Current Status of Applied Geochemistry Research in Africa
APPLIED GEOCHEMISTRY: Recent Trends and Issues in Africa (2012-2016)
Theo C. Davies, AAG Regional Councillor for Southern Africa (firstname.lastname@example.org)
AUGUST 26, 2010
Theo C. Davies, AAG Regional Councillor for Southern Africa (email@example.com)
The rate of application of modern methods and techniques in Applied Geochemistry in Africa is a function, first, of the availability and accessibility of modern analytical technology; but even more so, is determined by the relative shortage of highly skilled personnel able to install, operate, trouble-shoot and maintain available equipment. The total output in Applied Geochemistry for the Africa region, in terms of research, publications and industrial activities (such as exploration geochemical applications) is, as a result, grossly disproportionate in relation to exploration of the continent’s huge mineral endowment potential and investigation of environmental chemical impacts of its myriad extreme geological phenomena and processes.
Africa hosts about 30 percent of the planet’s mineral reserves, including 40 percent of gold, 60 percent of cobalt, and 90 percent of the world’s PGM reserves. Yet, the continent remains grossly underexplored, a fact that can largely be attributable to the lack of analytical capacity as well as a dearth of skilled manpower to effectively run exploration programmes. Efficient application of Applied Geochemistry techniques is also vital in addressing problems of pervasive air-, soil- and water pollution, including solid waste and mine waste water management, and climate change. A few indicators that can be used to assess the status of Africa’s analytical capacity as it relates to Applied Geochemistry output, can be given by:
1. The number of research articles appearing in leading Applied Geochemistry journals during the present decade (e.g., 'Applied Geochemistry'; 'Journal of Geochemical Exploration'; 'Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment, Analysis'; 'Environmental Geochemistry and Health') by authors living and working in Africa (always less than 10 percent annual turnover);
2. The number of editorial board members of journals such as those referred to in (1) above, who are living and working in Africa (always less than 10 percent of the total);
3. The number of participants living and working in Africa, who attended key Applied Geochemistry meetings this decade, such as the “AAG Fredericton Conference in June, 2009”, “Geoanalysis 2009 in South Africa in September, 2009”, and the “Goldschmidt Conferences, 2009 in Davos, Switzerland; 2010 in Tennessee, USA” (always less than 10 percent);
4. The number of higher degree graduates in “Applied Geochemistry” from African tertiary institutions;
5. Participation by African students at international training courses on Applied Geochemistry; and
6. The number of African students who took part in sponsored student paper-prize competitions during the last decade.
Many technicians in African laboratories are unable to keep abreast with latest analytical techniques and advances in instrumentation owing to poor access- or non-subscription to standard geoanalysis journals (Analytica Chimica Acta; Spectrochimica Acta; Journal of Analytical Chemistry; etc.) that report improvements in these techniques. Few work with internationally certified standard reference materials or take part in proficiency testing schemes such as GeoPT run by the International Association of Geoanalysts, that help keep a check on analytical precision and accuracy, and therefore, often fail to attain the quality assurance level needed for publication of their studies in the more acclaimed analytical journals.
Addressing the Issues
Addressing these issues might involve incorporating compulsory courses on techniques in installation, operation, trouble-shooting and maintenance in all postgraduate courses in Applied Geochemistry and related disciplines.
Not that some high quality Applied Geochemistry activities are not done within the region; however, such studies (especially their analytical components) are often pursued with collaborating institutions mainly in Europe and North America. A few African countries (e.g. South Africa, Botswana, Morocco and Nigeria) have made some progress with the African Geochemical Database project (part of the former IGCP 259 Project), although little attention is paid by some to adoption of the agreed sampling procedures and analytical protocols set forth in the original recommendations.
The Council for Geoscience of South Africa (CGS) has been conducting a high-density regional geochemical mapping programme since 1973. As of 1998, a total area of 295,000 km2 (25 percent of the surface area of South Africa) had been covered at a sampling density of 1 sample per km2 using helicopter surveys (Lombard et al., 1999). The number of samples has since (by early 2010) risen to 360,000.
Early in 2010, the CGS also reported active involvement in several international geochemical mapping contracts in Africa, with projects in Gabon, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco and Lesotho (http://www.geoscience.org.za). Helicopter sampling is mainly carried out in the winter months, using helicopter as the main means of transport for sample collection. Follow-up sampling is done by vehicle or foot, with sampling density varying according to specific needs and purposes.
The United States Geological Survey is engaged in geological and geochemical mapping in several areas of Morocco (http://international.usgs.gov/regional/).
