Mineral exploration facts for kids

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Strip coal mining
Surface coal mine with haul truck in foreground

Mining engineering is an engineering discipline that involves the practice, the theory, the science, the technology, and application of extracting and processing minerals from a naturally occurring environment. Mining engineering also includes processing minerals for additional value.

With the process of Mineral extraction, some amount of waste and uneconomic material are generated which are the primary source of pollution in the vicinity of mines. Mining activities by their nature cause a disturbance of the natural environment in and around which the minerals are located. Mining engineers must therefore be concerned not only with the production and processing of mineral commodities, but also with the mitigation of damage to the environment both during and after mining as a result of the change in the mining area.

Mineral exploration

The Prospector NC Wyeth
The Prospector by N. C. Wyeth, 1906

Mining engineers are consulted for virtually every stage of a mining operation. The first role of engineering in mines is the discovery of a mineral deposit and the determination of the profitability of a mine.

Mineral discovery

Mining engineers are involved in the mineral discovery stage by working with geologists to identify a mineral reserve. The first step in discovering an ore body is to determine what minerals to test for. Geologists and engineers drill core samples and conduct surface surveys searching for specific compounds and ores. For example, a mining engineer and geologist may target metallic ores such as galena for lead or chalcopyrite for copper. A mining engineer may also search for a non-metal such as phosphate, quartz, or coal.

The discovery can be made from research of mineral maps, academic geological reports or local, state, and national geological reports. Other sources of information include property assays, well drilling logs, and local word of mouth. Mineral research may also include satellite and airborne photographs. Unless the mineral exploration is done on public property, the owners of the property may play a significant role in the exploration process, and may be the original discoverer of the mineral deposit.

Mineral determination

After a prospective mineral is located, the mining engineer then determines the ore properties. This may involve chemical analysis of the ore to determine the composition of the sample. Once the mineral properties are identified, the next step is determining the quantity of the ore. This involves determining the extent of the deposit as well as the purity of the ore. The engineer drills additional core samples to find the limits of the deposit or seam and calculates the quantity of valuable material present in the deposit.

Feasibility study

Once the mineral identification and reserve amount is reasonably determined, the next step is to determine the feasibility of recovering the mineral deposit. A preliminary study shortly after the discovery of the deposit examines the market conditions such as the supply and demand of the mineral, the amount of ore needed to be moved to recover a certain quantity of that mineral as well as analysis of the cost associated with the operation. This pre-feasibility study determines whether the mining project is likely to be profitable; if it is then a more in-depth analysis of the deposit is undertaken. After the full extent of the ore body is known and has been examined by engineers, the feasibility study examines the cost of initial capital investment, methods of extraction, the cost of operation, an estimated length of time to payback, the gross revenue and net profit margin, any possible resale price of the land, the total life of the reserve, the total value of the reserve, investment in future projects, and the property owner or owners' contract. In addition, environmental impact, reclamation, possible legal ramifications and all government permitting are considered. These steps of analysis determine whether the mine company should proceed with the extraction of the minerals or whether the project should be abandoned. The mining company may decide to sell the rights to the reserve to a third party rather than develop it themselves, or the decision to proceed with extraction may be postponed indefinitely until market conditions become favorable.

Mining operation

Mining engineers working in an established mine may work as an engineer for operations improvement, further mineral exploration, and operation capitalization by determining where in the mine to add equipment and personnel. The engineer may also work in supervision and management, or as an equipment and mineral salesperson. In addition to engineering and operations, the mining engineer may work as an environmental, health and safety manager or design engineer.

The act of mining required different methods of extraction depending on the mineralogy, geology, and location of the resources. Characteristics such as mineral hardness, the mineral stratification, and access to that mineral will determine the method of extraction.

Generally, mining is either done from the surface or underground. Mining can also occur with both surface and underground operations taking place on the same reserve. Mining activity varies as to what method is employed to remove the mineral.

Surface mining

Surface comprises 90% of the world's mineral tonnage output. Also called open pit mining, surface mining is removing minerals in formations that are at or near the surface. Ore retrieval is done by material removal from the land in its natural state. Surface mining often alters the land characteristics, shape, topography, and geological make-up.

Surface mining involves quarrying which is excavating minerals by means of machinery such as cutting, cleaving, and breaking. Explosives are usually used to facilitate breakage. Hard minerals such as limestone, sand, gravel, and slate are generally quarried into a series of benches.

Strip mining is done on softer minerals such as clays and phosphate are removed through use of mechanical shovels, track dozers, and front end loaders. Softer Coal seams can also be extracted this way.

With placer mining, minerals can also be removed from the bottoms of lakes, rivers, streams, and even the ocean by dredge mining. In addition, in-situ mining can be done from the surface using dissolving agents on the ore body and retrieving the ore via pumping. The pumped material is then set to leach for further processing. Hydraulic mining is utilized in forms of water jets to wash away either overburden or the ore itself.

Mining process

Blasting

Explosives are used to break up a rock formation and aid in the collection of ore in a process called blasting. Blasting utilizes the heat and immense pressure of the detonated explosives to shatter and fracture a rock mass. The type of explosives used in mining are high explosives which vary in composition and performance properties. The mining engineer is responsible for the selection and proper placement of these explosives, in order to maximize efficiency and safety. Blasting occurs in many phases of the mining process, such as development of infrastructure as well as production of the ore.


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