Speaker Spotlight: John Ashton17 June 2019
In the build up to the International Mining Geology Conference 2019 we will be interviewing the keynote speakers on some key issues related to the conference theme, Mining Geology: 2020 and Beyond.
Our first interview is with John Ashton, Consultant, Boliden Tara Mines. John joined Tara Mines Ltd, Navan, in 1980. After working in several positions including Chief Mine Geologist, with involvement in computer systems, resource estimation, delineation and exploration drilling, he became Chief Exploration Geologist for Boliden Tara Mines in 2005.
Q. In your area, where are the biggest technological advances being implemented and how is this influencing key metrics such as safety, productivity, all in sustaining costs?
A. In mineral exploration I believe an important growth area is the use of seismic surveying to define regional, local and near mine structural targets. This will transform the exploration industry with a similar massive influence to that which seismics has had on the petroleum discovery over the last century. Advantages will be in regional targeting to find completely new targets under cover and in near-mine exploration to find targets with no surface expression and/or where the mineralization has little electrical or magnetic response. The main challenges to the adoption of seismic surveying are the high cost and the acquisition, processing and interpretation of such data in complex terrains. On-going research and development is likely to at least partly address these challenges and in the long term passive seismics may become an environmentally friendly technique in some situations. In future I believe seismic data will be a tool of choice not only for explorers but also for mine geologists and engineers to help answer mine planning issues.
In both exploration and mine geology the largest growth area in recent decades has been the computerisation and analysis of all kinds of data and in particular 3D modelling. There are now quite a few tremendous software packages with awe-inspiring capability in the fields of GIS, resource estimation, 3D visualisation and modelling, and while none are truly comprehensive, each release brings additional functionality and improved inter-package data transfer. The integrated interpretation of exploration data, including seismic data, has the potential of revealing new mineral deposits and will increasingly challenge the long-lived mantra that orebodies are found with boots and hammers!
I expect the better packages to become more comprehensive and include facilities such as machine-learning algorithms to assist users complete complex tasks. An old maxim: Garbage-in, Garbage out was true for computer software in the 60s and is much more relevant today: I worry that modern computer usage is now so essential that certain data, perhaps being qualitative in nature and/or not conforming to software upload or data structures, or just difficult to capture, is not imported correctly (or not at all) and software users live in the world where models just ignore such data. A parallel concern is whether our mine industry technical professionals are being adequately versed in the organisation and systematics of computer databases which are daily becoming increasingly complicated and difficult to manage, given the changes in software the mix of data types used (numeric, graphical, time related) and the necessity of central storage with multiple access/update in a typical large mine environment.
Q. As Chief Mining and Exploration Geologist at Tara Mines, what do you feel has been the biggest change in our industry since you started work?
A. Several technical changes are discussed above and in my case the use of computers for mine geology and exploration is a field that I have seen change from entirely manual to nearly fully computerized since the 70s, prompted largely by the decreasing costs of computational power, the advent of computer graphics and personal computers. Make no mistake, this change is still happening and I fully expect artificial intelligence, drone technology and robotics to be carrying out face checks before too long! Of course the other major changes involve environmental awareness and safety where there have been massive badly-needed improvements to the point that at most mines safety matters are given the highest priority and that no new mine can be planned without full assessment and amelioration of environmental risks, that will undoubtedly now include climate change. Mining companies are now fully aware of the need for ‘social license’ for their operations and strive to attain it. However, our industry has been less than successful in improving its image and attracts negative publicity, if not outright opposition, in many diverse jurisdictions worldwide. Only concerted, sincere, long-lived and continuous visual actions by the industry, including impeccable environmental and social behaviour (particularly in mine closure), excellent stakeholder relations and open information release can hope to reverse this trend.
Q. What message would you like to provide to the delegates – what do you hope will be the main message they will take away from your talk.
A. Resource extensions at Navan provide excellent confidence in the effectiveness and justification of on-going near-mine exploration programmes surrounding existing mineral deposits. Seismic surveying technology, integrated with existing geological, geophysical and geochemical data, and with 3D visualisation and interpretation, will revolutionise mineral exploration by allowing us find more deposits under deep cover.