Uranium used to be a much sought-after commodity, but after prices dropped thirty years ago, it became largely ignored. Now that the prices have risen significantly, the hunt for this elusive substance has begun again. However, because uranium fell out of popularity for so long many geologists aren’t familiar with how to properly extract it. Younger scientists have much to learn very quickly while older scientists are being summoned to share their wisdom with companies desperate to make a profit. This delicate process must be executed to perfection in order to be effective and safe. Improper training and execution could be disastrous for the people involved as well as for the environment.
Much of the focus in uranium exploration today is on unconformity-related deposits, because these make up a very large portion of the Earth’s deposits. They comprise a large portion of the Athabasca Basin in Saskatchewan as well as Australia’s resources as well. These deposits are located between layers of rock where gaps in the geologic timeline exist. However, much of the uranium exploration that has already been done in these places has been surface level leaving much of what has yet to be explored well underneath the Earth’s surface. This requires advanced technologies and techniques both to discover it and to unearth it. The following are several types of exploration techniques that are being used today to supply the world’s uranium.
Airborne technologies have greatly improved, allowing geologists to discover uranium reserves that exist far below the surface by identifying the geological structures on the surface that may suggest what lies below. One form of airborne technique is the electromagnetic survey, which detects graphite. This substance is often found in close proximity to uranium making this a valuable tool. These processes have improved so much that sometimes it is possible to target areas based solely on identification from the air.
This process is more in-depth allowing scientists to pinpoint exactly where uranium reserves may be located. This is accomplished by sampling the rock in a specific location and testing for key elements and minerals that may reveal what lies below. Some elements that commonly help with identification of uranium are As, B, Co, Cu, Mo, Ni, Pb, U, V, Zn, and other rare elements found on Earth. While this technique is helpful it can often be difficult to use when the deposits are far beneath the Earth’s surface and very diverse in composition. Especially in the Athabasca region of Canada, these areas are often covered by glaciers requiring other forms of sampling to be necessary. One form of this is sampling of sandstone boulders, which developed to detect alterations in the alteration halos or geochemical signatures. This technique can reveal what is below the glaciers in a way that traditional geochemical sampling cannot. Even if there is a weak signature the technology has improved enough to still reveal an alteration and potentially a uranium deposit.
These techniques can be utilized by sampling evenly spaced boulders or by using evenly spaced drill cores to map the contents of the Earth below. These techniques are helpful in finding and targeting direct mineralization but they are not fool-proof and still require other techniques to be used in conjunction with to be most effective.
These techniques provide a more detailed look at the target area and they can make sure that the area is suitable for extraction. There are two main types of systems, time domain, and frequency domain. Some common time domain systems are Crone, Geonics, and UTEM EM. Several popular frequency domain systems include Phoenix and Zonge. Both are viable options for employing the use of ground geophysics.
A new development that is just emerging is Quantec’s Titan which is an EM array system. This system is more economical with data acquisition and processing making it a viable development that will likely become more and more popular.
The next step in the uranium extraction process is drilling. There is no way to know for scientists to be 100% certain about what exactly lies beneath the surface without drilling and bringing it up. Regardless of how much planning goes in and how many advanced technologies are used, often the proposed deposits come up barren with other explanations for the anomalies discovered. Although this phenomenon can be disheartening, it just cements a need for more research and technological breakthroughs. Science has a long way to go in uranium exploration but it is astounding what has been accomplished thus far.
Two specific drilling techniques that have been recently developed are directional drilling and core orientation methods. Both of these processes are used at Shea Creek with exceptional results. Directional drilling is more economical and it improves precision considerably. Both of these techniques will continue to be improved upon.
The sheer amount of data required to successfully explore for uranium is mind-boggling. This delicate process requires intense amounts of pre-planning and strategy before the drilling even begins. All of this important data requires a powerful data management system. One viable option is Geosoft’s Target which has many positive reviews.
However, there are many other systems that may be suitable for this type and volume of data. The biggest concern will just be making sure that the system is specialized and user-friendly so that geologists can focus on data collection and drilling. This will be a much better use of time rather than having to worry about a computer system malfunctioning or being impossible to use. Finding the proper data management system for this line of work will become invaluable to the success of uranium exploration and extraction.
As uranium prices continue to rise it will be more and more important for sampling and drilling techniques to improve so that companies can acquire the most uranium in the shortest amount of time using the least amount of resources. Hopefully, this list gave a little bit of insight into the steps and techniques that are required to successfully harvest uranium from well-beneath the Earth’s surface.