Q&A from the experts: In conversation with Dr Benedikt Steiner

January 14, 2022
Dr Benedikt Steiner
Dr Benedikt Steiner
Director at XPLORE GLOBAL Ltd.

Dr Benedikt Steiner graduated from the University of Tübingen, Germany with a ‘Vordiplom’ (pre-diploma) in Geology in 2007, which was promptly followed by a Master of Science degree from Imperial College London, and subsequently a PhD focusing on the use of stream sediment geochemistry and automated mineralogy in the exploration of Lithium Cesium Tantalum (LCT) pegmatites at the University of Exeter, UK. 

In his professional life, Dr Steiner started his career with Rio Tinto in both Namibia and Zambia exploring for Uranium and Copper. Since 2016, Benedikt has worked as a lecturer and a senior lecturer in exploration and mining geology at the prestigious Camborne School of Mines in the UK. Alongside his teaching duties, he operates a consulting firm, Xplore Global Ltd., where he provides support and strategy insight to the exploration industry. 

Timothy Strong: How did you decide to pursue a career in Exploration Geology? Was it something that you had planned or something that came to you after graduating with your BSc? 

Dr Benedikt Steiner: I have always had the desire to apply my knowledge to real-life and industrial applications, so pure geological science was not the direction I wanted to follow. After spending a year in the oil and gas industry, I realized that the only way to conduct industrial fieldwork and to have actual ‘facetime’ with rocks in different geological settings, is to work in mineral exploration and mining. 

TS: You split your time between academia and industry, which one appeals more to you and why? 

BS: I am an exploration geologist and I enjoy working on industry projects, particularly if they involve grassroots exploration in remote environments. However, I see myself at the interface between academia and industry, passing on my knowledge and therefore preparing younger geologists for a future career in mining. 

TS: You are actively involved in educating the future generation of exploration and mining geologists, what trends have you seen in terms of their career aspirations? Are less people willing to work overseas? 

BS: Compared to the 2000s when I graduated from University, and most graduates sought work overseas, particularly in Africa, I noticed a reversing trend over the last five to seven years. Whilst graduates are still keen to work in Australia, Scandinavia and North America, due to a better work-life balance and other available amenities, such as being able to do plenty of computer-based work, I have observed a decreasing willingness to work in remote and challenging areas overseas, may that be Africa, Asia or other locations. It is also apparent that a significant amount of geology graduates do seek office-based roles after or within three years of graduation, or leave the industry altogether. With an aging workforce in mining and mineral exploration, this will have an impact on the availability of experienced exploration and mining geologists down the line. 

TS: With a post-COVID-19 boom in the mining industry, there has been a considerable labor shortage, have you seen a decrease in student enrolment on your geology courses? 

BS: Across the UK and Europe, we noticed a general decrease in student enrolment on undergraduate geology courses in the mid-late 2010s, which was largely due to a demographic shift. However, this has now rebounded, and we have up to 40 undergraduate students each year on the geology courses. 

My two MSc programs in Mining and Exploration Geology have a consistent intake of 50-60 students each year from across the UK, Europe and other parts of the world. Young graduates see the benefit of obtaining practical education that facilitates a career start in mining. 

TS: The Camborne School of Mines (University of Exeter) recently paused recruitment on their BEng Mining Engineering program. What ramifications, if any, does this have for the industry? 

BS: Unfortunately, the well-known and respected BEng Mining Engineering program, unique in the UK, was paused in 2021. However, there are currently exciting plans to develop and offer a degree apprenticeship course in Mining Engineering, which will allow students to work in mining companies and gain their BSc Mining Engineering degree at the same time. In any case, mining engineers are in great demand, but there is only a limited amount of universities left offering a relevant practical course. This will leave the industry to seek engineers from different backgrounds (e.g. chemical or mechanical engineering) who then have to be trained up, at the expense of time and budgets. 

TS: You are an advocate for teaching geology students and professionals across the world, including a course on orogenic gold exploration at the University of Guyana. Why is continued learning important to all levels of geoscientists? 

BS: The simple answer to this is: You never cease learning. No one can be an expert in all areas of geosciences, and in order to develop your career into either technical or managerial roles, you will have to upskill. It is also mandatory for registered and chartered geologists to maintain a healthy CPD (Continuous Professional Development) record demonstrating an annual progression of skill sets and experience. You should not forget, however, that CPD is not just about attending classroom-based courses. CPD can involve many activities, such as mentoring, learning foreign languages, progressing a certain task in your job, and watching YouTube videos and webinars, which really have led to a rise in online lecturing (e.g. Ore Deposits Hub). 

TS: You worked at Rio Tinto for six years. How has working there shaped you as a professional? Do you think that young geologists should strive to find employment in top-tier mining companies? 

