Upgrading laboratories brooks no delay

19th of 9, 2013
By B.Tugsbilegt

The geological testing of a mineral in any reserve is essential before it begins to be extracted.  Our enthusiasm as themining sector expands and fresh large projects come on the anvil must not make us overlook this most important yet underestimated component of mining. It is good that more funds are now available for geological studies, but we still lack reliable and adequate geological laboratory facilities in the country. This will prove to be a serious constraint as new copper, coal, rare earths and precious metals projects come up, not to speak of projects that will be part of the Sainshand industrial complex.

In response to changing needs, the Central Laboratory, the forebear of all present-day Mongolian geological laboratories, has increased its capacity over the years.  Established in 1957, it was not until 1974, when Ch. Khurts was Minister of Geology, that the Central Laboratory became an institution in its own right. Almost 40 years on, it is time to take a close look at how it has developed. Can it qualify as a world-class laboratory as Mongolia gets ready to have a world-class mining industry?

Approximately 30 domestic and foreign laboratories have come up in the country in the last decade. Earlier laboratories generally studied many different types of minerals, but the present crop is more specialised. However, this concentrated focus is no guarantee that the quality of their service meets world class standards. Their capacity in studying the main elements of an ore – iron, copper etc.-- is relatively good but they are found wanting when it comes to studies related to microelements and other rare earth minerals.

For example, the American company GreenTech Solutions recently sent the sample from the rare minerals prospecting project in Avdrant in Bayandelger in Tuv Aimag to KORES, a government-run company in Korea for testing. Black Ridge, listed on the Australian stock market, also sent samples from the Tuv Aimag rare minerals prospecting project to foreign countries for study and testing.  There is nothing wrong as such in having samples analysed abroad, but in both these casesthis was done because the laboratories in Mongolia were not qualified to do the work. When testing rare earth minerals, laboratories must be able to analyse on a scale of one millionth of a mineral ppt-ppm, and this ours cannot do.  

Some do claim that even if Mongolian laboratories cannot study rare earth minerals and metals in such detail, they are able to do so with minerals.  But the fact of the matter is that the actual capacity of our laboratories is very limited when it comes to determining and individually studying the 20 or so elements found in ore samples.  The technology to identify individual rare earth minerals in ore is available at the Central Geological Laboratory, but even then it has not been able to identify and establish with certainty the amounts present in the concentrate studied.

There is a move to declare, for the first time, four rare earth mineral deposits as strategically important. These are Hotgor, Mushgiakhudag, Lugiin Gol, and Halzanburgedei.  Compared to extraction of rare earth minerals, the process of mining gold is child’s play. It is detail specific and tricky work, requiring accurate use of precision technology.  That we do not possess a world class laboratory to reliably assay rare earth minerals shows how unprepared we are for the future.

Let us look at our current state of preparation. The Oyu Tolgoi deposit is known to hold copper, gold, silver and molybdenum, but there are strong indications that it can yield as by-products cobalt, selenium, tellurium, rhenium and other such extremely valuable rare earth minerals.  Samples have been tested at both foreign and domestic laboratories, but we still do not know for sure if these valuable elements are really there in the ore and if they are, what the expected amounts can be. At least, nothing has been made public, and no detail is reflected in the financial estimates.

These elements are weighed and priced by the kilogram, not by the ton. One kilogram of rhenium is worth $2,600 in the world market, while the price of selenium and tellurium is $100, and that of cobalt is about $20.We also do not have either the financial or the human resources to extract or to process these elements. Profitable commercial trading in the concentrate is possible only when its contents have been correctly identified, and for this we need sophisticated laboratories. As long as they are not there, Oyu Tolgoi will produce and sell copper, gold and silver concentrates, even perhaps molybdenum, but Mongolia will not be able to derive any profit from any of the rare earths that could very well be in them.  

Given how much we stand to lose from this and other such cases, there is no time to lose in upgrading the facilities and capacity of our laboratories so that they can reliably identify the contents in a concentrate, as well as their quality and amount. Each mining project should have its own fully equipped laboratory to analyse its output, and thus ensure strict quality control at every stage of the production process. This is standard practice in developed countries, and essential for sustainable development.  

Important projects cannot be viable without their own testing facilities. The quality of the basic raw material will vary from project to project, from industry to industry. Proper use of technology will lead to quality products, and once they are certified to be so by the laboratory, their sale price would rise. Of course, work at the laboratory must be under strict supervision.  

The main reason why development of laboratories has been slow is the dearth of skilled professionals. An organisation must be in place to oversee the ambitious project to train such people in quick time, to co-ordinate work in foreign and domestic laboratories and compare and reconcile results of their analyses, and also to maintain links between the laboratories and ensure the quality of their work.

The National Centre for Standardisation and Metrology, presently responsible forthis, is not quite up to it. A new umbrella organisation manned by committed and qualified professionals is needed to work alongside the Ministry of Mining and other related agencies to provide leadership in this crucial area.

No development is attainable without a sufficient number of properly trained personnel, and the priority in all sectors, and not just in geological laboratories, is to prepare a skilled and capable work force to properly utilise the world-class, high-end technological laboratories that will come up. Since these facilities are right now lacking in Mongolia, local technicians will have to be sent abroad to receive on-the-job training.

Erdenet is proof enough of how much we have lost because of not having satisfactory testing facilities, leading to a failure to demand full value forits products. A similar and more recent case in point relates to Mongolian petroleum. It has always been taken for granted, without proper tests, that it is of low quality, and only now have we found out that, contrary to all that we knew, quality fuel can be got from refining Mongolian crude. We are actually using it. Our petroleum laboratory has improved considerably but there is still much work to be done. We have many proposals under consideration regarding combustible minerals, including those for processing petroleum, liquefying coal, and producing fuel from shale. All of them are vital to guarantee self-sufficiency in energy and we cannot make progress in their implementation if we cannot establish adequately equipped research and testing laboratories to meet their diverse needs.

Mongolians have to be trained to constitute a professional workforce, so that each project will know what it does and what more is to be done to be more profitable, and what exactly to ask of our partners. Transparency and strict norms of oversight must be in place. Since this is available in developed countries, why should we be found lacking?

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