Mineral explorers and developers combine technology and skill to find tomorrow’s metals today

By Steve Fiscor, Editor-in-Chief

Grade may not be everything, but higher-grade deposits gain more attention, and the projects usually find the funding they need. The problem is that many mineral explorers believe that most of the higher-grade, near-surface deposits have been found. To find higher-grade deposits, explorers need to search deeper, which requires more skill, money, and patience.

Location is nearly as important as grade. The ideal ore deposit sits in a mining-friendly jurisdiction with supporting infrastructure and stable socio-economic conditions. That, however, is rarely the case unless prices have increased to the point where brownfield projects that could not be justified are now feasible. That is happening today in some areas especially with metals that will be needed for the expected low-carbon energy transition.

Market forces are reshaping the sector. Gold still garners the lion’s share of attention, but the green energy transition and some of society’s self-imposed deadlines are creating a sense of urgency to bring more metals to market more quickly. The hunt is on for copper, nickel and other minerals deemed critical.

In response, mining companies have developed some interesting schemes to improve the odds for new discoveries. BHP recently announced the seven companies it has invited to participate in its Xplor accelerator program. Ivanhoe Electric signed a JV with Ma’aden to use its Typhoon mineral exploration technology to look for metallic deposits at depth in Saudi Arabia. The Typhoon system has already found several deposits and drilling has confirmed the accuracy of the system. 

Finding the deposit is the first step. Getting it permitted is another story that also depends heavily on where the deposit is located. In the U.S., the federal permitting program is an often duplicative, time-consuming process that needs to be streamlined. In Canada and Australia, permits for new mines seem to be moving at a reasonably acceptable pace.

BHP Selects Xplor Cohorts

Last year, BHP launched its Xplor program to accelerate innovative start-ups in mineral exploration. “The intent of the BHP Xplor program is to support early-stage exploration companies working at the beginning of the resource value chain and accelerate development in a way that doesn’t take 10 years from idea generation to discovery,” said Sonia Scarselli, vice president for BHP Xplor. “We are mainly bringing forward those resources that we need today for the energy transition.”

In addition to accelerating their growth, the program offers the companies the potential to establish a long-term partnership with BHP and its global network of partners. The program will offer candidates funding, in-kind services, mentorship and coaching, and opportunities with BHP’s network of suppliers and service providers.

During January, BHP Xplor selected its first cohort of seven companies from hundreds of applications, all of which were focused on discovering the copper, nickel and other critical minerals needed to support the current energy transition. “We are amazed by the diversity and quality of the submissions we reviewed and selected,” Scarselli said. “We are confident that the BHP Xplor program will support the seven companies chosen to accelerate their concepts and ideas, to help take it to the next level.”

The seven companies selected for the Xplor Program include:

• Tutume Metals – a private, junior exploration company with secured ground searching for critical minerals in Botswana;

• Impact Minerals – a junior explorer listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) with a variety of battery metals projects across Australia;

• Asian Battery Minerals – a junior exploration company focused on finding economic deposits of critical minerals in the Asia Pacific region;

• Red Ox Copper – a private minerals exploration group in Australia, specializing in generating grassroots, greenfield conceptual plays with potential for Tier 1 ore deposits;

• Bronzite Exploration Corp. – an early-stage exploration company looking for copper in northern Canada spearheaded by Professor James Mungall, an experienced field and economic geologist at Carleton University, Ottawa.

• Nordic Nickel – a new nickel sulphide explorer, listed on the ASX and focused on two projects in Northern Finland, in the Central Lapland Greenstone Belt; and

• Kingsrose Mining – a junior exploration company listed on the ASX with regional projects in Norway and Finland targeting nickel, copper and platinum group elements.

The Xplor program will also provide BHP the opportunity to access some of the most exciting exploration prospects globally, including new geographies and geologic concepts, helping to drive its pipeline of new opportunities. “Through this program, we hope to create disruptive results in copper and nickel exploration by identifying new concepts, leveraging new data and testing opportunities at a much faster pace than discoveries to date,” BHP Chief Development Officer, Johan van Jaarsveld said.

Each company will receive up to $500,000 in cash from BHP, together with access to a network of internal and external experts to help guide development across technical, business, and operational aspects of the company.

