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The gold standard of mineral exploration

We all know metals like gold, copper and nickel are essential to our way of life. Metals are used in just about everything. So how do we make sure that we have a continuous supply of these metals? How do you find new ore deposits to make sure we meet future demand? Our scientists are working hard to specifically address that issue. Listen to find out how.


Episode 43 – Mineral Exploration

Joel Houle: We all know metals like gold, copper and nickel are essential to our way of life.

Barbara Ustina: They are used in so many things. We're talking your smart phones, kitchen gear, clothing, electronics, transportation, construction… The list is endless.

Joel: So how do we make sure that we have a continuous supply of these metals?

Barb: And how do experts find new ore deposits to make sure we meet future demand?

Joel: Our scientists are working hard to specifically address that issue. Stay tuned to find out how…

Joel: Welcome to a new episode of Simply Science, the podcast that talks about the amazing scientific work that our experts at Natural Resources Canada are doing. My name is Joel Houle.

Barb: And I'm Barb Ustina. Welcome, everyone. We have a really interesting episode for you today. We're speaking with two scientists who study ore deposits. Now, these are metals, and minerals are something that we use every day, but we don't often think about where they come from. Supply, demand, that sort things. It'll be interesting to hear. Now, Joel, how much do you know about mining for minerals and metals?

Joel: Oh, I know a lot. I play a lot of Minecraft, so I know that if you go explore in those deep caves, you got to watch out for those ancient cities where you find a warden. But when it comes to real life, though, maybe not so much.

Barb: Okay. I thought you'd have a completely different answer to that question because you're always wearing, like, heavy metal T shirts during our zoom conversations.

Joel: You know, working from home has its perks, so wearing jammies and band shirts are my comfort zone.

Barb: Do you want to take a quick quiz?

Joel: Sure. About mining and minerals?

Barb: You bet.

Joel: Okay, let's do it. Go for it. I love quizzes.

Barb: I have a question for you.

Joel: Okay.

Barb: How many different minerals does Canada produce in total?

Joel: How many different minerals? Okay. I don't know. I'm going to say, like, 25. Am I close?

Barb: A little up.

Joel: A little up? 723.

Barb: Quite a bit down.

Joel: Oh, yeah. Like going around 50 or so.

Barb: Close. 60 different minerals.

Joel: Wow, that's impressive. That's a lot of products. Wow, that's good. Okay, so if you like quizzes, I do have a question for you. When I was doing my research, there's some interesting stats here that I wanted to share with you. So it's a little wordy. Okay. What is the top ranked commodity by value of production in Canada? So what is the mineral or metal that we produce that's the most, like, that's the highest value. Total dollar value of what we produce for that mineral?

Barb: Okay, and somehow, I think this is a trick question because it's kind of obvious, but I'm going to go with what's on the top of my head, and I'm going to go with gold.

Joel: Actually yeah, you're right. I was just trying to throw you a curveball.

Barb: Are diamonds considered minerals? No, I don't think so.

Joel: Yeah, they are, actually.

Barb: They are.

Joel: Okay, but you know what? Okay, here's some stats, because I know you love some stats. So in 2021, we produced $44 billion worth of minerals and metals, and about 4% of that was diamonds, but 28% of that was gold, and we're talking about, like, $13.7 billion in value that we produce. I just thought it was really interesting. It's over a quarter.

Barb: Wow, that is a lot.

Joel: Anyways, speaking of gold, one of our experts today is an expert in gold exploration. Do you think we should bring out our guests?

Barb: Yeah, let's go to the source.

Joel: With us today, we have Patrick Mercier-Langevin and Michel Houlé from the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in Québec City. Gentlemen, how's it going?

Patrick Mercier-Langevin: Good. Thanks, and you?

Joel: Very good, thank you. Michel [French language], going well?

Michel Houlé: Yes, going well, and you?

