Area selection is based on applying the theories behind ore genesis, the knowledge of known ore occurrences and the method of their formation, to known geological regions via the study of geological maps, to determine potential areas where the particular class of ore deposit being sought may exist.
This process applies the disciplines of basin modeling, structural geology, geochronology, petrology and a host of geophysical and geochemical disciplines to make predictions and draw parallels between the known ore deposits and their physical form and the unknown potential of finding a 'lookalike' within the area selected.
Area selection is also influenced by the commodity being sought; exploring for gold occurs in a different manner and within different rocks and areas to exploration for oil or natural gas or iron ore. Areas which are prospective for gold may not be prospective for other metals and commodities.
Often a company or consortium wishing to enter mineral exploration may conduct market research to determine, if a resource in a particular commodity is found, whether or not the resource will be worth mining based on projected commodity prices and demand growth.
Area selection may also be influenced by previous finds, a practice affectionately named nearology, and may also be determined in part by financial and taxation incentives and tariff systems of individual nations. The role of infrastructure may also be crucial in area selection, because the ore must be brought to market and infrastructure costs may render isolated ore uneconomic.
The ultimate result of an area selection process is the pegging or notification of exploration licenses, known as tenements.
Geophysical instruments play a large role in gathering geological data which is used in mineral exploration. Instruments are used in geophysical surveys to check for variations in gravity, magnetism, electromagnetism (conductivity and resistivity of rocks) and a number of different other variables in a certain area. The most effective and widespread method of gathering geophysical data is via flying airborne geophysics.
Geiger counters and scintillometers are used to determine the amount of radioactivity. This is particularly applicable to searching for uranium ore deposits but can also be of use in detecting radiometric anomalies associated with metasomatism.
Airborne magnetometers are used to search for magnetic anomalies in the Earth's magnetic field. The anomalies are an indication of concentrations of magnetic minerals such as magnetite, pyrrhotite and ilmenite in the Earth's crust. It is often the case that such magnetic anomalies are caused by mineralization events and associated metals.
Ground-based geophysical prospecting in the target selection stage is more limited, due to the time and cost. The most widespread use of ground-based geophysics is electromagnetic geophysics which detects conductive minerals such as sulfide minerals within more resistive host rocks.
Since the advent of cheap and declassified Landsat images in the late 1970's an early 1980's, mineral exploration has begun to use satellite imagery to map not only the visual light spectrum over mineral exploration tenements but spectra which are beyond the visible.
Satellite based spectroscopes allow the modern mineral explorationist, in regions devoid of cover and vegetation, to map minerals and alteration directly. Improvements in the resolution of modern commercially based satellites has also improved the utility of satellite imagery; for instance IKONIS satellite images can be generated with a 30cm pixel size.
The primary role of geochemistry, here used to describe assaying or geological media, in mineral exploration is to find an area anomalous in the commodity sought, or in elements known to be associated with the type of mineralisation sought.
Regional geochemical exploration has traditionally involved use of stream sediments to target potentially mineralised catchments. Regional surveys may use low sampling densities such as one sample per 100 square kilometres. Follow-up geochemical surveys commonly use soils as the sampling media, possibly via the collection of a grid of samples over the tenement or areas which are amenable to soil geochemistry. Areas which are covered by transported soils, alluvium, colluvium or are disturbed too much by human activity (roads, rail, farmland), may need to be drilled to a shallow depth in order to sample undisturbed or unpolluted bedrock.
Once the geochemical analyses are returned, the data is investigated for anomalies (single or multiple elements) that may be related to the presence of mineralisation. The geochemical anomaly is often field checked against the outcropping geology and, in modern geochemistry, normalised against the regolith type and landform, to reduce the effects of weathering, transported materials and landforms.
Geochemical anomalies may be spurious or related to low-grade or sub-grade mineralisation. In order to determine if this is the case, geochemical anomalies must be drilled in order to test them for the existence of economic concentrations of mineralisation, or even to determine why they exist in the place they exist.
