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Museum researchers are part of an international team that has won a prestigious engineering award for a new laser-based prospecting method.
The pioneering technique uses a laser to drill microscopic holes into rocks and can predict the location of important metals such as copper and molybdenum up to one kilometre below the Earth's surface.
By avoiding the need for intensive mechanical drilling it reduces the environmental impact of finding valuable mineral deposits.
The research won in the Measurement in Action category at The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Innovation Awards 2014.
The international team includes researchers from the University of Tasmania, Australia, Imperial College London, UK, and Lakehead University, Canada as well as the Museum. The industry-sponsored research project was managed by AMIRA International.
Museum Research Leader, Dr Jamie Wilkinson, said: ‘We are delighted that our technique has been identified as making a significant contribution to reducing financial risk and environmental impacts in mineral exploration and that it can play its part in advancing the laudable goals of the IET. I acknowledge the great efforts of all the scientists, postdoctoral researchers, PhD and master's students who have made this success possible.’
William Webb, IET President, said: ‘Congratulations to the Natural History Museum and the rest of the team for their win. They were selected from a highly impressive set of global innovations as one of the most forward thinking, pioneering innovations in the field.’
The technique uses a laser beam to drill a microscopic hole into a rock sample. As the laser drills into the rock, the material removed is picked up in a flow of gas and analysed for the trace elements it contains.
By looking for the presence of certain trace elements the method can predict where ore deposits may be found from up to six kilometres away. Previously, finding ore deposits that were not exposed at the Earth’s surface could involve costly geophysical surveys and intensive mechanical drilling.
The new technique was calibrated using thousands of mineral grain samples from around 30 known ore deposits, which were analysed in laboratories at the University of Tasmania and the Museum.
The innovative method has been successfully trialled using blind tests on samples from known ore deposits. As well as predicting the location of ore deposits, the technique can also give indications of their size.
This allows mining companies to make quicker decisions about whether to continue exploration at a site, without the need for expensive, energy-intensive drilling. The UK-Based mining company, Rio Tinto, now uses the method routinely in its exploration.