Joel: Good. Thank you. Let's start by maybe you can tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Patrick: Yes, sure. I'm Patrick Mercier-Langevin. I am a research scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada at the Québec office. I'm from Chicoutimi where I did my undergrad as a geological engineer. Then I've done a master there as well, and then moved to Québec in 2000 to do a PhD at the "Institut national de la recherche scientifique", the INRS in Québec City on a GSC project. Then I graduated in 2004, and then moved to Val-d'Or where I was hired by an exploration company as a project geologist exploring for gold in the Abitibi region, so in Northwestern Québec and Northeastern Ontario.
Then in 2006, I joined GSC, so I moved back to Québec City as a geoscientist. I've been with the GSC since then.

Michel: I'm Michel Houlé. I'm also, as Patrick, a research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada based in Québec City. I'm from Montreal, but I did my BSc and my MSc degree in Laval University in Québec, and on chromite mineralization in Northern Québec. After that, I moved in Ontario around in 2000 to do my PhD degree in economic geology at the University of Ottawa and Laurentian University in Sudbury.
I spent many years working over there after that with the Ontario Geological Survey for the Ontario Province doing regional mapping and mineral assessment around the Timmins area. After that, I move back in Québec in 2009 to start working as a research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada.

Barbara: Certainly, it sounds like you're both very accomplished in your fields. We're going to get into a few details a bit later on, but I'm wondering if, just as a setup here, a beginning, if you can provide us a bit of an overview of the type of work you're involved in and your expertise in that area.

Patrick: Yes, sure. We said that we're research scientists, but in fact, we can be a bit more precise. We are metallurgists, so we are specializing on studying ore deposits. Ore deposit mean metal concentration that can be mined with profit. When we're talking about an ore body or deposit, it has to be rich enough or big enough to be mined profitably. Michel and I are both metallurgists. We are also even more specialized in that. I'm specialized on gold deposits and copper-zinc deposits, whereas Michel is specialized on nickel, copper, PGE, platinum group element deposits, chromium deposits as well.
We are talking about ore deposits, but there are different commodities, different metals, and each of these deposits are completely different, so it's a bit complicated. Throughout our career as research scientists, we keep improving our knowledge and specializing. These deposits, they all have different characteristics and they're formed under different conditions in different places. That's why each metallurgist has that specialty.

Barb: Let me make sure I've got this straight. The purpose of your research is to better understand ore deposits where they're located, that sort of thing. More specifically, what are you hoping to learn about these deposits and why is it something that you feel is really worthwhile pursuing?

Patrick: There are many reasons, but why we are pursuing ore deposit is about better understanding how they formed, why they formed, and where they formed. The importance of that is to be able to contribute to better exploration models or exploration guidelines. If you want to make sure that you're putting or investing money at the right place depending on what you're looking for; gold, or nickel, copper, you have to understand how these deposits are being formed. That's why we're studying those deposits. The more you know, the more you understand how they form, well, the better you can vector or select areas that have a good potential. That's a more practical aspect of that.
We want to understand how these deposits are formed. It's a scientific question, it's part of the evolution of the earth, so we are interested in that. The practical aspect is to develop better exploration programs and better exploration guidelines. This being said, the NRCan, so Natural Resources Canada has a clear mandate. We have to keep improving the understanding of the geology of the country, which includes a better appraisal of its mineral potential. We have to generate some public knowledge. All the work that we're doing is public, so it's not private. It has to be open. That's what we call pre-competitive knowledge.
It can be used by anyone for whatever use, so better land use planning and all that, safety, whatever, and including exploration and reducing the risk of exploration. That's our mandate. We know in Canada, the mineral resources domain is really important. That has a major economic impact. We're talking about billions of dollars that it injects into the Canadian economy every year. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs that are related to the mineral industry.

Joel: Yes, it's a very important and significant industry for sure. Why is it important right now to focus on improving the way we identify viable ore deposits? What's the driving force behind this type of research?

