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Academician Pokhilenko: The situation with rough diamonds in the Russian Federation will start changing for the worse as early as 2025

11 january 2021

pokhilenko_nikolai_xx.pngNikolai Petrovich Pokhilenko, Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), Deputy Chairman of the Siberian Branch (SB) of the RAS, Scientific Director of the Institute of Geology and Mineralogy of the SB of the RAS, is a prominent scientist recognized in the world scientific community.

In 1998, Nikolai P. Pokhilenko became the discoverer of the largest new genetic type diamond deposit in the northwest of Canada, for which he was awarded the International Hugo Dummett Diamond Award in 2007.

In the 1990s, Pokhilenko showed his knowledge and talent when forecasting three new diamondiferous areas in Yakutia. From 2007 through 2012, he was the Director of large audit and evaluation projects in the Siberian platform within the framework of the government contracts with the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia and Rosnedra (Russian Federal Agency on Subsoil Use), which made it possible to substantiate new forecast diamond resources of 145 mn carats in the region.

In this interview with Rough&Polished, N. P. Pokhilenko shares his views on the prospects for the diamond mining in Russia.

What caused the concern about the depleting explored reserves of mineral raw materials in Siberia and the Far East?

The concern about the state of explored and booked (by state) reserves in Siberia and the Far East is explained by several interrelated circumstances. Let's mention the main ones.

The last three decades have been characterized by a sharp decline in work related to the initial stages of the exploration cycle. This is the stage of regional studies, when a comprehensive assessment of the areas is carried out, which gives the first rough estimates of the resources of certain types of minerals.

This is followed by prospect evaluation surveying, the result of which is more reliable resource evaluations and initial estimates of the mineral reserves at specific sites. Until the 1990s, the work of the two initial stages was carried out by the state involving the enterprises belonging to the well-organized structure of the USSR Ministry of geology.

The next exploration stage included the detailed and operational exploration, and this work was carried out by the mining enterprises of the respective line ministries.

It should be noted that in Canada, the USA and Australia, the regional stage work and the comprehensive assessment of areas are carried out by the divisions of the state geological services at the expense of the budget funds.

Since the 1990s, Russia has seen a consistent and very significant (more than by an order of magnitude!) reduction in the volume of the geological exploration at the initial stages.

This led to: a) the reduction in and practical depletion of the prospected reserves for most types of solid minerals; b) the reduction in the state pool of profitable subsoil sites to be provided to mining companies for use.

The direct interrelationship is obvious between the decrease in the volume of the prospect evaluation surveys funded by the federal budget and the related decrease in the number of objects provided by the state to mining companies for use on the basis of auctions.

It is well confirmed by the following figures: in 2012, the geological exploration for solid minerals at the expense of the budget was carried out under 243 state contracts, and 574 auctions were held in 2012 for existing solid minerals targets; and in 2018, just 65 state contracts were financed, but the number of auctions in 2017 was almost 2.5 times less - 239 only.

The imbalance in the volumes, goals and objectives of various phases and stages of the geological exploration with a general decrease in the total volume of work is currently obvious and well confirmed by an assessment of the volume of various types of work carried out by various units and divisions:

  • the exploration services of private mining companies carrying out prospect evaluation surveys at the sites where the risk of not confirming the existing geological and economic characteristics is minimal - 80%;

  • small- and medium-sized servicing companies (junior ones) carrying out the geological work in poorly studied areas on the basis of the declarative principle - up to 3-3.5%; the state-owned enterprises carrying out regional geological studies and prospect evaluation surveys under the state programmes - 11-12%;

  • regional and central scientific research institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducting fundamental researches of mineral resources - up to 3-5%.

The long-term decrease in the state participation in the initial stages of the geological exploration led to the loss of the strategic system of the state control over the geological study of the country’s subsoil and the reproduction of the mineral reserve base. This resulted in a very serious decline in the quality of the mineral reserve base for a number of solid minerals, since the most profitable deposits have been developed for three decades, and less attractive reserves remain on the balance.

As a result, a formal one was formed where all available reserves were taken into account, as well as an active one assessed by experts where the reserves were shown that were profitable for development, as well as the assessment of the country’s resource base available.