The presence of some chemical elements may indicate the presence of a certain mineral. Chemical analysis of rocks and plants may indicate the presence of an underground deposit. For instance elements like arsenic and antimony are associated with gold deposits and hence, are example pathfinder elements. Tree buds can be sampled for pathfinder elements in order to help locate deposits.
Resource evaluation is undertaken to quantify the grade and tonnage of a mineral occurrence. This is achieved primarily by drilling to sample the prospective horizon, lode or strata where the minerals of interest occur.
The ultimate aim is to generate a density of drilling sufficient to satisfy the economic and statutory standards of an ore resource. Depending on the financial situation and size of the deposit and the structure of the company, the level of detail required to generate this resource and stage at which extraction can commence varies; for small partnerships and private non-corporate enterprises a very low level of detail is required whereas for corporations which require debt equity (loans) to build capital intensive extraction infrastructure, the rigor necessary in resource estimation is far greater. For large cash rich companies working on small ore bodies, they may work only to a level necessary to satisfy their internal risk assessments before extraction commences.
Resource estimation may require pattern drilling on a set grid, and in the case of sulfide minerals, will usually require some form of geophysics such as down-hole probing of drillholes, to geophysically delineate ore body continuity within the ground.
The aim of resource evaluation is to expand the known size of the deposit and mineralisation. A scoping study is often carried out on the ore deposit during this stage to determine if there may be enough ore at a sufficient grade to warrant extraction; if there is not further resource evaluation drilling may be necessary. In other cases, several smaller individually uneconomic deposits may be socialised into a 'mining camp' and extracted in tandem. Further exploration and testing of anomalies may be required to find or define these other satellite deposits.
Reserve definition also takes into account the milling and extractability characteristics of the ore, and generates bulk samples for metallurgical testwork, involving crushability, floatability and other ore recovery parameters.
Reserve definition includes geotechnical assessment and engineering studies of the rocks within and surrounding the deposit to determine the potential instabilities of proposed open pit or underground mining methods. This process may involve drilling diamond core samples to derive structural information on weaknesses within the rock mass such as faults, foliations, joints and shearing.
At the end of this process, a feasibility study is published, and the ore deposit may be either deemed uneconomic or economic.
The ultimate goal of mineral exploration is the extraction, beneficiation and profitable and beneficial sale of mineral commodities.
Mineral exploration and development does not cease upon a decision to mine. Exploration of a brownfields nature is conducted to find near-mine repetitions, extensions and continuity of the existing ore body. In-mine exploration and grade control drilling is a major concern of operating mines and can be an effective tool in adding value to existing mineral operations.
Often the lessons learned from studying an exposed ore body, both empirically and scientifically, are invaluable to the exploration geologist and geophysicist, for they get to see the proof of their concepts and the errors of the assumptions they used in the search for the ore body. It is always the case that the exact nature of the ore body does not exactly match the models used to find it.
Greenfields exploration is highly conceptual, relying on the predictive power of ore genesis models to search for mineralisation in unexplored virgin ground. This may be territory which has been drilled for other commodities, but with a new exploration concept is considered prospective for commodities not sought there before.
The success rate of exploration and the return on investment is low because exploration is an inherently risky business. Figures for success rates depend on the commodity in question but a good strike rate can be measured in the oil industry; the supergiant Prudhoe Bay oilfield was found on the 12th well drilled into the area. Within gold deposits a discovery hole may be one in one thousand and within some base metals commodities strike rates range from one in fifty to one in one hundred.
Greenfields exploration has a lower strike rate, because the geology is poorly understood at the conception of an exploration program but the rewards are greater because it is easier to find the biggest deposit in an area earlier, and it is only with more effort that the smaller satellite deposits are found. Brownfields exploration is less risky, as the geology is better understood and exploration methodology is well known, but since most large deposits are already found the rewards are incrementally less.