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The geologist and the mining value chain

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Many items that we use daily are composed of metals that have been mined and refined at one point in the past.

To extract a metal from its host-mineral, the mineral must go through a series of industrial processing steps that adds value, both in terms of economy and usability. The path that valuable minerals go through from discovery to delivery as final products is called the mining value chain.

The mining value chain is dynamic and shifts according to the commodity market, which is influenced by supply and demand, juridical factors, price fluctuations, changing market structures, and environmental concerns. Companies operating within the mining value chain must remain resilient, flexible, and productive to remain competitive.

Value chain of the mine Value chain of the mine

The long path that minerals must go through, can be fragmented into different organisational steps with individual responsibilities such as exploration, mining, extractive metallurgy, logistics, and market sales. We are going to discuss each step where geology plays an important role, and we are going to see how a geologist adds value to different parts of the value chain.

  • During the exploration process, the subsurface is examined, aiming to identify locations with an accumulation of valuable minerals that can be extracted at a feasible cost. In this first step of the value chain, geologists are the playing a tremendously important role. They are assigned the task of finding the mineralization, evaluating, and determining whether there is something in the ground that is worth mining. The exploration for minerals includes geological and geophysical mapping, testing water and soil samples, drilling, and other exploration activities. This process is strictly regulated, and an exploration license is necessary to carry out any of these studies. Geologists prepare reports of mineral resources according to public standards and jurisdictions. The exploration industry is reactive to the changing demands of the market and the value of the minerals is determined by their physical and chemical properties that assure the function of present and future technologies.
  • If the exploration campaign is successful, the location and the size of the valuable minerals are defined and if legal, social, and environmental factors are properly considered, the extraction of the material can commence. During the mining process, the minerals are excavated from the crust by different fragmentation methods and transported to the mill where the size of the rocks will be reduced to the millimeter scale. Geologists play a crucial role in the extraction of valuable materials, and they are constantly supervising and differentiating between valuable material and waste material. They assure that the mill receives material that has a certain grade of ore that will make it economical.
  • The desired metals are extracted from the valuable minerals using extractive metallurgy. The milled ore material is treated by mineral processing techniques such as flotation, magnetic separation, or leaching. What processing steps that are suitable is defined by the material properties or the ore material and vary between different ore types. But all mineral processing steps work to concentrate valuable minerals in the total working material. The efficiency of the mineral processing steps begins in the milling process because the milling liberates and separates the valuable minerals from any undesirable minerals but even in the case of perfect milling, a mineral processing step is never 100% efficient. Making sure that mineral processing is performed at the highest possible efficiency is important for society to make sure the mining value chain does not lose unnecessary material to waste piles. Once the valuable minerals are successfully concentrated, the desired metals are extracted from the valuable minerals by metallurgical methods taking advantage of the material properties of the actual metals. Throughout the extractive metallurgical process, geologists help assessing if the valuable minerals are successfully separated from waste minerals by using process mineralogical techniques.
  • The last steps of the value chain include the shipping logistics where the inventory levels and quality are managed, and the materials are moved between different locations until it arrives at the final customer. Geologists play a limited role in the last part of the value chain; however, they must still be aware of the market trends as they can have a significant influence on future metal demand that drives mineral exploration.

Geologists bring value to the mining value chain by providing a detailed understanding of the metal distribution, and nature of ore deposits. As the demand for metals is increasing, mining activities reach deeper down in the crust, which brings more complexity in terms of stability of infrastructure and logistical issues that must be understood to find and extract the resources. Geologists play an indispensable role in the mining value chain, as they assure that there will be metals that can be delivered to the final client.

© Luleå University of Technology
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