Patrick: It's important for its several reasons. First, what we call a reserve and resources, so metal resources that we know that are somewhere in the ground and that could potentially be mined in the near future are declining. We don't have that much metal ahead of us, so we have to do more exploration to keep finding more resources to contribute to the metal demand in the future. That demand, it keeps increasing as well. So many countries are now in the big phase of development. We are diversifying the economy as well and the move towards the more green economy creates some pressure and demand on new metals or more metals.
If you want to have electric cars, we're going to need much more copper, for example, much more lithium, so that creates big pressure on the production. We are going to need more metals in the near future. That's one of the main drivers between the research we are doing.

Barb: I'm really surprised to hear that our metal deposits are declining because I think for a lot of people, and I'm talking about non-experts like myself, we're living under this imaginary vision that we have vast supplies of these metals, but that's really not the case, so I find that really surprising. I'm curious about specifically the type of work that's involved in discovering these ore deposits and getting more details about the ore deposits. I'm curious, can you talk us a bit through your process? Do you physically go out in the field and take measurements or collect data? How do you figure all of this out?

Michel: This is a really interesting question. In fact, it's a really exciting thing to be out in the field and things like that, but I will explain a little bit. At the beginning, what you try to do to try to better understand ore deposit or ore system, in fact, what we start right away to establish, to try to establish some key question or scientific problem that we want to resolve or try to resolve or to improve.
In fact, after we define that within the guideline of our program, for example, one of our program that it's the targeted geoscience initiative, that one of the main goal is to try to help better understand ore system, different ore system that it could be gold or nickel or lithium or many other ore system that we try to better understand that. After we establish a scientific question, we try to look across the country and say, "Okay, where is the best place to try to understand or to try to improve on our understanding for that specific question?" After we design that or we decide where is the best place, and now all the fun start.
That means all our work, it's quite diversified, and this implies several steps. The first step will be, first of all, like if you're planning a holiday vacation somewhere or things like that, you need to do a lot of field planning. That means if you go working, if you decide that the best place to answer your scientific question will be on the mine, but it's different that if we go working, for example, in the far north of Canada, for example, in Nunavut or other place like that. That means a lot of planning is involved.
That could be for all the accommodation, the transport, and everything to build or hire people or field crew and to collaborate, to build collaboration with universities, with the industry, and provincial and territorial survey. This it's part of the field planning. When all that is done, we need to do actually the field campaign. This it's where we're getting the data, the new data to try to better understand those ore deposits. This will imply many different steps. That will go really quickly, but you're collecting new data, you're field mapping, underground mapping, and the main thing is we're collecting sample. We're collecting generally a lot of sample and we bring those back into the office.
After that, this is where the next step will start. This will be the laboratory portion of it. That means now we're collecting the rock that we collected underground from drill core or from the surface. We just prepare them to make concession that we can look at it under the microscope. After that, we can send that for geochemical analysis for all rock, for trace element data. For example, when we talk about critical minerals or all those elements, what you need to remember, they're all and generally it's small proportion in the rocks except when you have a big accumulation. Even that it's a couple of percent or PPM per se.
This is the part of the laboratory, but when we collect and we receive all the data, the other step that's really critical, it will be all the data analysis and the integration of the data. That means all the result that you are receiving from the lab, from the cartographic work, the microprobe, and things like that, you need to analyze that and to try to understand what we have in the end and to understand those deposits. After that, at the end of the day, but we need to diffuse our knowledge or what we learned from that project.
This could be throughout scientific meeting, national, international meeting with other scientists across the world. It could be within the exploration community or also with the general public throughout different venues, for example, like a podcast like we're doing today.

Joel: Yes, I guess you're saving the best for last with a podcast. That's really good. It's great to have such variety in your work. Now, we're recording this in January right now, and Michel, from what I hear, you have a really interesting, I guess, fieldwork trip coming up in a few weeks. Do you want to tell us a little bit about it?

