The process of mining from discovery of an ore body through extraction of minerals and finally to returning the land to its natural state consists of several distinct steps. The first is discovery of the ore body, which is carried out through prospecting or exploration to find and then define the extent, location and value of the ore body. This leads to a mathematical resource estimation to estimate the size and grade of the deposit.
This estimation is used to conduct a pre-feasibility study to determine the theoretical economics of the ore deposit. This identifies, early on, whether further investment in estimation and engineering studies is warranted and identifies key risks and areas for further work. The next step is to conduct a feasibility study to evaluate the financial viability, the technical and financial risks, and the robustness of the project.
This is when the mining company makes the decision whether to develop the mine or to walk away from the project. This includes mine planning to evaluate the economically recoverable portion of the deposit, the metallurgy and ore recoverability, marketability and payability of the ore concentrates, engineering concerns, milling and infrastructure costs, finance and equity requirements, and an analysis of the proposed mine from the initial excavation all the way through to reclamation. The proportion of a deposit that is economically recoverable is dependent on the enrichment factor of the ore in the area.
To gain access to the mineral deposit within an area it is often necessary to mine through or remove waste material which is not of immediate interest to the miner. The total movement of ore and waste constitutes the mining process. Often more waste than ore is mined during the life of a mine, depending on the nature and location of the ore body. Waste removal and placement is a major cost to the mining operator, so a detailed characterization of the waste material forms an essential part of the geological exploration program for a mining operation.
Once the analysis determines a given ore body is worth recovering, development begins to create access to the ore body. The mine buildings and processing plants are built, and any necessary equipment is obtained. The operation of the mine to recover the ore begins and continues as long as the company operating the mine finds it economical to do so. Once all the ore that the mine can produce profitably is recovered, reclamation begins to make the land used by the mine suitable for future use.