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16 What is an ore deposit?

An ore deposit model is a conceptual and/or empirical standard, ideally a population of natural
phenomena, embodying both the descriptive features of the deposit type, the larger ore-bearing
environment, and an explanation of these features in terms of geological, and hence of chemical
and physical, processes.
Hodgson, 1987

Genetic models have been developed in order to explain how deposits form. Because they
are the result of rationalisation of knowledge, they are a powerful means of organising
data in a form that enhances understanding, prediction and communication.
What type of deposit have we found and how did it form? Although the mechanisms of
deposit genesis rarely affect the exploitation of an ore body once its position, grade,
tonnage and mineralogy is known, these are questions that are asked in the exploration
industry and the minerals-extraction industries during exploration and deposit evaluation.
Ore deposit models are an important component of communication in the industry and
serve to aid exploration and deposit evaluation. For instance:
 A full genetic model explains why a deposit forms in a specific geological and tectonic
setting, and the geochemical and structural processes involved in its formation. Models
guide where to search for a deposit type within the Earth as a whole and, when
combined with knowledge of local geology and geological history, on a much smaller
scale within an exploration lease.
 A model describes and explains the shapes and forms of ore bodies. These are parameters
that guide efficient evaluation of a prospect, such as optimal positioning of drill holes.
 A model considers the mineralogy of ore and guides the observations needed to
evaluate, for instance, what co-products may be present, what ore grades can be
expected, and what method of metal extraction may be best.
However, the answer to the question ‘what type of deposit have we found?’ may be
ambivalent and reflect a degree of doubt. Ore deposit genetic models are geological
interpretations and are thus uncertain in specifics or even as a whole. They are our best
interpretation at the current state of knowledge. This is true both of assignments of
deposits to a model and to our interpretation of the processes of genesis of an ore deposit
type. Our understanding of the genesis of ore deposits is subject to debate and revision
and improves with new data, new observations, new exposures, new geochemical analyt-
ical capabilities, and theoretical analysis. With better knowledge and the discovery of
more deposits, models become revised and better formulated.
Disputes about the genesis both of specific ore deposits and of ore deposit types are
common. In fact there are few ore deposit types for which there has not been some degree
of disagreement over some aspects of ore genesis. Ongoing development, discussion and
refinement of ore genetic models is an integral pursuit of ore deposit geology, and hence
also of discussion in this book.
We can observe and take direct measurements on ore formation in only a few cases
where the processes are in action at the Earth’s surface (for instance, on the sea floor, and
in mineral precipitates in volcanic fumaroles), but even in these cases we cannot observe
all the processes and events that lead to the formation of ore, and must make interpret-
ations of unseen processes that are taking place at depth. The complexities of the
geological record make interpretation of ancient ore deposits even more uncertain. Parts
of a deposit may become disrupted as a result of deformation, mineral textures may be

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17 1.5 The future of ore deposit geology

overgrown with no preservation of earlier textures. For these reasons, the most persistent
debates are generally over the genesis of deposits in deformed and metamorphosed rocks.

1.5 The future of ore deposit geology


................................................................................................................
The mining and exploration industry is renowned for boom-and-bust cycles. Historic
records back to about the twelfth century suggest that cycles of boom and bust have
always occurred. There is, however, a long-term ongoing need for discovery and for
deposit evaluation, and hence for ore deposit geologists. Mining depletes reserves. The
depleted reserves must be replaced through discovery and development in order to
continue mining. This point is true both for the world as a whole and for individual
mining companies. The wealth of a mining company is largely its ‘yet-to-be-mined’ ore
reserves. To maintain its wealth it needs to replace what it mines through discovery or
through purchase of resources discovered by other groups.
Although the use of commodities is affected by economic cycles, there are long-term
trends of increasing rates of use. The global use of most metals has increased by two to
three orders of magnitude in the last century. Average annual percentage increases in
production of many important mineral commodities over the past two decades are listed in
Table 1.1. These increases are driven by increased consumption as a result of a combin-
ation of global population increase and the overall increased standards of living (per
capita wealth). So long as there is an increase in global wealth and population, we expect
demand for most commodities to increase.
Increases in mine production have occurred despite growing efforts towards recycling.
Recycling can never be to 100%. There will always be losses from abrasion during
product use and at each stage during processing for recycling. A recycling rate of up to
70% may be reasonably achievable for many metals. Recycling shortfalls and also any
increase in demand over time must be covered by mined metals.