“We’re not only offering in-kind services and access to capital, but we are also providing the opportunity for these companies to focus entirely on their ideas with the support of a big organization like BHP,” Scarselli said. “If you think you have an original idea or something different in exploration, you should apply.” Applications open for the 2024 cohort on September 1, 2023.

With the help of Stantec, Generation PGM is advancing the Marathon palladium-copper project in northern Ontario. (Photo: Generation Mining)

Marathon Clears Important Regulatory Hurdle

Generation PGM’s Marathon palladium-copper project, located near Marathon in north western Ontario, Canada, recently passed an important regulatory milestone. The company received approval from Canada’s federal and provincial governments’ coordinated Environmental Approval (EA) process under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act. The Marathon project is the first mining project in Ontario to be assessed through a Joint Review Panel. Generation PGM is a subsidiary of Generation Mining.

Stantec, a global design and engineering firm and one of the largest environmental services firms in Canada, led and coordinated preparation of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) Addendum and various technical reports as part of a collaboration with Generation PGM and other consultants. The firm’s experts completed technical assessments for the EIS Addendum, responded to information requests from the panel, and shared expertise at the public hearing held by the panel.

“This is a big win for the Marathon project, and Stantec is thrilled to have been a part of this process to leverage our expertise in mining and environmental assessment for Generation PGM in their efforts to proceed to the next phase of the project,” said Stantec Senior Environmental Planner Chris Powell. “This critical minerals project will provide a lot of opportunity for the region and benefits to the local Indigenous community, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg. I’m proud of our team for the hard work and dedication to deliver on such an important project.”

Stantec’s discipline leads presented their conclusions and recommendations regarding the project as expert witnesses at the hearing in the areas of hydrology, hydrogeology, air quality, greenhouse gases, acoustics, and socio-economics. The engineering firm coordinated preparation of the EIS Addendum based on updates to existing baseline conditions, changes to regulatory standards, and refinements to the project relative to the original EIS — which was submitted in 2012 and supported by True Grit Engineering Ltd., which was acquired by Stantec in 2018. Generation Mining also retained Stantec to support consultation with agencies and Indigenous communities, consider comments and traditional knowledge, and scope follow-up programs and environmental management plans.

The Joint Review Panel’s public review process included 10 months of written filings and a public hearing consisting of 19 oral hearing days. The panel received input from more than 50 individuals, including representatives from Indigenous groups, government agencies, and interest groups. This process was among the largest regulatory hearings of 2022. To secure the panel’s approval, Generation PGM and Stantec collaborated with experts from Ecometrix, Knight-Piésold, Northern Bioscience, and WSP, with legal support from Cassels.

“We greatly appreciate the work of the Stantec team, who significantly contributed through the EIS addendum and the Joint Review Panel hearings,” said Generation Mining COO Drew Anwyll. “Stantec worked side-by-side with the Generation team and other consultants and advisors with a ‘one-team approach.’ Stantec stewarded us through this and made this less of a process. We are extremely proud to be the first mine in Ontario to be approved through the Joint Review Panel.”

Generation PGM will now proceed to obtain the necessary permits for construction and operation of the mine. The Marathon property covers a land package of approximately 220 km2. The processing plant will operate at approximately 9.2 million metric tons (mt) of ore per year, produce approximately 87,000 mt of copper-concentrate annually.

Typhoon uses a massive electrical pulse to identify anomalies deep in the Earth’s crust. (Source: Ivanhoe Electric)

More Typhoons in the Desert?

During January, Ivanhoe Electric executed a binding agreement with Saudi Arabian mining company Ma’aden, where Ma’aden will make a $126.4 million equity investment in Ivanhoe Electric and establish a 50:50 exploration joint venture (JV) in Saudi Arabia. Ivanhoe Electric will issue approximately 10.2 million new shares to Ma’aden at a price of $12.38/share, resulting in Ma’aden becoming a 9.9% shareholder.

Ivanhoe said it will retain $60 million of the gross proceeds to advance its U.S. mineral projects, and for working capital and general corporate purposes. Ma’aden will obtain the right to appoint one independent director to the Ivanhoe Electric board, bringing the company’s board size to nine members. 

The new Saudi Arabian exploration JV will be established for an initial term of 5 years. It may be extended up to 10 years upon mutual agreement. Ma’aden will make available approximately 48,500 km2 of land under license within Saudi Arabia for exploration by the JV. 

Drilling crews verify the accuracy of the Typhoon system at Ivanhoe Electric’s Tintic copper-gold deposit in Utah, USA. (Photo: Ivanhoe Electric)

Ivanhoe Electric will contribute $66 million to the JV, of which up to $13 million will be used to fund the purchase of three new-generation Typhoon machines which will be owned by the JV. Prior to the delivery of the new Typhoon units, Ivanhoe Electric will make available an existing Typhoon unit to commence surveying in Saudi Arabia. 

“Today’s agreement is our first major transaction since successfully completing our IPO in mid-2022,” said Ivanhoe Electric Executive Chairman Robert Friedland. “The deal combines a conventional corporate-level investment with a groundbreaking exploration JV centered around the application of Ivanhoe Electric’s disruptive Typhoon technology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

This will also be the company’s first wide-scale use and deployment of its geophysical surveying tool to a third party for the mutual benefit of both companies, Friedland explained. “When Ma’aden proposed the idea of using the world’s best geophysical surveying tool on one of the world’s most prospective but under-explored land areas in the Kingdom, our entire team jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this new venture with its potential impact on Vision 2030,” he said.

“Ma’aden’s strategic investment in Ivanhoe Electric is a critically important moment in our journey to becoming a leading supplier of strategic minerals, which will fuel global economic growth over the coming decade,” Ma’aden CEO Robert Wilt said. “Through our partnership with Ivanhoe Electric we are advancing our capability to unlock the potential of our exploration portfolio to secure supply of strategic minerals and strengthening our international presence. We are continually looking at opportunities like this one to develop Saudi Arabia’s tremendous mineral wealth and Ivanhoe Electric is an ideal partner.”

Typhoon is the brand name for Ivanhoe Electric’s proprietary electrical geophysical surveying transmitter, which can detect the presence of sulphide minerals containing copper, nickel, gold and silver (as well as water and oil). The technology was developed to unlock exploration in areas where potential deposits are hidden by cover, where target depths exceed the range of conventional geophysical surveying systems, or where the scale and topography of an exploration target area prevents efficient and cost-effective conventional surveying.

Typhoon achieves this through its unique specifications, which includes a current output of up to 200 amps and a voltage output of up to 10,000 volts. The transmitter uses switches and capacitance systems which generate a very pure and stable transmitted signal, resulting in an extremely high signal-to-noise ratio. Typhoon is also capable of transmitting both induced polarization and electromagnetic signals, meaning that the same transmitter can be used to search for a wide variety of mineral deposit types. 

Typhoon was specifically developed to effectively conduct large surveys and identify deep geophysical anomalies in environments that have highly resistive surface conditions, such as those seen in the Arabian Shield. It is the ideal tool for surveying many parts of Saudi Arabia where the bedrock is hidden by sand and gravel cover that can exceed 1 km in depth.

This would not be the first time Typhoon has been deployed in the desert. Ivanhoe Electric has used the system to successfully model its Santa Cruz project in Arizona, USA, and the Tintic project in Utah, USA. 

Ivanhoe Electric currently has three Typhoon units and three more will be produced for the Joint Venture in the first half of 2024. Three additional Typhoon units on order with I-Pulse will be delivered subsequently to Ivanhoe Electric. When the construction and delivery of these six new generation units is completed, the global fleet of Typhoon units will have tripled from three to nine.

“Typhoon is a transformational technology and a unique asset for Ivanhoe Electric,” President and CEO Taylor Melvin said. “The machines and supporting CGI data analytics can potentially unlock remarkable new business opportunities for us. We intend to increase the number of Typhoon units to meet the future exploration needs of Ivanhoe Electric in the US and to support new opportunities. The JV with Ma’aden is just our first foray into how we can best capture the value of Typhoon outside of exploring our own projects.”

Ivanhoe Electric also controls a data inversion business, Computational Geosciences Inc. (CGI). The CGI technology consists of sophisticated codes to process geophysical data and build 3D subsurface images that could indicate the presence of various metals and minerals. “The data processing and artificial intelligence software developed by CGI complements our Typhoon technology and represents the only software product that can process the full spectrum of geophysical data produced by Typhoon efficiently,” Melvin said.

CGI will process the tremendous amounts of data that will be produced by the Saudi exploration JV.