For example, at the beginning of 2017, given the volumes of mining that existed for that year, the difference between the available formal and profitable (active) reserves for a wide range of solid minerals was very significant: natural uranium - formal reserves are for 96 years, active reserves - for 15 years; chrome - 33 and 3, respectively; copper - 77 and 32; zinc - 91 and 19; lead - 36 and 10; gold - 23 and 11; silver - 27 and 11; crystalline graphite - 100 and 25; diamonds - 23 and 19, respectively.

For Siberia and the Far East, a sharp reduction in the prospected reserve for most types of solid minerals is directly related to the depletion of the state pool of profitable reserves here to be offered to mining companies for use, which leads to the degradation of the mining industry that is the basis of the economy of these regions.

In which regions, in your opinion, should the exploration of new diamond fields be conducted?

First, not exploration, it is carried out on already discovered objects, but the prospecting aimed at discovering new fields. In my opinion, the northern part of the Siberian platform (hereinafter referred to as SP), its Arctic part, is the most promising for discovering new fields of diamondiferous kimberlites in Russia.

There are clear signs of presence of new fields of the Middle Paleozoic age diamondiferous kimberlites because all known primary diamond SP deposits belong to this age period.

This feature is characteristic only of the SP and is associated with the influence of huge volumes of deep melts of the Siberian superplume at the boundary of the Permian and Triassic periods on the parent diamond-bearing rocks of the upper mantle of the SP.

These melts destroyed, just burned almost all the diamonds in the upper mantle under the SP, so the kimberlites formed after this event contain very few diamonds, and most of them are generally non-diamondiferous.

The situation with the state of the raw material base of the Russian diamond mining industry will start changing for the worse as early as 2025 due to the consistent depletion of the existing commercial reserves. This necessitates early works to discover new deposits and develop them, and the SP, especially its northern part, is most promising in this respect.

Despite the general low level of the diamond content in the Middle Paleozoic kimberlite bodies in the northeastern part of the SP discovered to date, there are reliable signs of the presence of high diamondiferous kimberlites of the Middle Paleozoic age (not yet discovered) in the right part of the Anabar river basin (the basins of the Mayat, Billyakh, Udzha rivers), and southern margins of the Olenek uplift (the upper reaches of the Molodo river, the basins of the right tributaries of the Kyutyungde river).

Significant amounts of high-grade kimberlite diamonds and pyropes were found in the mentioned areas in heterochronous terrigenous rocks, the compositional features of which indicate they are related to diamond-rich kimberlites. There are also good prospects for identifying highly diamondiferous kimberlite fields in a number of other regions of the SP, to the south of the ones mentioned. These include Markha-Morkokinskaya, Ygyattinskaya, Syuldyukarskaya, Kurung-Yuryakhskaya, Yelengskaya, Tarydakskaya and a number of other promising areas.

What are the prospects for mining impact diamonds in Yakutia?

The Popigayskoye deposit of impact diamonds is located on the border between the Krasnoyarsk Territory and Yakutia, 280 km east of the Khatanga settlement. More than 80% of the object’s area is located within the Krasnoyarsk Territory, and it can be classified as a planetary-scale deposit. The object is a meteorite crater (about 100 km in diameter) where about 36 mn years ago, the so-called ‘impact diamonds’ formed due to the impact of the meteorite that had a size of about 6 km.

They are a natural nanostructured material consisting of nanoscale (40-70 nanometres) crystallites of ordinary cubic diamond and lonsdaleite, a modification of carbon that is denser than diamond. In the Skalnoye deposit with an area of ​​about 25 sq. km, explored in detail within the crater, the total reserves in all categories are about half a trillion carats, which is almost a hundred times more than the global reserves of ordinary kimberlite and placer diamonds.

The value of impact diamonds lies in their outstanding technological characteristics. On average, they have a 2 times higher abrasive ability than that of natural and synthetic diamonds, and their wear resistance is 2-3 times higher, they also have a higher thermal resistance by 200-250°C and an order of magnitude higher specific surface.

