Faced with an intractable problem at one of its gold and silver mines in Argentina, Barrick Gold Corp., the world's biggest gold mining company, is turning to Indian brains for help.
The Toronto-based company got the rights to the Veladaro mines in the Andean region of the South American country in 2005. In just the first year, 511,000 ounces of gold were dug out.
But the silver defeated the company's scientists. Encased in some of the hardest silica that engineers had ever seen, the mine has so far yielded no more than 7% of its silver content.
Frustrated, Barrick has turned to the world's scientists for help, promising a $10 million, equivalent to nearly Rs40 crore, prize to anybody who can come up with an environmentally safe and commercially successful technology to mine the nearly 180 million ounces of silver that company estimates lies in that mine.
“It's quite a substantial amount of prize money, we felt, and it should encourage scientists and engineers from all over the world to get interested in solving the problem," said Barun Gorain, principal engineer for Barrick, and the man in charge of the company’s corporate research and development. Gorain, who is Indian, has worked in metallurgy all over the world, including India's Hindustan Zinc Ltd and Coal India Ltd, and on Monday, will be presenting the scientific details of the problem to a collection of metallurgists, scientists and engineers in New Delhi. He has already travelled to more than 10 countries to present the problem.
The problem, in lay terms, is simple: generally, gold and silver are removed from their ores by pouring diluted cyanide over the crushed ores. But while that process has allowed Barrick, which is also among the top five gold manufacturers, to mine almost 80% of the gold at Veladaro, silver has stayed out of its reach.
The silica casing around the silver is too tough for the cyanide solution, and using much stronger chemicals would result in unacceptable environmental damage. (The cyanide leaching process itself is not the cleanest option. Some rivers in Africa and South America have been poisoned by mishandled cyanide from mining operations.)
If, for instance, an Indian scientist or inventor came up with a viable solution, Barrick has offered it would, free-of-charge, develop a commercial process around the idea. Then, if it the best solution that the company has received, the company will pay out the $10 million prize, and also let the inventor hold on to the patent rights for the technology, said Gorain. This kind of challenge is not new: one of the company’s Canadian competitors, Gold Corp., in 2000 offered a $500,000 prize to anybody who could suggest a better drilling pattern for one of it's underperforming gold mines in Ontario. The information thus yielded allowed the company to increase production ten-fold, according to a statement on Gold Corp.’s website.
“In general, I think there is hesitation on the part of companies to share this kind of (proprietary) information,” said Gorain, talking about the wealth of data that the company has put up on a website, http://www.unlockthevalue.com , for scientists to download.