INVESTMENT in commercial mineral exploration in Ireland has exploded by more than 300pc over a three-year period as largely foreign-based mining companies step up the pace to scour the country for the next big zinc and lead find.
The latest figures from Minerals Ireland show that €32.6m was invested in exploration drilling across the country in 2011, compared with €23.1m in 2010 and €10.3m in 2009 and the vast majority was spent drilling for zinc and lead.
The value of Ireland's zinc and lead exports has also increased by more than 300pc in the same period thanks to steadily growing world commodity prices for the two base metals – the key reason behind the exploration surge.
In addition, existing mine operations are seeking to open new prospects before their current facilities expire.
Zinc and lead, the base metals that are almost always mined in tandem here in Ireland, have doubled in value since 2009 following a mini crash in values in 2008.
Zinc currently fetches around $2,000 (€1,490) per tonne, while lead is now more expensive at $2,333 per tonne. This compares with $785 and $444 a decade ago.
However, even apart from the recent spike in exploration investment, the resources being expended in searching for metals here has been growing at a steady pace throughout the last decade and the €32.6m spent in 2011 represents an increase of over 1,000pc on 2003's paltry €3.1m exploration budget.
No investment figures are available yet for 2012. However, the numbers of new exploration licences granted last year, largely to overseas-based mining companies, would indicate that levels of investment in exploration will also show further growth in 2012.
A total of 102 new licences were granted by Government last year, largely to foreign-based exploration companies, up on 98 for 2011 and representing a 54pc increase on the 2009 figure of 66.
In all there are now more than 600 live exploration licences in operation, matching the 22-year high of 2011, with the vast majority (416) having being issued in the "base metals with gold" category, with 81 in the base metals only category, 48 in the category of "gold with base metals" and a small but significant 10 for gold only.
A commercial geologist who has worked for a number of exploration firms but wished to remain unnamed, said the increase in investment exploration was "very good news indeed" for Ireland because recent discoveries currently being investigated would be likely to yield at least one good- sized mine in the short term.
This will enable Ireland's currently slipping zinc and lead output (in the wake of the Galmoy closure last year) to surge again and match the peak of output in 2004 when 438,000 tonnes of zinc was produced.
Current output is in the order of 350,000 tonnes.
"Remember too that the high price of both zinc and lead are occurring despite a downturn in the world economy. This would seem to suggest that prices are likely to remain strong for the future," the geologist added.
Ireland is among the world's top 10 lead and zinc countries and produces 38pc of Europe's zinc and a quarter of all its lead.
We have the highest deposits of zinc per square kilometre in the world and the second highest of lead. The Tara mine in Navan is the world's largest and the Lisheen mine in Tipperary is the 6th largest.
However, the Galmoy mine, once a significant contributor to Ireland's exports, has recently ceased production after more than a decade, reducing the number of mines to four.
The Lisheen mine is estimated to have two or three years left, while Tara, the largest, is estimated to have less than a decade left in production.
Zinc is used largely for battery production and galvanisation, while lead is used in soldering for electronics and is increasingly in demand for rechargeable batteries.