and development is a $5.5-billion industry in Ontario and one that affects areas like Northern Ontario very acutely.
"New mines equal wealth in our province," Debicki concludes. "It creates the tax base for the services we as citizens in Ontario have come to rely on. There are a lot of very positive things that come as a result of this program."