Mineral Exploration Roadmap
There is nothing more exciting than making some type of discovery.
Discoveries can come in many forms – they can be physical, scientific, personal, or even philosophical in nature. But while there are different types of discoveries that can be made, perhaps the most tactile kind of discovery is in the field of mineral exploration.
The discovery of a mineral deposit can transform a piece of “moose pasture” into a new economic asset, and it may enable millions or billions of dollars worth of metals and minerals to be used for human purposes.
These minerals get used all around us – they go into our houses, cars, infrastructure, jewelry, electronics, and they can even be used to power the green revolution.
From Prospecting to Production
Making an economic mineral discovery is the goal of many teams around the world, but these efforts can also be extremely difficult, costly, and time-consuming, and most companies engaged in exploration end up walking away empty-handed.
Today’s infographic comes to us from Orix Geoscience and it shows the steps of mineral exploration, and how teams can maximize their odds of success by using data to add value throughout the process.
Steps of the Mineral Exploration Process
1. Exploration Strategy
Where do you choose to explore? There are two basic strategies:
(a) Working from the known
Deposits tend to form in clusters in prolific belts, and exploration occurs outward from known mineralization.
(b) Working from the unknown
If you review all available information, prospective areas with potential for discoveries can be identified.
In this stage, boots are now on the ground – and it’s time to explore the backwoods for showings. Prospectors will stake claims, map outcrops and showings, and search for indicator minerals.
The goal of the prospecting stage is to find the earliest piece of the exploration puzzle: the clue that there is something much bigger beneath.
3. Early-Stage Exploration
Congrats, you’ve found something interesting – and now it’s time to ramp up exploration efforts!
This is where the amount of data and sophistication picks up. In this stage, companies are using existing maps and historical data, geophysics, ground truthing, geochemistry, and trenching to try and identify drill targets.
4. The “Truth Machine”
Geologists don’t call the drill a “truth machine” for nothing.
If you’re target hits, you’re in business. If your target misses, it’s time to go back a step and find new ones.
Eureka! You’ve found something. Now it’s time to see how far the mineralization goes!
Once you have enough information, you can get an official resource estimate. This data is another puzzle piece that will be crucial as you advance your discovery.
Even at the best of times, mining can be expensive, risky, and tricky.
That’s why your investors and backers will want you to source even more data – it’ll allow you to see a clearer picture of the deposit, and help your team see how it could take shape as a mine.
At this stage, drilling, metallurgical tests, environmental assessments, 3d models, and mine designs are used to increase confidence in the project.
Data starts to get very granular. Your company may do a Preliminary Economic Assessment (PEA) to assess the potential economic outcomes of a mine. Then after, they may conduct an in-depth Feasibility Study to help make a production decision.
By this point, you may have all the puzzle pieces – a clear vision of the deposit and its potential – to make a decision!
If the puzzle looks good, it’s time to make a production decision, construct the mine, and start commercial production. But the data doesn’t stop there – at these later stages, even more data gets created and it can help you make better decisions.
Visualizing the Life Cycle of a Mineral Discovery
Building a mine takes time that poses risks at every stage. This graphic maps a mineral deposit from discovery to mining, showing where value is created.
Visualizing the Life Cycle of a Mineral Discovery
Mining legend Pierre Lassonde knows a little bit about mineral exploration, discovery, and development. Drawing from decades of his experience, he created the chart above that has become a staple in the mining industry—the Lassonde Curve.
Today’s chart of the Lassonde Curve outlines the life of mining companies from exploration to production, and highlights the work and market value associated with each stage. This helps speculative investors understand the mining process, and time their investments properly.
Making Cents of Miners: The Stages of a Mineral Discovery
In the life cycle of a mineral deposit, there are seven stages that each offer specific risks and rewards. As a company proves there is a mineable deposit in the ground, more value is created for shareholders along the way.
This stage carries the most risk which accounts for its low value. In the beginning, there is little knowledge of what actually lies beneath the Earth’s surface.
