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Understanding the potential

Rare earth element research to aid in northern mining evaluation

special feature: COASTS

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial's leadership and expertise in cold ocean and Arctic science, technology and society (COASTS).

By Kelly Foss

Dr. Derek Wilton is collaborating with the Nunatsiavut Government on a project that has significant implications for resource evaluation in the Canadian Arctic and near Arctic.

The remote Strange Lake area in Northern Labrador contains a world-class rare earth element (REE) deposit. REEs are strategic minerals used in a variety of high-tech applications, ranging from computer and smartphone screens to super magnets.

“This deposit was discovered by the Iron Ore Company of Canada in the 1980s and it’s right on the border between Labrador and Quebec,” said Dr. Wilton, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, Faculty of Science. “While they worked at it for a few years, they really couldn’t do anything with it because they didn’t know how to separate the elements from the minerals.”

Some of these minerals had never been seen before they were first identified in Strange Lake. But while the deposit is significant, it’s small, measuring approximately six kilometres in diameter.

1/ Strange Lake area glacial pathway

The glacial debris track from Strange Lake towards the northeastern Labrador. Till samples were collected by Dr. Wilton and other researchers along this pathway.

Photo: Derek Wilton

2/ Strange Lake main granite

The Strange Lake REE minerals (black) are hosted in the Strange Lake granite. This photo shows the only outcrop of the granite from a trench at Strange Lake.

Photo: Derek Wilton

3/ Strange Lake area

Ernie Ford, environmental enforcement officer, Nunatsiavut Government, and Mary Denniston, environmental studies student, Nunatsiavut, sampling till down-ice from the Strange Lake deposit in September 2016.

Photo: Derek Wilton

4/ Glacial erratics

Boulder-filled till down-ice from Strange Lake deposit.

Photo: Derek Wilton

5/ Helicopter view

Rugged, strongly glaciated terrain with deep valleys west of Nain.

Photo: Derek Wilton

6/ Strange Lake area

Fall colours in tundra and tamarack tree near the Strange Lake deposit, typical of the Labrador plateau.

Photo: Derek Wilton

“It’s what we call a point source — just one single little point,” said Dr. Wilton.

“It’s almost like a pimple that has come up with mineralization in it, and it’s surrounded by rock that doesn’t have mineralization.”

Dr. Wilton says the interesting part about the area is that it’s in the middle of a bare plateau — bare because when glaciers came through they scraped up the landscape, moving massive amounts of dirt, rocks and other materials, known as till, which were then dropped off randomly by the glaciers as they travelled along.

Sophisticated mapping

Dr. Wilton’s research has two main aims.

The first is to examine the mineralogy of these till deposits using sophisticated mineral mapping technologies housed at CREAIT laboratories at Memorial.

Using a machine called a scanning electron microscope-mineral liberation analyzer, or SEM-MLA, Dr. Wilton and his students have been looking at till to identify tiny grains of minerals that were otherwise too small to see.

When a sample is put in the machine, it maps it and assesses which minerals are present.

Dr. Wilton and students
From left, Dr. Derek Wilton and students Elizabeth Baird and Mikayla Miller.
Photo: Mike Ritter

“Till is left over from when a glacier bulldozed down and moved everything with it,” Dr. Wilton said.

“The theory is, if you look in the till and find little pieces of specific minerals, gold for example, in there, you know that had to come from somewhere else. Geomorphologists can then come in, look at the till and determine from what direction it came. So, if we find odd minerals in the till, and we know the direction that the ice travelled, sometimes we can go back and, boom, find the mineral deposit.”

Over the past five years, he has sampled tills near Nain, about 100 kilometres away from Strange Lake, and was surprised to find pieces of REE. Because Strange Lake is a point source for REE, researchers know it’s the only location they could be from.

“So, we know glaciers moved the pieces at least 100 kilometres before dropping it off. Without the SEM part of the MLA-SEM, nobody would ever have known that these minerals were present in the Nain-area till just by cursory examination.”

Satellite imaging

The second, and potentially most significant, aim of Dr. Wilton’s research is to develop a regional exploration tool for REEs that correlates mineral mapping data from surface till around the deposit — samples collected from the field and measured in the laboratory — with satellite spectral imaging.

“The idea is that, in the Strange Lake area, the combined signals of the two technologies, mineral mapping and satellite imagery, might be used to detect indicator minerals from the source rocks hidden beneath surficial sediment debris, essentially pointing to REE mineralization,” he said.

“If successful, the techniques can be applied elsewhere in Labrador in the search for REE and other types of mineralization.”

Investigating the unknown

Currently, Strange Lake is an exempt mineral land, or EML.

That means mineral rights are reserved for the Crown and no mining companies can stake a claim on it. When the Iron Ore Company of Canada dropped its claim on the deposit back in the ’80s, it went back to the provincial government. When Nunatsiavut was established, the land became Inuit land.

Dr. Wilton says no mining companies have been able to go in there for 30 years.

“There’s been a little bit of scientific work done on the land, but not a lot,” he said. “Ultimately, the Nunatsiavut Government has been working on a land use plan, and part of that means EMLs may become open for evaluation by companies. If that happens, they’d like to have some idea of what’s there, so they could know what the resources might be worth.

“But it’s all covered in till, there’s no bedrock,” he continued. “So, can we develop a technique that we can use for rapid regional mineral evaluation, by combining the micro analysis with the satellite imagery? If it works, the Nunatsiavut Government has other EMLs, for instance around Voisey’s Bay and Makkovik, that can be evaluated.”

Better informed decisions

The project is a collaboration between the Research and Development Corporation, Memorial University, the Nunatsiavut Government and the Nunatsiavut Group of Companies.

Harry Borlase is the director of non-renewable resources with Nunatsiavut.

“Ultimately, this could create opportunities for Labrador Inuit in mining.” — Harry Borlase

He says this work is important for his government to understand the geology of their land claim area and the opportunities that may arise in certain areas.

“This research is about trying to find a new, innovative and lower cost way of getting an idea of what’s out there,” he said. “This is just the first step in us understanding the potential of our land claim area, so the decisions we make regarding our EMLs are better informed and make sense for the Nunatsiavut Government. Ultimately, this could create opportunities for Labrador Inuit in mining.”

Nunatsiavut officials helped frame the research project by identifying the pilot area and providing local help when it came to collecting samples. They also connected Dr. Wilton with the team conducting the satellite work.

“It’s a great project for Nunatsiavut because we haven’t had a science partnership with Memorial’s Department of Earth Sciences before,” said Mr. Borlase. “We’ve had partnerships with the geography department, but working with Derek has been very exciting. If this works out, and we hope it does, we’ll be able to continue doing projects together in the future on our other EML locations.”

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