Michel: Yes, certainly. One thing I didn't mention, for example, it depends where you are in the world, but, for example, perhaps in Canada because we have four seasons, generally, we are doing most of our fieldwork from probably late spring, summertime period, and early fall. The thing is sometimes depending of what type of field campaign you're doing, I guess it's an example in the next few weeks, I'm going in the field in Northern Quebec to do some fieldwork.
In fact, this it's in February and this is a middle of winter, but the thing is because why it's possible, it's because specifically for this field campaign, I'm going to exploration sites of a mining company, exploration company to look some of the drill core they did last fall. That means we'll go over there and we'll look in the remote camp, but it will be heated and everything. [chuckles] This is why it's possible we'll not go to see any outcrops, but we'll get to see core over there and to sample it. It will be exactly the same as I told you before. We'll collect some sample and we'll bring data back and we'll do all the different steps that I was talking about personally.

Joel: That's good. Most people go south during the winter, we go north at Natural Resources Canada. That's great. What stage are things at right now and any thoughts on what the future might have in store?

Patrick: We're probably going to face some challenges, especially the geoscientist. We've said there's a growing demand in metals and finding deposits is increasingly difficult. In the past, most deposits were discovered through prospecting, so a direct discovery of detection. Metals, the ore was present on surface or cropping. That's how many big discoveries were made decades ago. Now with time, most of these surface discoveries have been done and more and more we are looking for ore deposits that are hidden. They are depth and across over 500 meters below surface, 1,000, 1,500 meters below surface. That means that the ore does not crop, so you cannot see it on surface.
What you have to look for then are hints or traces of mineralization. You have to be able to detect potential mineralization or ore deposits waves. We're looking at what we call its footprint. You don't see the mineralization itself, but you have some indications that there might be mineralization somewhere at depth. That means that we have to keep improving our understanding of how deposits are formed and what are the traces left by these ore-forming processes. That's why increasing our knowledge of how the deposits form is becoming more and more important. That's one of the challenge that we are facing now. As I said, we are looking for different metals, different materials now.
Again, it means improving our understanding in some systems or deposit types that we haven't maybe studied in much detail as other deposit types that we've been mining for a long time. What it means is that on the short term, we were going to need well-trained geologists, well-trained geoscientists. Michel has alluded to that, but there's a lot of information we gather in the field, different types of data, and more and more, we were using portable devices to get data in real-time in the field, but there is also more and more analytical work we can do on the samples we're bringing back. The geologists or the new generations of geologists and geoscientists, they require multiple skills.
You have to be good at recognizing the rocks and mapping the rocks, but you have to be good at analyzing complex geochemical or chemical data sets. You have to be good in physics, you have to have good computational skills. A well-trained geoscientist now means that you have to be able to do different things, and it's a group effort I would say. You need many people now to look at a sample because everybody's going to look at that one given sample or a set of data with different eyes and different knowledge and expertise because there are so much material or data we're getting from these samples that we now are working in a group.
Collaboration is quite good because you need the complementary expertise to really extract as much as you can from those samples and the information that you got from your field work. That's probably, what is in store for us in the near future. If we want to keep contributing to improving exploration metals and contributing to the Canadian wealth, we're going to have to continue better understanding how these deposits perform, and that's our role as metallurgists at NRCan.

Barb: A lot of your work is done in very remote places in Northern Canada, places that most of us will never get to see in person. Do you have any stories you can share about working in the north or in remote places?

Patrick: Yes, sure. There are many stories. I'm not sure I can talk about all those stories here, but doing fieldwork is a great opportunity that we have. It's a chance, yes. As you said, we're going in some places that other people don't really have a chance to go to. It's always a bit of an adventure, I would say. We're often getting in the field by boat or planes, slow planes, and things like that, helicopters, snowmobiles. There are different ways to get there. It leads to all sorts of adventures as you can imagine. It's also very, very exciting.
Something we haven't mentioned, but Michel and I are working pretty much everywhere in Canada, so from Newfoundland to Yukon. We see different environments.
A couple of years ago, I was doing some field work with students in Nunavut in the tundra, and then a couple of weeks ago, after I was in the mountains in Central Yukon, and then, again, a couple of weeks later, I was in swamps in Northeastern Ontario. Each place presents its own challenges, but again, that's a chance that we have as geoscientist to see all those places. We have to live with bugs, for sure. It's part of the deal, but you get used to it. It's not that bad. We all have a couple of wildlife encounters as well. There's always something happening, so it's great. We are most of the time working with other people. As I was saying, collaboration is important.
Provincial, territorial survey collaborators, academia, students, people from the industry that are collaborating their projects as well. Fieldwork brings together as well, so you usually develop really good friendship through those field adventure. I think most of our colleagues would say that it's a great motivation on a day-to-day. That's why we're so keen about going in the field. We're looking at the rocks. It's for sure a great motivation. That's why we're doing that. I like gold deposits. I like seeing gold deposits, but working with the people as well is great. We always usually end up being good friends and longtime friends as well with for sure a couple of interesting stories to talk about [chuckles] when we get together for a beer.