This makes them indispensable for drilling, metalworking tools, in processing the superhard materials, in optics, in the processing of hard-to-grind products, for example, fuel rods for nuclear reactors (TFEs), and in many other high-tech industries. The practically inexhaustible reserves of impact diamonds featuring outstanding technological properties will not only provide the Russian industry with them for a long term within the framework of the import substitution, but will also be used as an export material highly demanded by the Western high-tech countries.

At the same time, the Popigayskoye field is the only one in the world, and Russia has a monopoly on this raw material. It should be noted that the development of the Popigayskoye field is included in the Strategy for the Development of the Arctic Zone of the RF and Ensuring the National Security for the Period until 2035 recently approved by the Decree of the President of the RF.

What is the situation with gold, platinum and silver mining in Russia?

As for the state of the raw material base, no serious problems are expected as for platinum mining in Russia, at least in the next 3-4 decades. The situation with the raw material base of gold and silver, as I said in the answer to the first question, is not so good, and the problems may arise at the end of this decade.

What is your opinion about the role of the academic geology today?

Behind the Urals, there is only one non-academic scientific geological organization (SNIIGGiMS), which is part of the Rosgeologia holding, but there are 14 actively working academic geological institutes: in Novosibirsk (2), Irkutsk (2), Kyzyl (1 ), Ulan-Ude (1), Chita (1), Yakutsk (2), Vladivostok (1), Khabarovsk (1), Blagoveshchensk (1), Magadan (1), Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (1). The specialized academic institutes can make a significant contribution to the scientific, technological and expert support for the development of the mineral resource base.

This is especially important for the regions of Siberia and the Far East that are connected with the main prospects for discovering large deposits of strategic minerals. These institutes have a highly qualified personnel with significant experience in the following activities: 1) the geological research in Siberia and the Far East, including their Arctic regions; 2) the development of new effective methods for prediction, prospecting and evaluation of deposits of various types of the minerals adapted to the complex geological conditions of specific regions; 3) the prediction and prospecting works for a wide range of different types of minerals; 4) the successful prospecting projects resulted in the discoveries of new large deposits and provinces, both in the Russian Federation and abroad (in Canada, a large diamond deposit and a new diamond province were discovered; in Mongolia - a large gold province and a number of deposits; in Vietnam - deposits of nonferrous and precious metals; in Morocco - a number of gold and silver deposits; in Guinea - diamondiferous kimberlites, etc.).

A number of institutes of the Siberian and Far Eastern branches of the RAS have core facilities centres for collective use fitted with modern analytical equipment and having qualified analysts.

The best solution to the problem would be launching a state programme for the development of the mineral resource base of Siberia and the Far East with an active participation of the specialized academic institutes of the Ministry of Education and Science.

What is required to support the expeditionary work?

The answer is simple: normal financial, technical and transport support. The transport vehicles for remote areas, especially the regions of the Arctic zone of Siberia and the Far East, are of particular importance during the stages of regional studies and prediction and prospecting works. I have a 28-season experience in the field work in Yakutia, 19 of them were in the Arctic zone, and 13 seasons in the Canadian Arctic.

In our Arctic, we spent 75 percent of the working time moving from one point to another, sometimes it took up to 2 days to get to the place where we took samples within a couple of hours, and we needed the same time to return.

In Canada, I had 3-4 small maneuverable helicopters at my disposal at our base (I recall the excellent Hughes 500 with warm feelings), which gave us the opportunity to use the same 75 percent of the time for our main work ... As the chief consulting geologist of the company, I had a special helicopter at my disposal and used it actively (on average, 4-5 flight hours per day) to efficiently monitor and correct the work of several prospecting groups.

This made it possible to increase the efficiency of the prospecting work, reduce the financial expenses and the time on certain stages of work, which is especially important in the short summer seasons in the Arctic. In addition, the developed network of small aircraft is extremely important in the Arctic not only for geologists.

As for technical support, the availability of high-quality expedition equipment (light all-terrain vehicles, light mobile drilling rigs and processing equipment for initial testing, reliable boats and motors, durable tents, etc.) is of importance.

Alex Shishlo for Rough&Polished