The search for the riches of the earth and the desire to extract them for the use of man in many developmental projects have been a task man had been tasks that had occupied the business of man since the primitive days.
For example, Copper has been in use for at least 10,000 years. It is noted that more than 95% of all copper ever mined and smelted has been extracted since 1900. Also, artifacts of gold have been found dating from the 5th millennium BC.
The first known networks of gold- producing areas date from the Eqyptian and Nubian times around 2600 BC.
This means that the environment (soils, rock, rivers, glaciers) has been distorted and modified since the primitive man. It is therefore interesting to know what is prospection, exploration and mining.
Prospection / Exploration
‘Prospection’ and ‘Exploration’ are terms that may be used interchangeably. Many ascribe the early stage of exploration to prospection. This means that the intention and preparatory works done towards exploration, usually for natural resources, is, Prospection.
Exploration is the set of activities undertaken to unravel the existence of natural endowment within the earth. The endowment could be organic (like coal, oil and gas) or inorganic (like gold, cassiterite, tantalite, columbite, diamond, etc.), solid or non-solid.
Exploration begins with literature review on the nature of the target endowments, possible locations and consequently field visits, sampling and analyses. Trenching and drilling may be involved in exploration depending on the mode of occurrence or outcrop pattern of the endowment under investigation.
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These activities take several months/years to conclude on the existence or otherwise of the natural resources in commercial and profit-yielding quantities. Exploration and mining therefore have long gestation period. They are also capital intensive.
The exercise aims is to determine the quality and quantity of the solid mineral or hydrocarbon endowments. This may be extended to groundwater quality and quantity in many instances. In the case of solid minerals, the qualitative assessment determines the grade of mineralization while the quantitative assessment determines the tonnage.
Exploration is therefore multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary depending on the target mineral(s). Geologists, geochemists, chemists, biologists may constitute the technical team while administrators, accountants, medical personnel, and lower cadre staff such as security, drivers, may be required in the day to day running of the enterprises.
Exploration activities must be systematic and presented in such a way to win the confidence of would-be financiers or sponsors. All stages must be simply outlined and explained. The primary target of exploration is to produce a bankable document in a feasibility report.
Exploration activities are most times inconclusive and abandoned when the desired goals are not met. This explains the high risk associated with exploration and mining as a business.
Efforts are concentrated at defining the physical and chemical limits of the mineral resources. The physical limits are defined using geology and geophysical studies while the chemical limits are defined by sampling and composition studies of the resource.
At the end, grades or chemical composition of the critical elements (metals or industrial) are used to delimit areas of high concentrations (Reserves) from those of low concentrations (Resources).
Careful calculations are made on the reserves with a view that operations must pay for the investments. Once that is done and positive, the operations can move to the next stage of Extraction or Mining.
The removal of natural materials from within the earth is called ‘Mining’. The scale of extraction may vary from resource to resource and from place to place. Only less than 10 per cent of exploration activities goes into the Mining Stage where the minerals are extracted or removed from the earth for use.
At this stage, the mineral extraction must pay for all activities leading to its extraction and value addition, where necessary.
Extraction of natural endowments may be underground or surface (open cast) mining method. Controlling the decision on the method of mining to be adopted are: the mode of occurrence, the value of the endowment or degree of enrichment (grade), politics, location, and market factors.
Coal, for example, is extracted both as underground and surface mines at Enugu, Enugu state and Okaba-Okobo areas of Kogi state. As may be observed in the figures below, control of surface and underground water into the mines could be a threat particularly during the rainy season.
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Mining for local industrial usage does not require refining in many cases. Examples are: marble and limestone for cement manufacture, alluvial sands and granite quarry for the construction industry.
However, many minerals or ores (metals) in their natural forms require some form of refining or value addition before they are sold at the international market. Examples are cassiterite (SnO2), gold (Au), and molybdenite (MoS2).
Mining may have the following effects on the environment:
- Distortion the ecosystem
- Destruction of biodiversity
- Pollution of underground and surface waters which affect both physical and chemical activities.
- Relocation of villages, farms
- Forfeiture of rights to land, ancestral belongings etc.
In conclusion, prospection and exploration are those set of activities undertaken to determine the chemical characteristics and volume of mineral resources so that reserves that are extractable may be outlined.
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