Improved and New Uses of Natural Radioactivity in Mineral Exploration and Processing

Exploration & Mining Geology, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1997

Measurement of natural radioactivity has been used in both a qualitative and a quantitative way in mineral exploration, particularly in the search for uranium. In the last five years, the Kernfysisch Versneller Instituut (KVI) and British Geological Survey (BGS) have designed, built and tested a new detector system that greatly improves quantitative applications in mineral exploration, especially on the seafloor and in the nearshore zone. The new system is an enhancement of an earlier BGS design. The major improvements comprise the use of a highly sensitive ?-ray detector, together with new data processing, from which concentrations of natural radionuclides may be deduced in real time. After laboratory analysis of samples, these concentrations can be converted into mineral percentages. Once the mineralogy of an area has been characterized, this conversion can also be done in real time. Thus far the system has mainly been used to map heavy-mineral concentrations in coastal subtidal and intertidal sediments. For such work the multi-sensor detector probe is towed on the seafloor and various parameters are recorded continuously. The probe contains, in addition to the gamma-ray detector, a water-pressure sensor (giving water depth) and an acoustic device to measure bottom roughness. The system, when used together with high-precision positioning systems such as D GPS, enables the production of detailed maps of bathymetry, bottom roughness, and seafloor radioactivity or mineral distribution. These maps allow mineral concentrations to be readily correlated with seabed topography and sediment type. In the same way, ?-ray detectors could be used advantageously during dredging operations to provide on-line assessment of the mineral content of the dredged sediment as well as to guide the direction of dredging. Additionally, the same technique could be used to monitor the subsequent fate of a dredge spoil after dumping on the seafloor. Natural radioactivity arising from potassium and the thorium and uranium decay series has potential use for the fast and reliable assessment of siliciclastic and phosphatic impurities in limestones. Detection of such impurities may preclude the use of the limestone for chemical or cement production. Apart from its use in exploration, the technique has significant potential in mineral processing, particularly of heavy minerals. It can be applied as on-line quality control in dry and wet separation processes and for process control, by using decisions based on the results to control valves and other instrumentation. In addition, it can also be used in environmental monitoring of waste arising from mineral extraction and processing. In conclusion, the technique described has a diversity of applications in exploration, mining and mineral processing.
Keywords: Radioactivity, KVI, BSG, Mineral exploration, Mineral Processing, Heavy-mineral concentration, On-line quality control