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Unlocking mining mysteries

By Kelly Foss

Researchers from the faculties of Science and Engineering are teaming up to collect and study new information in support of the mining industry in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Drs. Chuck Hurich, Colin Farquharson and Jeremy Hall, Department of Earth Sciences, and Steve Butt, Engineering, have been successful in obtaining a $400,000 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Collaborative Research and Development (CRD) grant and using it to leverage additional funds from Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency (ACOA) and Vale Inco. The funding, now totalling over $1 million over three years, is in support of a larger institutional grant which allowed the university to build the Inco Innovation Centre.

“A portion of that original project had a geophysical component,” said Dr. Hurich. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is apply geophysics to mining related problems. The idea is to try to bring a higher level of geophysical technology to the mining industry.”

Dr. Hurich explains that in terms of exploration, most of the major exploitable findings have been found at less than 500 meters depth.

“We’re looking for approaches to sense below 500 meters,” he said. “It’s most attractive to the companies that already have infrastructure in place and are trying to extend their reach because drilling is very expensive.”

Already the team has installed a passive seismic array at Voisey’s Bay. It listens for local micro earthquakes that are used to identify active fracture systems and potentially to map stress distributions in the subsurface in preparation for a mine design.

“When they design an underground mine, assuming they do decide to go underground, they have to know something about the size of the stress, the orientation of the stress, what’s active, what isn’t active – that kind of thing,” said Dr. Hurich. “So this is a new way to get that information.”

A second component to the project uses information from multiple data sets, such as gravity field, magnetic field and seismic data, to create a subsurface model. In addition, the team is combining to create mining specific approaches to seismology technology usually used for oil and gas exploration.

“The original grant allowed us to build the infrastructure, in the Inco Innovation Centre,” said Dr. Hurich. “We now have labs in that building and people in place and we’ve been developing equipment that allows us to do the research. We’re to the point now where we’re moving forward on more scientific aspects of the project and that’s the three upcoming years the new grant is supporting.

The field work necessary to compile information for the project will take place next year at Voisey’s Bay.