South Africa

A group of leading scientists lead by geologists from South Africa and Germany will shortly conduct scientific drilling in the Bushveld Complex, which is regarded as the most valuable mineral province on Earth.

According to Professor Freddie Roelofse, Associate Professor in the Department of Geology at the University of the Free State in South Africa, the project aims to clarify several unresolved scientific questions related to the genesis of this unique body of rocks and its associated mineral deposits. 

Two boreholes will be drilled as part of the project, including a 600 m deep hole to the north of Mokopane and a 3 km deep hole northwest of Burgersfort.

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Despite more than 100 years’ of mining and research on the Complex in South Africa, scientists still do not fully understand the processes that led to the Bushveld Complex becoming the most valuable mineral province on Earth.

The Bushveld Complex hosts a huge range of rare metals essential for the manufacture of all Information Technology – phones, computers and other commercial and military communication hardware.

It is the richest deposit on Earth for a crucial range of rare metals.

Located in the Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North-West and Gauteng provinces of South Africa, the complex hosts the majority of global platinum-group element, chromium, and vanadium resources, in addition to major deposits of copper, nickel, gold, tin, iron, fluorite, and dimension stone. 

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As of 2006, more than 200 Moz of platinum have already been mined from the Bushveld Complex and, between the depths of 1 km and 5 km, an estimated 6.8 billion ounces still remain.

At current rates of extraction, the complex will likely not be mined out within the next 700 years, with much of the ore deeper than 1 km still left intact.

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Platinum is used in jewelry and as an investment instrument but also has major industrial uses, for example as catalytic converters in vehicle exhaust systems and as catalysts in the production of nitric oxide, a raw material that is used in the production of explosives and fertilizers.

It also has many high-tech applications in the electronics industry and because metals like platinum are resistant to corrosion and in many instances hypoallergenic, the metal has also found application in the manufacture of implants like pacemakers.

It is also used in the development of cancer-fighting medicines.

Chromium is used in the manufacture of stainless steel and as corrosion resistant coatings on metals.

The metal also finds application in the leather tanning industry and in the production of pigments.

Vanadium is mostly used in the steel industry to toughen steel. It also has several high-tech applications and is used in the nuclear power industry and in the production of superconducting magnets.

“The metals hosted by the Bushveld Complex are therefore not only crucial for the global economy, but also for food security, human health and wellbeing and if used wisely, a greener environment.”

An international group of researchers coordinated by scientists of the University of the Free State, GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the Friedrich-Alexander University, recently received funding to the value of US$1,5 million from the International Continental Scientific Drilling Programme (ICDP), to conduct research on the Bushveld Complex.

The value of the project

The mineral resources hosted by the Bushveld Complex represent a globally important source of metals that are critical to the global and South African economies.

Prof Roelofse also pointed out that one of the focus areas of the research to be conducted, relates to the potential for groundwater extraction from rocks of the Bushveld Complex.

“This research has the potential to improve access to water for communities living on the rocks of the Bushveld Complex,” he said.

The drilling team will also be able to measure the temperature of the water in the boreholes in order to determine the geothermal energy potential of the Bushveld Complex.

Major beneficiaries

One of the major beneficiaries in the drilling phase of this project will be the South African drilling industry, which will benefit through international collaboration with the ICDP.

“We also trust that South African mining companies, particularly those operating within the platinum industry, will benefit from this research through a renewed interest in the mineral potential of the Bushveld Complex,” Prof Roelofse said.

Despite more than a century’s research on the Bushveld Complex, many unanswered questions relating to the formation of the complex and its mineral wealth remains. 

“This project is aimed at clarifying some of these unresolved issues, including improving our understanding of the magma chamber processes operational within the Bushveld Complex, the source of the magmas and their interaction with the rocks that they intruded, the origin of the abundant ore deposits within the complex, and the geophysical properties of the rocks.

"We also hope to learn more about the hydrogeological characteristics of the Bushveld Complex at depth, its geothermal energy potential, and its microbial ecosystems,” said Prof Roelofse.