U of A research, expertise help boost diamond exploration, says geologist

University's analytical facilities and expertise are second to none, as are its collaborative ties with industry

Rod Smith geology
Rod Smith, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, says collaborating with the U of A brings together different disciplines of geology, which helps drive resource exploration in Alberta and the Arctic. (Photo: Supplied)

In the early 2000s, one of the large islands that make up the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Banks Island, was buzzing as teams from the world’s top diamond companies trudged around the barren tundra looking for evidence of diamonds.

One organization encountered a big enough hint of what might lie below that they had equipment on the ground and were ready to drill. Then suddenly, everything stopped and they pulled up stakes.

John England
John England

“When industry was working on Banks Island, they were going with the old glacial story,” said Rod Smith, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) and University of Alberta graduate. “Then John England came through the area with a series of grad students and fundamentally changed that story.”

 

The old theory held that most of Banks Island had remained ice-free during the last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, explained Smith, who came to the U of A in 1991 to do his PhD because of England’s reputation.

Now a professor emeritus in the Faculty of Science and recipient of the Order of Canada, England would ultimately prove that the island had been fully covered by ice. That meant the presence of diamond indicator minerals was likely related to glacial transport of sediments from somewhere else.

Armed with that new theory of glaciation – along with insights from U of A geologist Graham Pearson into mantle geochemistry and a new statistical method to classify “diamond indicator” garnets developed by Matthew Hardman, PhD student in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences – Smith now believes he knows the source of these diamond indicator minerals.

“I think, based on my understanding of the glacial history and differences in the mineral chemistry, that there are undiscovered diamondiferous kimberlites on nearby Victoria Island that are being glacially redeposited onto Banks Island,” said Smith. “What the companies were picking up on Banks is actually a dispersal signal coming off of Victoria.”

Graham Pearson
Graham Pearson

He added: “Our research collaboration with the U of A has been a good convergence of different disciplines of geology trying to create a more comprehensive interpretation.”

 

According to Smith, this symbiosis is helping drive resource exploration for a variety of critical minerals in Alberta and the Arctic.

“Our role at the GSC is to understand Canada’s geology and natural resources, while the U of A is about fundamental research and trying to better understand the mineral forming processes,” he said.

“We both benefit from these kinds of undertakings.”

Smith said the analytical facilities and expertise at the U of A are second to none, as are the university’s collaborative ties with industry.

“This includes accessing precious core samples that are simply not available to the GSC as a government organization,” he said. “The U of A provides another critical bridge to our efforts to assemble a regional geological understanding.”

Pearson agreed that fundamental research requires equipment that industry doesn’t have access to and time requirements it can’t commit to.

“Most companies do not have the resources to produce all the data that they need to do the sort of mineral exploration that’s required these days. Sophisticated, multi-analytical approaches are now needed because all the low-hanging fruit has gone,” said Pearson, Canada Excellence Research Chair Laureate in Arctic Resources.

“Without this input, life would be much more difficult and very much more expensive for these companies to operate.”

Jingao Liu
Jingao Liu

The U of A is also the beneficiary of funding from Natural Resources Canada’s Geo-Mapping for Energy and Minerals (GEM) Program, which is run by the GSC. One of the more recent grants resulted in a paper published in the prestigious journal Nature by visiting scholar Jingao Liu, which painted a much clearer picture of how the lithosphere and the Arctic developed—and thus a clearer picture of where and how mineral deposits form.

This research and much more is at the heart of the collaboration in training the next generation of industry-ready geologists.

Smith said the Diamond Exploration Research Training School (DERTS), offered by the Faculty of Science with support through the NSERC CREATE program, provides a tremendous practical training ground for students looking to work in industry.

“In addition to DERTS, their diamond workshops provide a venue where students and researchers are able to sit down with industry and government to present active research, discuss opportunities for future research, and essentially give a chance for everyone to come up to speed with new advances and understanding in an open and collaborative fashion.”

| By Michael Brown


This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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