Hidden opportunity

The society of the future will still need the earth’s mineral and energy resources, says Chris Pigram, former head of Geoscience Australia. But, with near-surface resources depleting, it’s time for the industry to take a giant leap and do things differently

John Miller
Chris Pigram, former head of Geoscience Australia

Chris Pigram, former head of Geoscience Australia

What opportunities exist for Australia to continue to benefit from its abundance of mineral and energy resources?

Australia has always exploited its natural endowment and can continue along this path for many years. With growing global demand for minerals like copper and zinc there is an enormous opportunity for Australia to continue being a leading supplier of resources. For instance, in the next 30 years the world will need as much copper as has ever been produced to sustain development of modern technology and renewable energy.

The need for energy is also growing, particularly in developing northern and eastern Asia, and Australia has a major role to play in feeding this demand.

What tools and techniques are needed to explore, develop and exploit these resources?

In an environment where deposits are obscured by cover material of 100m or greater, today’s tools and techniques are ineffective and a whole new range is required. Drilling is one tool and there is encouraging research being carried out by the Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre (DET CRC).

The big challenge facing the geological community is to better define what we can’t see by developing vastly improved subsurface imaging techniques, which will provide a better idea of the geology lying ahead of the drill.

CSIRO’s Deep Earth Imaging Future Science Platform aims to take the limited number of physical properties that can be measured and develop the capacity to turn them into better geological models than those now being created.

The petroleum industry provides an analogy. Coming out of World War II the industry didn’t have the tools needed to explore for hydrocarbons in the subsurface, but over time these were developed, enabling explorers to target areas of interest. Minerals present a more complex geological scenario, but should be approached in a similar way.

Why does the Australian minerals industry need Deep Earth Imaging?

Australia is very well explored, at or near the surface, by a capable and highly successful industry. However, the next generation of resources to sustain the pipeline will come from more than 100m below surface. There is no reason to assume that the next level of depth doesn’t have the same endowment as what we have already exploited.

For Australia to attract future mining investment, it needs to be attractive, and the potential for mineral and energy resources at depth needs to be demonstrated.

Deep Earth Imaging research will keep Australia at the forefront of resources sector capability and provides an enormous opportunity for the mining, equipment, technology and services (METS) sector to not only find those resources, but to show others how to go about it. It will also enable the resources sector to continue contributing significantly to Australia’s economy.

All information collected through geophysics is ambiguous and there are always multiple interpretations. Having stronger geological statements is a priority of the work, because reducing interpretations and having more confidence in geological models at depth will make a big difference with the effectiveness of follow-up drilling.

How will Geoscience Australia be involved in development of Deep Earth Imaging?

Geoscience Australia (GA) is participating in the Exploring for the Future programme, which is focused on northern Australia and is supported by government funding. The programme aims to open the doors to exploring under cover at depth and provide pre-competitive information in the commercialisation process. GA will work with CSIRO and state geological surveys to help apply and test techniques and methodologies in a real world environment.

An important aspect of the work is Deep Earth Imaging, through which CSIRO will develop the tools and techniques, and GA will help apply them, demonstrate their effectiveness and assist industry to adopt them.

In what other ways has Geoscience Australia worked with CSIRO?

A recent collaboration involved piloting UNCOVER work in a geological context in western Victoria with the aim of determining prospectivity. During this project, CSIRO developed some of the capabilities around the Lab-at-Rig concept, which provides geochemical analysis in real time.

Analytical information is obtained while the rig is onsite without the need to send samples offsite and wait for the results.

It was an effective collaboration that provided rapid results onsite and the partnership demonstrated that the CSIRO concepts were valid. It is amazing that you can obtain instant results, rather than waiting weeks before realising that perhaps the hole should have been a metre or so deeper or inclined one degree further. It proved an efficient and effective use of resources and the concept is now being commercialised.

What will the barriers be to implementing Deep Earth Imaging?

The programme has been set up well and the concepts around implementation are excellent, but the issue will be how to get the mining industry to think laterally. The technology is not about incremental improvement of what we already know, but involves some radical steps and the industry will have to show enough courage to take that giant leap.

It is also a big opportunity. As well as doing some of the more predictable things, it is important that miners are out-there, developing a new way of doing business to overcome the challenge of exploiting resources at depth.

Scientific leadership is also needed to ensure the industry does things differently. This is what research is about – at the end of the day you want to be at the cutting edge. CSIRO has created this opportunity and I commend them for doing so.

Are there similar opportunities beyond these shores?

Going under cover is a global issue and Australia leads the way from the early stages as well as the upstream, pre-competitive phases where GA and CSIRO operate. We are pioneers and if we can find a way to crack these problems, it will lead to global application.

This interview was republished from CSIRO’s resourceful magazine

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