BS: Working for a multinational Tier 1 mining company after graduation has really helped me to find my feet in the mining industry. Not only was it a great experience to work on large, multi-commodity projects around Africa, but the ability to understand the bigger picture of mining operations and how mineral exploration fits in the mining value chain was very eye-opening. I believe that my past employment with Rio Tinto shaped my following career and helped me to develop into the geologist I am today. So, yes, I think that young geologists should aim to find employment in top-tier mining companies, at least for a few years, in order to learn the ropes and appreciate the role of geologists in the mining industry. 

TS: You have worked all over Europe, Asia and Africa, which country has been your favorite and why? 

BS: This is rather challenging to answer as I enjoyed working on many projects around the world. Whilst I am and have been involved with projects in (sub)tropical environments for a long time, I think that working in Nordic countries, i.e. Scandinavia and Canada, offers a better work-life balance. It does make a difference if you sit in an isolated jungle camp for several weeks, or if you can take an afternoon off and climb a fjord or a glacier in Norway. 

Dr Steiner in Norway
Field exploration in the remote fjords of the Helgeland pegmatite field, northern Norway

TS: What has been the most fascinating project you have worked on? Why? 

BS: I have been involved with regional and camp-scale exploration in Rwanda (Central-East Africa) for several years now. What makes this exciting is the requirement to conduct exploration from scratch as most information and knowledge date back to the colonial period and the 1970s when a large UNDP (United Nations Development Program) was completed to generate regional data. Based on this historic work and recent academic research by Belgian scientists, I organized and ran regional exploration surveys for battery and technology metals to delineate new areas of interest for the Rwandan government and private companies. I was fortunate to work with a team of Rwandan, South African and Russian geologists who made these projects a success. 

TS: You have worked in Vosges Mountains, northeastern France. Tell us more about the project and the outcomes. 

BS: The Vosges Mountains form part of the Variscan Orogenic and Metallogenic Belt and therefore are conceptually prospective for lithium, tin and tungsten mineralization. However, the last comprehensive exploration surveys were conducted in the 1980s. My work involved the collection of stream sediment samples across a 300 km2 (115.8 mi2) large area, and the analysis of these samples using modern analytical instrumentation, including the use of automated mineralogy. The project led to the delineation of new occurrences of tantalum, lithium and tin mineralization in the project area, which were unknown and not described before, therefore providing a modern approach to re-evaluating a part of a metallogenic belt extending from North America to Europe. 

TS: You are considered an expert in the area of LCT pegmatite exploration, tell us why these deposits are important. 

BS: LCT pegmatites are host to ‘critical metals’ and ‘battery metals’, and in light of emerging EV (Electric Vehicle) developments, have been the focus of exploration for at least ten years. Whilst lithium-rich pegmatites generally contain less tonnage than lithium brine deposits in South America, they are present in most orogenic belts of the world, and also contain other technology metals and industrial minerals of interest, such as tantalum, tin and caesium, but also high purity quartz and feldspar. From an academic perspective, pegmatites generally represent the latest stage of magmatic fractionation, enriching the melt in volatiles and incompatible elements, and are therefore of interest to researchers and industrial geologists alike. 

TS: LCT pegmatites are considered to be ‘critical metals’ in many nations, including the US and Australia. Do you think that LCT pegmatites could be an important supply of these metals as the world moves to ‘green energy?’ 

BS: Yes, LCT pegmatites form an important mineral deposit type and supply of ‘critical metals’, particularly in light of their presence in most orogenic belts and metal enrichment. 

TS: You have also worked in the world-class greenstone belts of West Africa and Lapland, which are well-known hosts for major gold deposits. Do you see the potential for other metal discoveries in these areas? 

BS: Certainly. There is still abundant potential to use modern exploration and data interpretation techniques that could lead to new discoveries in these areas. Take for example the Central Lapland Greenstone Belt (CLGB) in northern Finland. There is currently only one operating gold mine (Kittila, Agnico-Eagle), and several advanced projects (e.g. Rupert Resources). Compared to other widely known greenstone belts, the current known metal endowment is low. However, this is a result of commercial interest and exploration efforts commencing in the 1990s, resulting in only a few commercial discoveries made to date. The CLGB is currently staked out as companies consider this area to be very prospective for further discoveries. Similarly, the extension of the CLGB into Norway, known as the Karasjok Greenstone Belt, has been very poorly explored by industry and holds significant upside exploration potential. Companies are likely challenged by communities in northern Norway, and this is why exploration has not really taken off in this belt yet. 

TS: What are the different challenges of drilling in the Arctic (in Finland for example) and drilling in the tropics? How would you compare the two environments? 

