Minerals are not evenly distributed in the earth’s crust. Mineral ores are found in just a relatively few areas, because it takes a special set of circumstances to create them. Therefore, the signs of a mineral deposit are often small and difficult to recognize. Locating deposits requires experience and knowledge. Geologists can search for years before finding an economic mineral deposit. Deposit size, its mineral content, extracting efficiency, processing costs and market value of the processed minerals are all factors that determine if a mineral deposit can be profitably developed. For example, when the market price of copper increased significantly in the 1970s, some marginal or low-grade copper deposits suddenly became profitable ore bodies.
After a potentially profitable mineral deposit is located, it is mined by one of several techniques. Which technique is used depends upon the type of deposit and whether the deposit is shallow and thus suitable for surface mining or deep and thus requiring sub-surface mining.
Mineral mining techniques and mining methods
Surface mining techniques include: open-pit mining, area strip mining, contour strip mining and hydraulic mining. Open-pit mining involves digging a large, terraced hole in the ground in order to remove a near-surface ore body. This technique is used in copper ore mines in Arizona and Utah and iron ore mines in Minnesota.
Area strip mining is used in relatively flat areas. The overburden of soil and rock is removed from a large trench in order to expose the ore body. After the minerals are removed, the old trench is filled and a new trench is dug. This process is repeated until the available ore is exhausted. Contour strip mining is a similar technique except that it is used on hilly or mountainous terrains. A series of terraces are cut into the side of a slope, with the overburden from each new terrace being dumped into the old one below.
Hydraulic mining is used in places such as the Amazon in order to extract gold from hillsides. Powerful, high-pressure streams of water are used to blast away soil and rock containing gold, which is then separated from the runoff. This process is very damaging to the environment, as entire hills are eroded away and streams become clogged with sediment. If land subjected to any of these surface mining techniques is not properly restored after its use, then it leaves an unsightly scar on the land and is highly susceptible to erosion.
Some mineral deposits are too deep to be surface mined and therefore require a sub-surface mining method. In the traditional sub surface method a deep vertical shaft is dug and tunnels are dug horizontally outward from the shaft into the ore body. The ore is removed and transported to the surface. The deepest such subsurface mines (deeper than 3500 m) in the world are located in the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where gold is mined. This type of mining is less disturbing to the land surface than surface mining. It also usually produces fewer waste materials. However, it is more expensive and more dangerous than surface mining methods.
A newer form of subsurface mining known as in-situ mining is designed to coexist with other land uses, such as agriculture. An in-situ mine typically consists of a series of injection wells and recovery wells built with acid-resistant concrete and polyvinyl chloride casing. A weak acid solution is pumped into the ore body in order to dissolve the minerals. Then, the metal-rich solution is drawn up through the recovery wells for processing at a refining facility. This method is used for the in-situ mining of copper ore.
Mineral electro-winning method
Once an ore has been mined, it must be processed to extract pure metal. Processes for extracting metal include smelting, electro-winning and heap leaching. In preparation for the smelting process, the ore is crushed and concentrated by a flotation method. The concentrated ore is melted in a smelting furnace where impurities are either burned-off as gas or separated as molten slag. This step is usually repeated several times to increase the purity of the metal.
For the electro-winning method ore or mine tailings are first leached with a weak acid solution to remove the desired metal. An electric current is passed through the solution and pure metal is electroplated onto a starter cathode made of the same metal. Copper can be refined from oxide ore by this method. In addition, copper metal initially produced by the smelting method can be purified further by using a similar electrolytic procedure.
Gold is sometimes extracted from ore by the heap leaching process. A large pile of crushed ore is sprayed with a cyanide solution. As the solution percolates through the ore it dissolves the gold. The solution is then collected and the gold extracted from it. All of the refining methods can damage the environment. Smelters produce large amounts of air pollution in the form of sulfur dioxide which leads to acid rain. Leaching methods can pollute streams with toxic chemicals that kill wildlife.