High-tech raw materials such as niobium, tantalum, and the rare earth elements neodymium and scandium are of growing importance to areas including consumer electronics, renewable energy and low-carbon transport. Currently, almost all the EU’s demand for specialist metals needed in these technologies must be satisfied by imports, often from just a few mines in one or two countries. This puts the metals at risk of supply disruption. Alkaline igneous rocks and carbonatites are important repositories of many high-tech resources and the hunt is on for deposits. The EU-funded HiTech AlkCarb project brought together 13 partners from Africa and Europe representing SMEs, geological surveys, universities and a museum to deliver the geological models needed to find them.
The best of both worlds
Compared to better known metals such as copper and gold, exploration for rare earths, niobium and tantalum in alkaline rocks and carbonatites is in its infancy. As project coordinator Frances Wall explains, “geophysical methods (based on the study of physical fields in the Earth’s interior such as magnetic and electromagnetic) are essential to geological exploration. We had to first learn how to interpret these signals much better with respect to the minerals and metals of interest. We also needed to integrate environmental and social aspects into our geomodels since these are now essential at all stages of exploration and mining.” HiTech AlkCarb carried out numerous case studies, with particular insight coming from the 18 million-year-old Kaiserstuhl volcano in Germany. This site is not of economic interest but an excellent research site because both the volcanic lavas and the exposed ‘roots’ (igneous intrusions) of the volcano where ore deposits form are exposed. Wall continues: “Our Namibian partners brought experience regarding environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA). This ‘Namibian best practice’ was used during our work at Kaiserstuhl.” The end result of the studies was a 3D model of the Kaiserstuhl volcanic complex combining geological and geophysical information. Project partner Lancaster continued this research at its active exploration site at Songwe Hill in Malawi and their scientists found the most effective geophysical measurements to improve their geological model.
Flexible and far-reaching application
A geomodels approach called ‘Mineral Systems’, applied to carbonatites and alkaline rocks for the first time, is already yielding exciting results. It has been used to investigate known deposits, to predict new places to test, and to identify other types of small and complex deposits. Results will be available free of charge to support public, private and research organisations alike. Partner SMEs are expanding their businesses via: additional funding; expanded knowledge, skills and services; and improved geomodels. The project has also produced a special online course, already available, to ensure global outreach. “We integrated worldwide expertise to make our new geomodels. Our workshops included 60 expert counsellors from 20 countries. Several hundred people participated in the final project meeting in London, in person or online,” Wall summarises. “We now understand more about alkaline rock and carbonatite deposits and are ready to explore more effectively in Europe and worldwide. The expertise and information to do that has been created in HiTech AlkCarb.”
HiTech AlkCarb, geophysical, geological, deposits, exploration, carbonatite, neodymium, mining, alkaline rock, metals, rare earth elements