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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Base Metal Exploration Strategies within Sedimentary Basins

The Zambian Copperbelt is the largest known source of copper on Earth. Research at the University of Southampton has challenged conventional thinking about mineral exploration in the country through a new scientific understanding of the processes responsible for ore formation. Professor Steve Roberts’ findings have transformed the prospects for mining in the country, providing new opportunities for mineral exploration within the Zambian Basin and other sedimentary basins around the world. His team is supporting leading commercial companies in the area.

Research challenge

The de-nationalisation of Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) in 1999 gave Professor Roberts and his colleagues new opportunities to investigate the geology of the area, backed by grants from UK research councils and industry. They started by examining the Nchanga mine, which first began production in 1939. The team embarked on a combination of structural mapping and geochemical techniques, which included major and trace element and stable and radiogenic isotope analyses with the aid of the world class geochemical analytical facilities at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton.

The focus of research then turned to the Lumwana mine of the Domes Region where PhD students Robin Bernau and James Nowecki investigated the origins of deposits of copper and cobalt in that area.

To search for potential sites for new mines, it is essential to know as much as possible about the geological processes that resulted in the development of these mineral reserves of copper. Research at the University of Southampton has established how the ore was formed and suggest new sites for exploration to mining companies.


There is great demand for copper throughout the world, particularly to supply fast-growing economies in countries such as China.

Zambia is the world's seventh largest producer of copper and the second largest of cobalt. Deposits of copper in the country were first discovered at the beginning of the last century and large scale exploitation started in the 1930s. Production reached a peak of 700,000 tons a year in the early 1970s. Although it has declined in recent years, companies hope to sink new mines.

University of Southampton researchers believe there is considerable potential to reinterpret the geology of the Copperbelt to find and exploit new reserves; they have the research evidence to back up their theories.

Our solution

Twelve years of research in examining the structure of the Zambian sedimentary, basin using the analytical resources of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton has given Professor Roberts and his team new insights into how the deposits of copper and cobalt were formed.

A better understanding of these processes has helped commercial geologists in their search for new areas of exploration. Southampton’s researchers, including PhD students, are active in the field with major mining companies to test their theories. Their research findings have encouraged major operators including Anglo American, Equinox/Barrick, First Quantum, Vale and Rio Tinto to consider the possibility that viable deposits exist outside the regions already exploited using the traditional geological techniques.

Two new world-class discoveries have been made in the sedimentary basin in the last five years. Former PhD student Ross McGowan, now CEO at Armada Exploration, was actively involved in the recent discovery of Kamoa Deposit in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which now ranks as the world's largest undeveloped high-grade copper discovery, with 739 million tonnes grading 2.67 per cent copper. Exploration work is also underway to find similar deposits in basins formed in similar environments in places such as Gabon.

Our impact

Many of the world’s leading mining companies have accepted and welcomed Professor Roberts’ research on the Zambian copperbelt. They have reviewed their exploration programmes to include the potential mineral sources identified by his theoretical modelling.

It is recognised by an exploration company chief geoscientist that “The University of Southampton group led by Steve Roberts has played a key role in an ongoing reinterpretation of the geology of the Zambian Copperbelt. This fresh vision is stimulating exploration activity in the region, impacting on the strategies that companies are employing and leading to increased expenditure.”

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recovered from the Lower Orebody of the Nchanga Mine Zambia
Example of copper ore
Featured article | Uncovering Copper

Key Publications

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Staff MemberPrimary Position
Stephen RobertsProfessor of Geology
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