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Deposit Quality, Mineral Exploration Strategy and ‘Boundary Spanners’

- By: John P Sykes
Posted in: Blog, Conferences, Exploration, Mining, PhD, Publications


At the AusIMM & AIG Ninth International Mining Geology Conference last week I was honoured to contribute to a keynote paper, along with John Vann, the Conference Chair. The paper was entitled: Mines versus Mineralisation – Deposit Quality, Mineral Exploration Strategy and the Role of ‘Boundary Spanners’. My contributions were mainly in the area of systemic thinking about mine projects and sustainable development issues, in addition to thoughts about boundary spanners and ‘inside-outsiders’ and ‘outside-insiders’, though the paper spans a wide variety of other scientific and economics issues. A copy of the presentation and abstract are below, and the original paper can be purchased from the AusIMM:

Mines vs Mineralisation – McCuaig, Vann & Sykes – Aug 2014 – Centre for Exploration Targeting from John Sykes

“Resources added to the global metal inventory through exploration over the past 15 years have been generally of poor quality (declining grades, recoveries and lack of acceptable financial return). Similarly, companies opting for an acquisitions-based strategy have had to pick from a group of poorer quality resources left from previous exploration booms, and will struggle to deliver this metal to market economically. Increasing difficulty in obtaining sufficient social and community acceptance of mining projects and potentially an energy-constrained future may exacerbate this problem, redefining what is considered ‘ore’. There will need to be more focus on deposit quality, defined as sustainable margin in the future business environment.

Traditionally there has been a lack of translation of ‘mineralisation quality’ back to mineral project design and mineral exploration. This disconnect is due to two main factors: the first is technical – inherent deposit variability; and the second is organisational and socio-psychological –the mindset of explorers and project managers themselves.

There are four elements to value realisation for a mineral deposit: (1) social licence to operate; (2) geological factors (depth, geometry, water and geotechnical, and geometallurgy – influenced by texture, mineralogy, chemistry and grades); (3) financial engineering (capex, opex, future commodity prices, future energy prices), and (4) operating factors (production rate, recovery, energy consumption). These elements are strongly interdependent, and geology underpins and drives linkages between them. A quality deposit addresses all of these elements and thus can be developed in a time frame that allows acceptable returns to the owners of the invested capital.

Geological drivers of the above elements can be measured and mapped throughout a deposit. Moreover, when viewed in the context of mineral systems, a predictive understanding of the common causative processes of quality (despite deposit-scale variability) is emerging, and with it the ability to target quality of mineralisation, not just quantity of mineralisation.

The second factor is a ‘heuristic software problem’. Current lines of education (and consequently organisational and professional structures) are discipline-based, producing ‘silos’ that do not speak each other’s language and work with different ‘mental models’. People who effectively recognise systemic links between these silos are called ‘boundary spanners’, of which we propose two distinct types: outside-insiders and inside-outsiders. Outside-insiders are people who are within a community, but recognise advances in outside fields and effectively integrate them into the community. Inside-outsiders start outside of a community, and successfully bring new ideas
into it. Common traits in boundary spanners are: they seek exposure to (and embrace) key ideas that are outside of the framework of their own specialisation; they have high mental processing ability (MPA) – the ability to connect systems that are currently not perceived to be connected; and they introduce ideas from outside a field into a new context in a way that re-frames the field.

The challenge is to identify and nurture potential boundary spanners that can build critical links, in particular between the (largely geoscientific) mineral exploration mindset and the (largely non-geoscientific) project development mindset. Critical linkages to be built are between mineral system science, targeting science, and whole of value chain modelling.”