Looking for gold
Tech company Orexplore's idea of an X-ray technology that could map gold in drill samples came about as early as the 1990’s. Today, almost 30 years later, the company has reached its goal.
In the early 1990’s, geoengineer Anders Ullberg and radiology professor Ragnar Kullenberg decided to start developing new technology for mapping minerals and elements in drill samples. Using X-rays, it would manage deeper and quicker measurements. And unlike the traditional method, the entire drill sample would be analysed. If Ullberg and Kullenberg were to succeed, the mapping of mine deposits would change forever. For gold mines, the game plan would change completely. But it wasn’t until 2010 that a patent could be registered, and Ullberg and Kullenberg founded their company Orexplore.
Simply put, the idea was to X-ray through the whole of a drill sample – something that no one had previously managed. Kevin Rebenius was hired as managing director and also became a co-owner. He in turn recruited physicist Mikael Bergqvist, another co-owner, to develop the technology. “Half of all the world’s mining is about gold, but the gold that was easy to find has already been found. When I was asked to take part and develop a technology that could find gold deep down in the rock, with more precision and in a shorter space of time, it was easy to accept the challenge”, says Rebenius, MD of Orexplore.
With Bergqvist on board as R&D Manager, work could begin. The aim was to find gold concentrations down to 0.1 grammes per tonne as well as X-raying a one-metre drill sample in 15 minutes. The machine would be set up on site at the mine, which meant that the design had to be not only robust but also portable.
In order map gold, they required a very powerful spectrometer, the instrument used to measure energy levels of the radiation from a drill sample. “Gold is found in very low concentrations. It can still be worth it for a mine to extract concentrations of 1–2 grammes per tonne, depending on the gold price and the mining conditions. Rare earth metals, on the other hand, occur, despite the name, in higher concentrations and are well suited for our GeoCore X10, which is already in use”, says Bergqvist.
The hunt for a spectrometer that could meet the requirements began. But after combing the world market, Orexplore found that there wasn’t one. The reason was that no one had previously requested such high capacity. The only spectrometer that had a capacity that came close to Orexplore's needs was located in an Earth-orbiting satellite.
“Since it was only us that wanted such a spectrometer, there wasn’t a supplier willing to produce a prototype. The alternative was to make it ourselves. But instead of constructing a spectrometer that was 100 times more powerful than those already in use, we took one step at a time. Thus, we came up with a simpler version that would be quicker to make in order to test our idea”, Rebenius explains.
Focus therefore moved to developing a machine that could map minerals and elements, especially base metals. Simultaneously, Bergqvist and his team carried on researching how a gold machine could become a reality. “We were a small team though, and realised we needed support from bigger partners in order to realise our vision”, says Bergqvist.
The support came from new Australian owner Swick Mining Services, as well as from collaborations with Swedish innovation authority Vinnova, tech company Grepit, Luleå University of Technology and the EU project X-Mine, part of Horizon 2020. This new and promising position meant there were both the funds and the time required to accelerate the development of the gold machine. Another secret ingredient for continued work was the corporate culture that Rebenius and Bergqvist were encouraging at Orexplore. “We have always strived for a flat organisation without project managers. Instead, the individual staff member is responsible for how the project is progressing, and how problems are solved. We solve problems that no one has solved before on a daily basis, and everyone is allowed to find their own way of doing it. This culture has resulted in both company success and a strong belief in the individual”, says Rebenius.
Together with its partners, Orexplore has developed its own integrated circuit, an ASIC, for the technology. This is something that a company of Orexplore’s size would normally not be able to do. Over the years, Orexplore has worked closely with the mining industry to clearly understand what is required in order to take the largest mining-technological leap 100 years. “If we had not stuck to our initial idea, which was operating on site at the mine, development would have been faster. But then we would not have been as relevant. In fact, we had the technology for mapping gold in place already in 2014. But our owner Swick Mining Services stopped us because the machine wasn’t fast enough to have enough impact for the gold mines. Also, due to more limited computers at the time, the machine couldn’t manage sufficiently accurate calculations. The amount of grammes per tonne can make or break a gold mine”, Bergqvist says.
Where are you at today, with regards to technology?
“Our base metal machine GeoCore X10 is already in use by our customers. It maps minerals, elements, densities and structures in a one-metre drill sample in 15 minutes. We have also developed our own software that recreates the entire drill core as a tomographic 3D image. For the first time ever, we are able to see straight through a drill core. The image can be pulled up on a screen anywhere and an analysis can be initiated immediately after the drill sample has been X-rayed. We are also launching Virtual Core Farm, where information about the drill samples are gathered”, Rebenius explains.
And the gold machine, what’s the status?
“Through the Horizon 2020 project X-Mine, we are currently conducting tests with a prototype that will show if our technology can handle the level required to map gold in a one-metre drill sample, down to 0.1 grammes per tonnes in 15 minutes. The machine we use is a tuned GeoCore X10. The plan is to, in 2020, carry out tests with a fully functioning machine”, says Bergqvist.
What does it take for you to succeed this time?
“Time as well as patience, something we have practiced for almost ten years. We are very close to realising Anders’ and Ragnar's vision from the 90's. And when we do, the conditions for finding gold will change forever”, Rebenius concludes.