The future of exploration

A big new mineral discovery can, and does, transform ordinary companies into global giants. But in recent decades, as many exploration districts mature, it does feel like incremental discoveries in existing districts are the order of the day – albeit with a few notable exceptions.

Article from resourceful: Issue 9, March 2016

Jonathan Law, Director of CSIRO Mineral Resources

LEADER'S COMMENT

As Will Robinson from Encounter Resources puts it: "the quality of ore mined … has far exceeded the quality of ore that has been found".

One of the key reasons for this is the lack of reliable and cost-effective tools to explore those parts of Australia that are under a blanket of cover material. It wasn’t that long ago that regolith – one form of unconsolidated cover derived from the weathering of rocks near the surface – was an impenetrable barrier to exploration. The research and exploration community joined forces to overcome this challenge and many world-class orebodies were discovered as a result.

The geoscience community is again mobilising around the next frontier: cover by younger materials including sediments and igneous rocks. Through the UNCOVER initiative, the key geoscience challenges holding us back have been systematically identified and CSIRO is focusing its resources on solving them.

In this issue, we examine some of the research and partnerships that are poised to focus on UNCOVER's vision: a national team fit for a national challenge. These key initiatives focus on practical outcomes that either attract and/or enable new exploration investment in covered regions and fall under four key areas.

Pushing into new regions – covered areas are difficult to explore and there is inherently poor data with respect to even the most basic geological maps, rock types and geological process understanding. Integrated research and exploration initiatives, such as in the Capricorn province of Western Australia, build geological understanding to attract investment, and at the same time, deliver the tools for effective exploration outcomes.

Cost-effective access – working beneath cover means looking deeper, but always keeping the economic constraints in mind and hence restricting the available research space. New drilling technologies and onsite analytical facilities will change the costs and pace of exploration drilling and are being developed through the Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre. These new technologies will provide the base geoscience data to attract exploration investment in covered areas, and at the same time, reduce the cost and increase the value of drilling.

Rapid, cheap and integrated data – accessing sample material through drilling is a major expense in exploration. New technologies are looking to cut drilling costs, increase the amount and quality of the resultant data, and drive effective integration of all datasets for the best exploration outcomes. Partnerships with Geoscience Australia and the state and territory geological surveys are key to unlocking the value.

Transitioning to new mining technologies technology tends to keep pace with demand and so mining technologies have increasingly adapted to deliver profitable outcomes as the best resources are exhausted. As we explore deeper, we must mine deeper and so two alternative scenarios are in play: we find increasingly better resources to offset the cost of exploration at depth using existing technologies; or we innovate and change the mining and processing paradigm to take advantage of new opportunities. CSIRO is focused on the latter to open up Australia's wealth of under cover resources.

None of this would be possible without UNCOVER's clarity of purpose. We've faced the regolith challenge and won. Now for the big prizes under greater depths of cover.

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