The Federal Government of Nigeria, on July 22, this year (2010), launched the field proceedings manual for the Geochemical Mapping Technical Assistance Project of Nigeria (GMTAP). The project which actually commenced in 2007, consists of 44 cells in the Global Reference Network (GRN). Preliminary results have been obtained from cell NO6EO4 of southwestern Nigeria (Ogedengbe, 2008). The programme is intended to generate high quality environmental geochemical baseline data from sampling of stream water, stream sediments and residual soil, that would boost mineral exploration efforts as well as find applications in agriculture, public health issues and land use planning.
This programme is supported by the World Bank, and is being undertaken by the Nigerian Geological Survey (NGSA), in collaboration with the British Geological Survey (BGS) and the Geological Survey of Finland (STK).
Some exploration geochemistry work is still carried out by major mining companies, but the results are not usually published. These results, though good enough for mineral exploration purposes, often do not meet international quality assurance standards. For these companies, relative variations in element content are (understandably) more important (for detection of anomalous values) than absolute, accurate element concentrations, so important for studies in other applied aspects such as Environmental Geochemistry and Medical Geology. A few reputable international analytical laboratories (e.g., African Minerals Standards (AMIS)) have branches in South Africa, but these laboratories serve mainly explorationists, miners and metallurgists, and not the academic research community.
The University of Western Cape, South Africa is one of very few southern African institutions, tertiary or otherwise, that offer a programme in Applied Geology (Exploration Geochemistry). Reasonable research infrastructure and laboratory facilities in the Department of Earth Sciences exist, and include XRF, AAS and GFAAS facilities. However, students seem to be unaware of the existence of-, or membership opportunities existing at institutions such as the Association of Applied Geochemists, the Geochemical Society, the International Association of Geoanalysts, and so on.
The Department of geological Sciences at University of Cape Town is more research-oriented, and one of the few departments that maintain a number of world class analytical facilities including ICP-MS, Electron Microprobe and an XRD unit. A radiogenic isotope Facility (RIF) has provided a geochronological and tracer capability for the southern Africa Earth Science community since 1988.
Some Recent and Forthcoming Applied Geochemistry Activities In Africa
• September 10 -14, 2007. The ‘International Symposium on Applied Isotope Geochemistry’, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, examined the use of isotopes to understand a wide variety of problems;
• September 7 - 11, 2009: The ‘Triennial Geoanalysis Conference’ in the Drakensberg region, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa had as its core theme, “Earth, Industry and Environment”;
• October 19 - 23, 2009: The ‘International Mine Water Conference’ in Pretoria, South Africa, was organized by the Water Institution of South Africa and the International Mine Water Association. The Conference looked at significant South African developments in the fields of mine water treatment and management.
• October 11 - 14, 2010: The ‘Fourth International Platinum Conference’, Sun City, South Africa;
• November 8 - 9, 2010: ‘Bio- and Hydrometallurgy ’10’, Cape Town, South Africa
Africa holds perhaps the greatest promise for the successful application of Applied Geochemistry methods and techniques, given that development of its huge mineral resources endowment potential, and solutions to the myriad of problems created by the continent’s unique geoenvironmental circumstances, depend heavily on the efficient application of such procedures.
The rate of application of modern methods and techniques in Applied Geochemistry has been impeded by the relative unavailability of state-of-the art analytical instrumentation, but even more so, by the virtual non-existence of a sufficient number of highly skilled technical personnel able to install, operate, trouble-shoot and maintain these items of equipment.
These problems could in some cases (as in many countries of West Africa) be compounded by the frequent unavailability of basic operating facilities such as, constant electricity supply, clean running water, dust-free environment, and difficulty in acquisition of accessories and spare parts, including analytical reagents and rock and mineral standards (international reference materials) for quality assurance testing.
In order to attain improved analytical protocols and quality assurance levels, it is recommended that all graduate students in Applied Geochemistry or allied disciplines, intending to work in Africa be offered specialised training in installation, operation, trouble-shooting and maintenance of analytical equipment pertinent to their area of study. Graduate students of Applied Geochemistry and their laboratory technicians, mineral explorationists and practitioners of allied disciplines should be encouraged and supported to become active members of the key Applied Geochemistry bodies, which, through their publications, expose members to latest innovations and techniques as well as improved opportunities for conference and training courses participation.
Darnley, A.G., Björklung, A., Bølviken, B., et al., 1995. A Global Geochemical Database for Environmental and Resource Management: Recommendations for International Geochemical Mapping. Earth Science Rep 19. UNESCO Publishing, Paris.
Lombard, M., Bruin, D. de and Elsenbroek, 1999. High-density regional geochemical mapping of soils and stream sediments in South Africa. Journal of Geochemical Exploration, Vol. 66, Nos. 1 - 2, p. 145 - 149.
Ogedengbe, O., 2008. Geochemical baseline project. A preliminary result from cell NO6EO4, southwestern Nigeria. Abstract Volume, 33rd International Geological Congress, August 06 - 14, 2008, Oslo, Norway; http://www.cprm.gov.br/33IGC/1351651.html