Australia is endowed with a rich geological bounty and leads the world in mineral exploration.

However, much of that bounty remains undiscovered, buried beyond the reach of current technologies.

In order to achieve continual growth through exploration, Australia must rise as a hub of innovation, competitiveness and economic growth, according to Australian Geoscience Council (AGC) President Bill Shaw.

Sharing his thoughts ahead of the 2019 Australian Federal Election, Dr Shaw said discovering the next generation of ‘hidden’ resources was crucial, but this simply was not possible without digging deeper.

He argued that while Australia had significant mineral resources which had contributed hugely to the economy, the easy-to-find minerals of past decades had largely been discovered and exploited.

“The markets and competitive profile around the globe are always changing, and they impact on Australia’s mineral resources and export opportunities, so there is no place for complacency,” Dr Shaw said. “We must have the knowledge to be able to plan and act strategically.”

Creating opportunities

Dr Shaw said if Australia was to keep and improve its global market share and benefit from the huge demand for minerals such as copper, cobalt, nickel, lithium, graphite and rare earth metals, significant investment would be required in new technologies and approaches to uncover them.

“Most of the big deposits in Australia have been discovered near the surface or where the access is easy,” he said.

“Typically, you gain good indications for drilling and then use shallow drill holes to focus in on your exploration targets before finally doing a bit of deep drilling to prove what the potential is at depth.

“When you mine these deposits with open pits, it gets much more expensive to strip the waste off the sides of the open pit as you go down deeper.

“There may be lots of deposits which are big and rich, but they are at a depths too great to mine economically by open pit methods.”

BHP’s Olympic Dam, 560km north of Adelaide, is a prime example of the types of discoveries that could still lie in wait. One of the world’s most significant deposits of copper, gold, silver and uranium, it is a fully integrated mine made up of more than 450km of underground roads and tunnels.

“Because it’s so big and rich, it’s economic to mine it with underground techniques, but the depth below surface cover means early exploration really didn’t have a clue what was there,” Dr Shaw said.

“We need to develop and apply new exploration techniques, including geophysics, geochemistry, drilling, sampling, data evaluation and modelling techniques to focus in on areas and allow us to find the big monster deposits which are economic to exploit.”

Acting

To facilitate the discovery of the next generation of hidden mineral deposits in Australia, the AGC has been actively involved in the UNCOVER initiative and in the Decadal Plan for Australian Geoscience.

“These two initiatives of the Australian Academy of Science have brought together government geoscience agencies, industry, academia and research bodies in a unique collaboration to initiate and fast-track much- needed geoscience research, data collection and new technologies to find and better exploit hidden mineral deposits deep under the earth’s surface,” Dr Shaw said.

Dr Shaw said it was positive Australia’s major political parties were coming to the party.

“We are looking for bipartisan support from all branches of politics,” he said.

Setting a blueprint for a collaborative, long-term reform agenda for sustained prosperity, the Liberal Party’s National Resources Statement outlined goals for the development of new resources industries and markets, investments in new technologies and approaches to deliver better environmental outcomes and support communities to ensure they receive benefits from the development of Australian resources. It identified Australia needed to better coordinate the work it was doing to uncover these deposits.

“This will include supporting the development of new resource provinces through cooperation with state and territory jurisdictions, continuing to invest in advanced seismic and airborne electromagnetic surveys through the $100 million Exploring For The Future program and improving the consistency and scope of data across the resources sector,” Dr Shaw said.

“Such programs use cutting-edge technology and are having a huge impact on new views of potential minerals and groundwater provinces. The Coalition has also announced priority status for funding applications related to critical minerals projects under the $20 million round seven of the Cooperative Research Centres Project.”

Similarly, if elected, the Australian Labor Party’s Future Mines and Jobs plan could signal an era of new mine discoveries. It has pledged to establish an Australian Future Mines Centre to coordinate exploration and lead the scientific research and development necessary to explore under deep cover, while also providing 50 mining engineering scholarships for Australian students attending Western Australian universities, half of them for women.

A development Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME) Western Australia CEO Paul Everingham said was “a positive first step towards ensuring the potential of the nation’s natural resources are realised to the bene t of all Australians”, the centre will be funded through a $23 million Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative.

However, Dr Shaw said similar competing promises were not enough.

“Bipartisan support is crucial to ensure we champion new exploration approaches, new technologies, data collection and modelling,” he said

“This requires significant long-term investment, and the AGC seeks joint bipartisan commitment that will bring renewed confidence. While the amount of money both parties were proposing to spend on resource investment plans signalled positive growth, bigger numbers still need to be written down.

“At the moment both sides of politics are talking about tens of millions of dollars. When you look at the net potential benefit given Australia’s surface area, mineral endowment, geology and proven track record, I think we should be talking about $5 billion over 10 years.

“Huge benefit to the Australian people and our economy comes from our resource export industry, and investing heavily in that has got to mean increasing our advantage compared to other countries. If we don’t do this we will be falling behind other countries that are prepared to do so, such as Canada, China, India and Brazil, all of which are looking at the roadmap we have developed.”

So, what can bigger investment bring?

The CME 2018-2028 Western Australian Resources Sector Outlook found the increased use of automation, artificial intelligence and the deployment of advanced extraction techniques had the potential to improve the safety, productivity and competitiveness of the sector over the coming decade.

“We also need commitment in setting up institutions and organisations that can bring together all the different technologies and sciences involved in mineral exploration, discovery, development and production,” Dr Shaw said.

“We would like to see an organisational structure with vision similar to the Australian Space Agency initiative. The concept of starting to look out into space really caught the public’s imagination, but we’ve got a huge volume of space under our feet with vast, unknown wealth and resources.”

According to the Australian Government’s 2019 National Resources Statement, global commodity demand is projected to grow steadily over the coming decades, with exports expected to generate a record $264 billion in 2018–19.

The statement revealed resource commodities made up six of Australia’s top 10 goods, and the sector employed over 255,800 people directly and over 1 million people indirectly when mining services were included.

“The years of easy exploration and extraction are largely over,” Dr Shaw said. “The road ahead is going to require more innovation and substantial lead times in discovering and developing the resources Australia and the world need. These must be found and extracted safely, cleanly and efficiently if we are to continue to support and maintain the community values we expect in Australia.

“The political landscape needs to be more visionary instead of reactive. That is what is going to take us forward.”

Meeting demand

Consider that approximately 25 minerals are used in manufacturing modern smartphones. According to statistics portal Statista, 19.27 million Australians will use a smartphone by 2022, when the population is projected to hit 26.81 million. This means almost three- quarters of the population will be using a smartphone.

According to research by the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, the growing need for minerals and metals stems from our need to build electric vehicles, solar arrays, wind turbines and other renewable energy infrastructure. The research additionally showed batteries for electric vehicles were the most significant driver of accelerated minerals demand.

Released in late 2018 and signalling a focus on long- term prospects for mineral exploration down under, The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science’s Resources 2030 Taskforce report additionally noted future projections indicated global demand for many commodities was set to increase, driven by China, India, Japan and Indonesia, among others.

Image: Dr Bill Shaw