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The Expanding Role of Mine Geophysics


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Author P K Fullagar


Just as geophysics, in the form of 3D seismic and wireline logging, plays a key role in petroleum reservoir management, so too will geophysics play an important role in mining of coal, metals, and minerals in the 21 st century. The commercial and social imperatives driving greater use of geophysics are reduced costs, increased revenues, and enhanced safety. In short, superior utilisation of capital and management of risks.

In relatively undeformed sedimentary environments it is possible to adapt petroleum-style 3D reflection seismic to image mines. This has been demonstrated most impressively in the Witwatersrand. Anglo-American, for example, completed a $1 million 3D seismic survey at Western Deeps in order to site a new $300 million shaft with confidence. Likewise, 3D seismic has gained rapid acceptance at Australian coal mines in recent years. Encouraged by these successes, metalliferous mining companies are supporting research in Canada and Australia, as well as South Africa, to adapt 3D seismic for more highly structured, metamorphic terranes.

Because the mining industry is far more diverse than the petroleum industry in terms of commodities and geological environments, 3D seismic is not always cost-effective. A plethora of other geophysical techniques can be applied, many of which are employed in mineral exploration. Mine applications of geophysics differ from traditional exploration applications in two main ways: time scales and length scales are shorter, and boreholes are more plentiful. Borehole geophysical techniques therefore play a more significant role, both for logging and imaging. Logging systems detail the variations of in situ physical properties down the borehole at scales measured in centimetres, while geophysical imaging techniques can map features located tens or even hundreds of metres from the sensors. While geologists tend to think of boreholes in terms of chips and core, geophysicists perceive them first and foremost as access paths for instruments.

Borehole logging has been employed at iron and coal mines for decades, mainly to accurately define ore boundaries in delineation holes. In base metal mines, Outokumpu implemented logging widely for orebody delineation in percussion holes in the 1980s. The benefit was a direct cost-saving, arising from substitution of core drilling with percussion drilling plus borehole logging. The practice has since spread to other companies. INCO, for example, defines nickel boundaries in blast holes at Sudbury using conductivity logs. The benefits are in the form of reduced dilution and enhanced ore recovery, flowing from a more accurate mine model. Density, natural gamma radiation, magnetic susceptibility, and conductivity are the principal metalliferous mine logging parameters because they can be recorded in both dry and water-filled holes.

Sonic velocity is the premier geotechnical logging parameter, given its sensitivity to rock strength, stress, porosity, and degree of fracturing. Sonic is recorded routinely in exploration and geotechnical holes at coal mines. With the advent of slimline dipmeter, full waveform sonic, and optical and acoustic scanner tools, the role of borehole logging in geotechnical evaluations is expanding. Monitoring of strain and micro-seismic activity enhances safety during mine production.

While qualitative interpretation of logs is adequate for stratigraphic identification or definition of boundaries, a wealth of quantitative information, eg density, can be derived from properly calibrated, repeatable geophysical logs. Moreover, geophysical logs can sometimes serve as surrogates for geochemical assays, and not only for magnetite and uranium. At Outokumpu’s Kemi chromite mine, for example, gamma-gamma logging provides the basis for grade control. By reducing reliance on assaying, three benefits can be realised: reduced reliance on core drilling; lower core handling and assaying costs; and shorter turn-around times.

Conventional downhole EM and borehole magnetics are used for near-mine exploration, and for ground sterilisation. Inco has enjoyed considerable success with borehole UTEM in the Sudbury Basin, for example, and Geopeko has applied three-component borehole magnetics successfully in the Tennant Creek area. Electrical techniques such as applied potential and magnetometric resistivity (MMR) are also finding application at mines. For higher resolution, borehole seismic, radio imaging, and radar have been invoked, with varying degrees of success, to delineate orebodies and map structures, or to geotechnically characterise the rock mass and identify hazards. Success mapping nickel sulphide shoots with borehole radar has been reported by WMC at Kambalda.

There are no universal geophysical panaceas, and each mine imposes different geological, logistical, and economic constraints. Geophysics will not always be cost-effective. However, the greatest single impediment to expanded use of geophysics at mines has been the low level of awareness of geophysics on the part of most mine geologists, engineers, and managers and, equally, the limited understanding of mine geology and engineering exhibited by the majority of geophysicists. This myopia will be remembered as a 20th century affliction!

Blue Sky areas for mine geophysics in the next ten years include integration of geophysical data acquisition with drilling, enhanced grade estimation and rock mass characterisation, and the incorporation of geophysical information into mine models using geostatistical techniques. All these advances will be predicated on an expansion of petrophysical knowledge.