Barb: I'd like to hear more about the wildlife encounters.

Patrick: Bears are always part of the game, sometimes moose. When you set up a camp in the James Bay area, for example, you will always end up with a curious bear coming close to the camp, getting drawn by smells and things like that, so yes, usually, there are no problems, but yes, it's part of the game. Some wolverines in Yukon, same in Nunavut. In some places, for safety reasons, you have to hire someone that brings a gun just for safety reasons. When you're working in Nunavut close to Bay of Ungava, there are some wild bears there, or in the mountains in the west, there are grizzly bears as well.
Exploration camps, they usually have a fence, electrical fence around the camp just to make sure that you don't have a grizzly bear or anything. Yes, it's part of the game. There are all sorts of safety measures.

Barb: Wow.

Michel: Maybe I can just add something that when you talk about wildlife encounter, the thing is, yes, as Patrick said, you have a lot of safety measure about that, but sometimes this could be quite fun because just a quick story about that. It's a few years ago when I was working in Nunavut when one of my student that I was hired for the summer. In fact, for one entire day, we had a small caribou that follow us pretty much all day probably several hundred meters apart, but every time we were moving, he was always curious and following us pretty much all day. It was quite interesting about that.

Barb: For our listeners who might be interested in the field, they might want to get more information about the topic, about mineral exploration, and the type of work you do, what are some of the online resources that you might recommend?

Michel: In fact, for people that are more interested about what we do and mineral exploration, a lot of information out there. In fact, as a starting point, all the Canadian government, provincial, and territorial government websites, for example, the Geological Survey of Canada, the Ontario Geological Survey, and all the different province and territories have a lot of information about all the geology and all related to what is a geoscientist. Also, the geoscientists of Canada website has a lot of information about what a geoscientists do and in all the different fields. More related to mineral exploration, they have also a lot of resources out there. Maybe I can mention two.
It's the Prospector and Developers Association of Canada website and the Quebec Mineral Exploration Association website that have a lot of information about all the different steps of mineral exploration as we explained a little bit from the beginning to go into the production, but also for the restoration of the mine site afterwards, after all the minerals has been extracted from the ground.

Joel: Perfect. We'll make sure to add those links in the description of the podcast. Michel and Patrick, thank you so much for taking the time to join us on our podcast and talk about your amazing work that you do. Thank you.

Michel: Thank you very much Joel and Barbara .

Patrick: Thank you very much.

Joel: That was a really interesting interview we had. For sure. I loved their stories about their work in the field.

Barb: There's a lot more to it than you might imagine. And it sounds like they had some pretty incredible adventures in the field, in the wilderness like that.

Joel: Oh, for sure. I'm booking my ticket to Northern Quebec. Going to find myself some gold!

Barb: Don't quit your day job, okay? Anyway, if you're interested in learning more about their work and the kinds of things they do, we have resources. We'll have links in the description below.

Joel: And you can also leave a review or share this episode. And if you share over Twitter, make sure to tag us @NRCanScience.

Barb: And remember, simply, Science also has a website and a YouTube channel which you should check out. We have in depth articles of interest, videos that showcase the fascinating scientific work that we do at Natural Resources Canada. And you can find those links and all our social media channels listed in the episode description as well.

Joel: Thank you, Barb. And thank you so much, everyone, for listening. We'll see you in the next episode.

Barb: Bye for now!

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