At this stage, geologists are putting to the test a theory about where metal deposits are. They will survey the land using geochemical and sampling techniques to improve the confidence of this theory. Once this is complete, they can move onto more extensive exploration.
There is still plenty of risk, but this is where speculation hype begins. As the drill bit meets the ground, mineral exploration geologists develop their knowledge of what lies beneath the Earth’s crust to assess mineral potential.
Mineral exploration involves retrieving a cross-section (drill core) of the crust, and then analyzing it for mineral content. A drill core containing sufficient amounts of metals can encourage further exploration, which may lead to the discovery of a mineable deposit.
Discovery is the reward stage for early speculators. Exploration has revealed that there is a significant amount of material to be mined, and it warrants further study to prove that mining would be feasible. Most speculators exit here, as the next stage creates a new set of risks, such as profitability, construction, and financing.
This is an important milestone for a mineral discovery. Studies conducted during this stage may demonstrate the deposit’s potential to become a profitable mine.
Institutional and strategic investors can then use these studies to evaluate whether they want to advance this project. Speculators often invest during this time, known as the “Orphan Period”, while uncertainty about the project lingers.
Development is a rare moment, and most mineral deposits never make it to this stage. At this point, the company puts together a production plan for the mine.
First, they must secure funding and build an operational team. If a company can secure funding for development, investors can see the potential of revenue from mining. However, risks still persist in the form of construction, budget, and timelines.
Investors who have held their investment until this point can pat themselves on the back—this is a rare moment for a mineral discovery. The company is now processing ore and generating revenue.
Investment analysts will re-rate this deposit, to help it attract more attention from institutional investors and the general public. Meanwhile, existing investors can choose to exit here or wait for potential increases in revenues and dividends.
Nothing lasts forever, especially scarce mineral resources. Unless, there are more deposits nearby, most mines are eventually depleted. With it, so does the value of the company. Investors should be looking for an exit as operations wind down.
Case Study: The Oyu Tolgoi Copper-Gold Discovery, Mongolia
So now that you know the theoretical value cycle of a mineral discovery, how does it pan out in reality? The Oyu Tolgoi copper deposit is one recent discovery that has gone through this value cycle. It exemplifies some of these events and their effects on the share price of a company.
- Concept: 15+ Years
Prospectors conducted early exploration work in the 1980s near where Oyu Tolgoi would be discovered. It was not until 1996 that Australian miner BHP conducted further exploration.
But after 21 drill holes, the company lost interest and optioned the property to mining entrepreneur Robert Friedland and his company Ivanhoe Mines. At this point in 1999, shares in Ivanhoe were a gamble.
- Pre-Discovery/Discovery: ~3 years
Ivanhoe Mines and BHP entered into an earn-in agreement, in which Ivanhoe gained ownership by completing work to explore Oyu Tolgoi. A year later, the first drill results came out of drill hole 150 with a headline result of 508 meters of 1.1 g/t Au and 0.8%. To get a sense of how large this is, imagine the height a 45-story building, of which a third of story is copper. This was just one intersection of an area that could stretch for miles.
Wild speculation began at this stage, as steadily improving drill results proved a massive copper-gold deposit in Mongolia and drove up the share price of Ivanhoe.
- Feasibility/Orphan Period: ~2 years
In 2004, the drilling results contributed to the development of the first scoping study. This study offered a preliminary understanding of the project’s economics.
Using this study, the company needed to secure enough money to build a mine to extract the valuable ore. It was not until two years later, when Ivanhoe Mines entered into an agreement with major mining company Rio Tinto, that a production decision was finalized.
- Development: 7 years
By 2006, the Oyu Tolgoi mineral deposit was in the development phase with the first shaft headframe, hoisting frame, and associated infrastructure completed. It took another two years for the shaft to reach a depth of 1,385 feet.