BS: I would say that availability of drilling contractors, general logistics and ground conditions are three main challenges in these contrasting environments. In northern Scandinavia, you have several drilling contractors available that are experienced in the specific drilling conditions and, importantly, local to the area. In the tropics, contractors are mainly mobilizing supervisory staff from overseas, i.e. an understanding of the local conditions can sometimes be lost. General logistics in northern Scandinavia are generally very straightforward when compared to the tropics. You are in the Arctic Circle, yes, but most places are rather easily accessible (even in the winter), and supplies and procurement chains are within relatively short reach. In terms of ground conditions, I think that the often extensive lateritic weathering profiles in the tropics commonly lead to issues when choosing the right drilling equipment. 

I worked on several projects that required a re-thinking of the project scope as high groundwater tables and the resulting mud did make RC drilling impossible. Switching to diamond drilling (DD) resulted in further budget constraints, i.e. less holes could be drilled. 

TS: As a geologist, you know how important quality control (QC) is when sampling. Do you think that drill crews take the same level of interest in quality control, or they only care about meterage? 

BS: I have experienced both scenarios – this will entirely depend on the professionalism, attitude and values of the drilling contractor. All drill crews I have worked with were very good in HSE and performed an appropriate amount of quality control on the reverse circulation (RC) chips, diamond drilling core, etc. they performed. We should not forget that at the end of the day, drill crews are service providers and paid for the meterage they achieve. Good leadership can make a significant difference though. 

TS: What improvements would you like to see in the drilling industry in order to make quality control more prominent and easier? 

BS: I think it all comes down to leadership and training. If drilling contractors are led by experienced managers, and regular training in not just drilling techniques, but also monitoring quality control, then many QC issues can be resolved. Sometimes I have the impression that core marking and core recovery measurements at the drill site are conducted in a routine fashion without thinking about the bigger picture. This has, in my experience, occasionally lead to issues further down the line when geologists try to piece together the depth that was actually drilled, as downhole measurements return different EoH values. 

TS: Please share your most memorable experience with a drilling contractor. 

BS: I remember an occasion in Southern Africa where the drill supervisor shut down a drill rig for an entire afternoon (on his own accord) to investigate after a near-miss (hands in RC splitter box). I thought that this was a very good safety leadership attitude. Even now I use this example in my lectures and workshops to demonstrate how important safety awareness and leadership need to be. 

TS: As previously mentioned, you have worked a lot in lithium. Lithium is obviously important for the electric vehicle industry and there has been a lot of hype around finding new deposits, however, am I right in saying that lithium is quite abundant on Earth? 

BS: Yes, compared to gold, silver and PGEs (Platinum Group Elements), for example, lithium is quite abundant in the continental crust. However, economic accumulations are restricted to certain geological environments (e.g. granites, pegmatites, evaporation lakes), and even then the distribution can be quite patchy. The task of geologists and exploration companies, therefore, is to appropriately delineate accumulations of lithium minerals which can be economically exploited. 

TS: What makes a lithium project economic? 

BS: In terms of LCT pegmatites, grade and tonnage are obviously important. In this regard, a necessity is to outline not just a single LCT pegmatite, but instead an LCT pegmatite field that ideally contains several LCT pegmatites with a proven average grade of above at least 1% Li2O and a strike extent of at least several hundred meters. 

Furthermore, it needs to be established whether lithium is contained in spodumene (pyroxene), lepidolite/zinnwaldite (micas) or other minerals. This has important implications on downstream mineral processing and capital requirement routes. What explorers often forget are geotechnical, slope stability and mineral processing considerations. Pegmatites I have worked on in (sub)tropical environments commonly have a leached and weathered surface expression, which not only removes lithium from the saprolite, but also leads to issues with slope stability in open pit mining scenarios and problematic mineral extraction due to the presence of kaolinized clays. It is, therefore, necessary to take into account these technical considerations, along with economic and infrastructure factors, to evaluate the feasibility of a lithium pegmatite project. 

TS: Other than lithium, what other metals are going to be key in the next five years? 

BS: Battery metals, in general will continue to see a boom, along with copper and gold. I would not be surprised to see uranium emerging, at least temporary, as well. 

TS: What does the future hold for Mineral Exploration in general? 

BS: I feel very positive about the role of mineral exploration in the future. The current commodity trends demonstrate that bulk commodities, as well as previous niche commodities (lithium, graphite, REEs, industrial minerals), will be required to move into a sustainable future. Despite the common belief that exploration needs to target mineralization at greater depth, I think that there are still rather unchartered and poorly studied metallogenic belts in Central, Southeast and Far Eastern Asia, for example. The unlocking of these destinations will depend on political changes and revised mining codes. 

Furthermore, I believe that a solid understanding and application of geological concepts, along with the ability to comprehensively ‘squeeze’ and analyze geoscientific information will be key to locate and develop new mineral deposits. Advanced artificial intelligence and modelling workflows will help to achieve this, but it is still the task of mining professionals to evaluate and synthesize the data in the context of geology, mineral economics and mining techniques.

For more information visit: xplore.global 

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