Boosting diamond mining in Canada’s north

Boosting diamond mining in Canada’s north

Geochemist Graham Pearson reveals the science behind prospecting for this precious resource
June 3, 2014

Text by Malorie Bertrand
Video by Sabrina Daniel

Canada didn’t enter the diamond industry until the mid-2000s, yet it has quickly become the third largest producer in the world by value, excavating more than $1 billion dollars of diamonds a year. The country’s diamonds are known for their beauty and quality and it now mines more than 15 percent of the world’s supply. Finding rich deposits of this stunning mineral is crucial to maintaining the industry and the country’s reputation as a leading producer of it.

Geochemist Graham Pearson and his team at the University of Alberta’s Arctic Resources Laboratory — one of the world’s leading diamond research labs —work with some of the largest diamond companies such as De Beers, to help them find rich deposits in Canada’s north.

Pearson explains the importance of diamond mining to Canada’s north:

Since diamonds are so rare, prospectors rely on what are known as “indicator minerals” such as garnet which are associated with the type of rock formation in which diamonds are found.  Finding a high concentration of these types of minerals in the field is a clue that a valuable diamond deposit could be nearby. By refining diamond prospecting methods, Pearson’s group is helping companies save millions of dollars spent scouring the north for new deposits.

Pearson explains how diamond prospectors use indicator minerals to find new deposits:

Another application of Pearson’s work includes developing a fingerprint for Canada’s diamonds so that they may be easily identified as Canadian diamonds and certified as conflict-free. This would give the Canadian diamond industry a competitive edge since consumers are wary of purchasing diamonds that were mined by forced labour or which might indirectly fund arms and conflict in developing countries.

Pearson analyzes diamonds from Canadian deposits to build up a trace element fingerprint of what those diamonds look like compared to diamonds from other deposits.

Diamonds aren’t just a valuable commodity; they’re also windows into the deepest part of the Earth’s interior that give researchers clues into how the planet formed. In 2009, while looking for minerals to date a particular group of diamonds called super-deep diamonds, one of Pearson’s students noticed an unusual mineral inclusion in the diamond that turned out to be ringwoodite, a never-before-seen mineral that scientists theorized, if ever found, would indicate the potential presence of water in the Earth’s mantle. This discovery, that confirms the presence of vast amounts of water, trapped in the deep earth, was published in Nature Magazine.

Pearson explains the significance of the ringwoodite inclusion: