New strategic partnership to explore four-dimensional first order controls on nickel mineral systems

Researchers at the University of Leicester have signed a major research agreement with BHP, one of the world’s largest mining companies, to identify new areas for the discovery of metals critical to the electric vehicle (EV) revolution.

Dr David Holwell from the Centre for Sustainable Resource Extraction in the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, will work in partnership with BHP to explore deposits of nickel and copper.

The two-year project, ‘Craton Margin Exploration Targeting 4D’, also involves colleagues at the University of Western Australia (UWA), Perth, and Macquarie University, Sydney. It is funded by BHP’s Resource Centre of Excellence and Metals Exploration and will support three post-doctoral research fellows located in the United Kingdom and Australia.

Dr Holwell said: “We are delighted to have agreed this partnership with BHP. It is particularly exciting to have the opportunity to apply some of our recent and ongoing research on nickel-copper-platinum group metal deposits directly to exploration targeting. We have a truly international and diverse team with complementary expertise and I am very excited to get started!”

Nickel is rarely found in its pure native form and is most commonly found in combination with sulphur, iron or arsenic (or a combination of these elements). Credit: David Holwell/University of Leicester

The project and partnership with BHP has developed directly from recent work by the Leicester-UWA group that has shed new light on the processes involved in the sources and transport mechanisms of metals through the lithosphere in magmatic systems, published in Nature Communications (Holwell et al., 2019; Blanks et al., 2020) and Lithos (Chong et al., 2021).

This innovative work will be coupled with novel advances in experimental petrology and tectonic modelling to highlight ‘sweet spots’ of crust that have undergone a series of favourable processes through geological time.

The collaborative research project will challenge scientists’ current understanding of the nickel mineral system, potentially opening up new exploration search space for nickel across the globe. Nickel is a major component in the lithium-ion battery cathodes used in the manufacture of EVs, and is therefore vital to the EV revolution.

Alongside Dr Holwell, the international project team involves Professor Marco Fiorentini and Dr Weronika Gorczyk at UWA, Professor Steven Foley at Macquarie University, with Dr Daryl Blanks taking up the position of BHP Research Fellow at Leicester. The BHP project team includes Dr Libby Sharman and Dr Nicole Januszczak.

Professor Fiorentini added: “We are very proud to collaborate with BHP to tackle key knowledge gaps that currently hamper successful exploration of metals needed for the green future of our planet.”