Geography, Earth and environment at Brighton

Norman Moles on snow covered hill

Brighton researchers to help industrial mineral venture in Scottish Highlands

Dr Norman Moles, who for twenty years has been a geology lecturer at the University of Brighton, has secured substantial funding from Enterprise UK to appoint a University of Brighton-based research associate to assist a company extracting a mineral resource in central Scotland.

The mineral resource is barite, a dense inert material that most people know as the active ingredient in ‘barium meals’ as the pulverised mineral is opaque to X-rays. On an industrial scale, barite is used mainly as a drilling fluid additive for oil and gas field development. With the decline in demand for this industry, barite could be used for other purposes such as increasing the density of concrete foundations that anchor wind turbines.

M-I Drilling Fluids Ltd employ around 30 people who live in Perthshire and work at Foss Barite Mine. Underground mining started in the mid-1980s at which time Norman researched the geology and mineralogy of the orebody for his PhD at Edinburgh University. Thirty-five years on, after the extraction of about one million tonnes of ore, Foss Mine has reached the end of economical production. The company are currently constructing a brand new underground mine a few kilometres to the northeast of Foss in another barite orebody, named Duntanlich.

The construction of this new mine presents a unique opportunity to transform traditional extraction methods by implementing selective mining to minimise energy expenditure and waste, while expanding production to meet the entire UK market for barite and to supply products to new markets. Norman and his colleague Jake Ciborowski at the University of Brighton have expertise in geochemical analysis and 3D visualisation of the underground orebody, both of which will be crucial to the success of the selective mining operation.

Enterprise UK are 50% funding the salary for 2½ years of a research associate employed under the Knowledge Transfer Partnership scheme. The appointed geochemist will work closely with Norman and Jake, together with M-I employees, to develop in-house barite assaying methods and apply the results to mine planning and product quality control. The team will acquire a vast amount of information on the geological ‘architecture’ and distribution of minerals within the Duntanlich orebody, enabling reconstruction of the original depositional environment and ore-forming processes. These processes are of considerable scientific interest as the orebody formed at a time of immense changes in the oceans and atmosphere around 600 million years ago. Their findings will be published through conferences and journal papers – and in a blog update. Watch this space!

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Laura Ruby • May 19, 2020

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