Further development work delineated a resource of 1.2 billion pounds of copper, 650,000 ounces of gold, and 3 million ounces of silver. This first stage of development for Oyu Tolgoi made Mongolia the world’s fastest growing economy from 2009 to 2011.
- Startup/Production: Ongoing
On January 31, 2013, the company announced it had produced the first copper-gold concentrate from Oyu Tolgoi. Six months later, the company stated that it was processing up to 70,000 tonnes of ore daily.
- Depletion: Into the Future
The Oyu Tolgoi deposit will last generations, so we have yet to see how this will affect the value of the mine from an investment perspective.
It’s also worth noting there are still other risks ahead. These risks can include labor disruptions, mining method problems, or commodity price movement. Investors will have to consider these additional conditions as they pan out.
The More You Know
Mining is one of the riskiest investments with many risks to consider at every stage.
While most mineral discoveries do not match it perfectly, the Lassonde Curve guides an investor through what to expect at each stage, and empowers them to time their investments right.
The Silver Series: The Start of A New Gold-Silver Cycle (Part 1 of 3)
As the decade-long bull run shows signs of slowing, is it time for precious metals to shine? Here’s why it could be the start of a new gold-silver cycle.
The world has experienced a decade of growth fueled by record-low interest rates, a burgeoning money supply, and historic debt levels – but the good times only last so long.
As the global economy slows and eventually begins to retract, can precious metals offer a useful store of value to investors?
Part 1: The Start of a New Cycle
Today’s infographic comes to us from Endeavour Silver, and it outlines some key indicators that precede a coming gold-silver cycle in which exposure to hard assets may help to protect wealth.
Bankers Blowing Bubbles
Since 2008, central bankers around the world launched a historic market intervention by printing money and bailing out major banks. With cheap and abundant money, this strategy worked so well that it created a bull market in every sector — except for precious metals.
Stock markets, consumer lending, and property values surged. Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Reserve’s assets ballooned, and so did corporate, government, and household debt. By 2018, total debt reached almost $250 trillion worldwide.
Currency vs. Precious Metals
The world awash in unprecedented amounts of currency, and these dollars chase a limited supply of goods. Historically speaking, it’s only a matter of time before the price of goods increases or inflates – eroding the purchasing power of every dollar.
Gold and silver are some of the only assets unaffected by inflation, retaining their value.
Gold and silver are money… everything else is credit.
– J.P. Morgan
The Perfect Story for a Gold-Silver Cycle?
Investors can use several indicators to gauge the beginning of the gold-silver cycle:
- Gold/Silver Futures
Most traders do not trade physical gold and silver, but paper contracts with the promise to buy at a future price. Every week, U.S. commodity exchanges publish the Commitment of Traders “COT” report. This report summarizes the positions (long/short) of traders for a particular commodity.
Typically, speculators are long and commercial traders are short the price of gold and silver. However, when speculators and commercial traders positions reach near zero, there is usually a big upswing in the price of silver.
- Gold-to-Silver Ratio Compression
As the difference between gold and silver prices decreases (i.e. the compression of the ratio), history suggests silver prices can make big moves upwards in price. The gold-to-silver ratio compression is now at high levels and may eventually revert to its long-term average, which implies a strong movement in prices is imminent for silver.
- Scarcity: Declining Silver Production
Silver production has been declining despite its growing importance as a safe haven hedge, as well as its use in industrial applications and renewable technologies.
- The Silver Exception
Silver is not just for coins, bars, jewelry and the family silverware. It stands out from gold with its practical industrial uses which account for 56.1% of its annual consumption. Silver will continue to be a critical material in solar technology. While photovoltaics currently account for 8% of annual silver consumption, this is set to change with the dramatic increase in the use of solar technologies.
The Price of Gold and Silver
Forecasting the exact price of gold and silver is not a science, but there are clear signs that point to the direction their prices will head. The prices of gold and silver do not accurately reflect a world awash with cheap and easy money, but now may be their time to shine.
Don’t miss another part of the Silver Series by connecting with Visual Capitalist.
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