Box 1.1 How much ore is there in the world?


Although the global rate of extraction of most metals has increased by two or more
orders of magnitude over the last century, the tonnages of reserves have also increased
such that we are apparently no nearer to having extracted all known resources of any
metal. The question of how much ore is available is important for assessing if and
when resources may become scarce, and ultimately whether there are limits to extrac-
tion in the world. Strategic planning at national or regional levels should also be based
on estimates of total available resources and lifetimes of mining operations.
There can be no fixed answer to the question of ‘how much ore is there?’; what rock
is ore depends on economics. Lower-grade ore in low-grade ore bodies, or in the low-
grade haloes of economic ore bodies, is economic to mine when prices are higher or
when the costs of extraction are lower. As rocks with grades higher than a certain value
are increasingly rare with increasing grade the tonnage of available ore is increased if
the grade at which we can economically extract a metal is reduced.

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18 What is an ore deposit?

Mathematical expressions of the relations between economic grade and tonnage


of ore have been proposed. One approach is to consider the statistical distribution of
tonnage of rock of different grades and to assume that what has been sampled and
analysed is representative of the whole crust or a part of the crust.
Lasky (1950) derived a relationship for ore grade within explored ore bodies and
clusters of ore bodies for which a large amount of geochemical data was available. The
relationship indicates a near exponential increase in available ore with decreasing ‘cut-
off’ grades. As typical cut-off grades have decreased over the long term, for instance
from about 3% to 0.5% over the past century for copper, this is one reason why
reserves have not diminished over the past century. (For a survey of long-term trends
of grades and tonnages mined for a number of commodities, see for instance, Mudd,
2009.) In an independent study, Ahrens (1954) demonstrated that concentrations of
trace elements in suites of magmatic rocks have log-normal distributions, and although
the data sets he used were not extensive enough to include samples of ore-grade rock
his results are of interest to understanding of the abundance of ores and, like the
relations of Lasky, indicate increasing ore tonnages with decreasing grades of eco-
nomic mining.
Can the historical trend to mining lower and lower-grade ores be continued
indefinitely? Skinner (1976) discussed one factor that should be considered in
answering this question. Where they occur at near-average crustal concentrations,
many metals are present at trace concentrations substituting in the lattice sites of
major elements in common rock-forming minerals; at ore concentrations they are
present predominantly as an essential component of sulfide or oxide minerals. This
mineralogical contrast between ores and average rock raises the costs of metal
extraction from lower-grade rock (see Figure 1.6). Much more energy is required
to extract Cu from a Cu-bearing silicate mineral than from a Cu-rich sulfide mineral,
even at the same grade. Skinner therefore proposed that there is a mineralogical
barrier that will prevent mining grades from continually decreasing. Further, because
of element partitioning between phases, there may be two overlapping log-normal
distributions of grade of the type proposed by Ahrens. In the case of Cu for instance,
there will be a log-normal distribution of grades of rocks in which Cu is held in
silicates and a distribution for ores in which Cu is held in sulfide minerals (Figure
1.8). If this is the case, the rule that ore tonnages increase with decreasing extractable
grades may not universally apply.
We do not know whether grades are bimodally distributed by mineralogy as
suggested in Figure 1.8. We do know, however, that some sulfide minerals
are accessory minerals in magmatic rocks which are not ore, but have metal
concentrations that are close to average crustal concentrations, e.g. iron–copper
sulfide minerals (Stimac and Hickmott, 1996) and molybdenite (MoS2) (Audétat
et al., 2011).
Alternative lines of logic and independent data can be used to estimate tonnages of
ore in the world and have been investigated. Kesler and Wilkinson (2008, 2009) start
their analysis of the question of the abundance of ore deposits with the premise that to
date we have only exploited those deposits which outcrop at the surface. A deposit

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