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UWindsor professor Iain Samson examines core from the Baerzhe deposit in Inner Mongolia on July 2, 2017.UWindsor professor Iain Samson examines core from the Baerzhe deposit in Inner Mongolia on July 2, 2017.

UWindsor prof digs into rare earth metals

A University of Windsor professor travelled across the globe this summer to dig into the origins of rare metals in the Earth’s crust.

Iain Samson, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, ventured to China for three weeks to teach and conduct fieldwork.

Dr. Samson began the trip by teaching a short course to researchers and graduate students on metals and fluids in hydrothermal systems at the China University of Geosciences Beijing (CUGB) on June 23.

“My research is largely focused on the geochemistry of fluids and metals in the Earth’s crust, and processes that have led to metal enrichment,” Samson said. "There are various practical applications of such knowledge, including exploration for metals, and in mineral processing."

Dr. Iain Samson instructs a course on metals and fluids at the China University of Geosciences, Beijing on June 26, 2017.

Professor Iain Samson instructs a course on metals and fluids at the China University of Geosciences, Beijing, on June 26, 2017.

Following the class in Beijing, Samson travelled to the Baerzhe rare metal deposit in Inner Mongolia.

Samson and a PhD student spent a number of days taking core samples from the deposit to study the processes that concentrated the rare elements. He said the rare elements the two were focused on include the lanthanide chemical elements on the periodic table, as well as zirconium and niobium.

Some of the rare-earth elements like lithium and neodymium have applications in the green technologies sector with uses in batteries in vehicles or magnets in wind turbines. Other metals like tantalum are used for electrical components in smart phones, computers and cameras.

With more than 90 per cent of the world’s legal reserves in rare metals, Inner Mongolia has become an important resource for green energy producers.

Dr. Iain Samson prepares to go underground at the Baolun gold mine in Hainan Province on July 9, 2017.

Iain Samson (centre) prepares to go underground at the Baolun gold mine in Hainan Province on July 9, 2017.

He said the rock specimens they collected from the Baerzhe deposit will be the basis for a variety of mineralogical and geochemical analyses using a wide range of advanced techniques at both the CUGB and the University of Windsor.

“We sampled what’s called diamond drill core, and it allows you to look at the characteristics — the geology basically — of the deposit in three dimensions,” Samson said.

Following the fieldwork at the Baerzhe deposit in Inner Mongolia, Samson moved south to sample molybdenum and gold deposits on the Chinese island of Hainan Province.

Molybdenum improves the high-temperature and anti-corrosive properties of steel and is commonly used in military armour, aircraft parts and industrial motors.

Molybdenite from the Gaotongling Mo deposit in Hainan Province is pictured on July 8, 2017.

Molybdenite from the Gaotongling Mo deposit in Hainan Province is pictured on July 8, 2017.

“This has really been a bilateral exchange and collaboration and will be important going forward,” Samson said, adding that he currently has a visiting PhD student from the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry.

He said studying these rare earth metals is especially important as society moves to become more energy-efficient, and it is important for Canada in that he is also studying similar deposits nationally. Understanding the fundamental science is a global issue, and mineral deposits of interest occur all over the Earth.

"Resources are still fundamentally important for sustaining and advancing modern society," Samson said. “As we move to become more environmentally aware, then developing technologies that allow us a society to do that is very, very important.”