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(Data) mining for minerals

Two new CSIRO initiatives are set to make life much easier for anybody considering mineral exploration, from big mining companies down to the fossicker with a pick and shovel.

  • 17 December 2010

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One of the best sources of information to help target promising areas in mineral exploration is the huge store of pre-competitive data - geoscience information and cores from thousands of drill sites - held by the various State and Territory Geological Surveys.

However accessing this information is often difficult as each State and Territory holds data in different places and often in different electronic formats, and the drill cores are heavy and bulky and stored in large warehouses.

CSIRO’s involvement in AuScope is helping to make this mass of information freely available to explorers over the Internet.

AuScope was created through the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research National Collaborative Research Infrastructure funding, and CSIRO is leading two of its components, the Grid and the National Virtual Core Library.

In this podcast, Dr Robert Woodcock from CSIRO Earth Science and Resource Engineering explains how the Grid and National Virtual Core Library will help provide explorers with seamless access over the Internet to the nation’s geoscience data.


Interviewer: G’day, and welcome to CSIROPod. I’m Glen Paul. When it comes to mineral exploration, unless you’ve got the backing of a big mining company, it’s going to be costly. Getting a drill rig and crew out to take core samples doesn’t come cheaply.

Of course you could get information by visiting large warehouses containing thousands of heavy bulky drill cores held by State and Territory Geological Surveys, or by trying to access complicated information often held in different electronic languages.

Under the Department of Industry Innovation Science and Research’s AuScope Program, CSIRO is leading two initiatives aimed at making life much easier for small mineral exploration companies, these being The Grid, and the National Virtual Core Library.

To find out more, I’m joined by Dr Robert Woodcock from CSIRO Earth Science and Resource Engineering. Now, Robert, these two are separate components, both set up very much to help mineral exploration. So firstly, what can people find on The Grid?

Dr Robert Woodcock: OK. So The Grid’s got a number of components associated with it. The most visible component people can access is actually through the AuScope Discovery Portal, which can be found at auscope.org.au. The Discovery Portal’s a web based interface into the infrastructure of The Grid, where all the information is held.

The information itself is actually held at the custodian organisations, the Geological Surveys primarily, in each State and Territory, and at Geosites Australia. But it’s accessible all through the same interface on the same portal, the same way you go about accessing information on Google Maps.

Interviewer: OK. Now I imagine there would have been all sorts of formats to negotiate, such as old microfiche and the like. How was the information gathered for the net?

Dr Robert Woodcock: Well a lot of the information is actually already held in database systems of various forms across the Geological Surveys. The key has been to make those information available in the same form. And it’s not just the form you get the data in that matters, it’s the way you ask the question as well.

So, for example, each of the States and Territories has a different way of describing – let’s pick a mineral – gold. That might be in one place actually labelled in their database gold, G O L D. In other places they label it as A U, in other places there’s just a code, number three. 

And that’s been the issue. When you go to access information from all of the disparate sources that make up our nation’s information depository about geo science, it’s all in different formats, it’s all in different languages effectively.

We’ve worked very hard now to make that information accessible in a community agreed standard, a couple of them in fact. The International Union of Geological Sciences actually governs that. It was developed here in Australia and in conjunction with our international colleagues. And the other one is EarthResourceML, which is the one that principally underpins a lot of the data that’s currently available through the AuScope Discovery Portal.

Interviewer: Interesting. And were there any hurdles in relation to sensitivities to get over in putting the information on the web?

Dr Robert Woodcock: Oh yes, definitely. A lot of government policy around information handling, a lot of the way in which the information systems are protected and secured to keep the information safe – remembering there’s quite a wide variety of sensitive information here. You won’t just have gold, you’ll have things like Uranium as well, and there are sensitivities associated with some of that.

A lot of those policies predate electronic access over the net, so they’ve got policies that tell you how you can publish it in a piece of paper, but not how you can make it queryable electronically over the internet, and then use it for other things.

So it’s been a challenge for policy makers, for the way in which the management systems are run, and the way the IT system is protected, to consider opening up and making what is actually publicly accessible, freely available information, available in this new form in this effectively internet age, Web2.0 style approach to spreading information.

Interviewer: Right. And that’s only part of it too, because you’ve got this National Virtual Core Library, which is also an online feature, which sounds like another mammoth task, getting thousands of core samples up onto the web.  How did you go about that?

Dr Robert Woodcock: So the Core Library really is an example of the real future of where we see a lot of geological information being made available online. With the Virtual Core Library, we have around nine million metres of core, drill core that are collected and stored in sheds and warehouses around Australia in each of the States and Territories.

And that core is used by industry. People come in, visit the shed, they get the trays laid out, they go through and they look at the rocks, and they analyse the chemicals and so forth. And they understand a lot more about the structure of a prospective region that they’re interested in going into. And it’s an expensive exercise. You have to go out there, you have to go visit it, you have to see it all. 

Using some technology developed by CSIRO, this is one where we actually had to create some new technologies over a number of years, to actually scan the core. So we physically get the core trays, and we stick them under a hyperspectral scanner, one that can actually see not only visible light, but infrared light of various forms.

And from that scanning principle, we actually scan down to around one millimetre accuracy in the imagery.  And we can actually do a number of processing algorithms, which will give you an indication of the mineralogy in the rock, and where that mineral changes.

And all of that information’s been scanned, put on a computer, and placed online, and delivered out through The Grid into the AuScope Discovery Portal.  So it’s now possible to sit in your office and start looking at drill holes that are stored in the various repositories around Australia, without actually having to leave anywhere, and get an indication of the geology that’s there without actually having to move.

It’s also possible, you don’t have to use the Discovery Portal to access the information, you can actually do it directly from things like an Excel spreadsheet, or a mining package, by connecting to the underlying infrastructure that is The Grid.  So you don’t actually have to use the Portal, you can actually connect straight through and get this information directly into your geological and mining packages, with a bit of programming work to make that all happen.

Interviewer: So, can it replace going out into the field altogether then?

Dr Robert Woodcock: I don’t believe so. The idea is to make Australia more competitive, in a exploration sense, to lower the barrier to entry.  The first point in the mining life cycle around discovery and exploration is finding a prospective region, and you really want to be able to do that as cheaply as possible.

Whereas when you’re a little bit further along, and you actually want to know a lot more about the geology, and really understand what’s going on, and really be sure of yourself, you’re investing more money, and therefore the cost of actually flying out to see the physical rocks and so forth is an issue.

So it’s not a replacement, it’s an adjunct to lowering that initial barrier to entry, to make the cost of exploration come down.

Interviewer: Absolutely. As you said, anybody, anywhere in the world, can login and have a bit of a look to see whether it’s worthwhile pursing.

Dr Robert Woodcock: Oh, very much so. 

Interviewer: Now where is all this knowledge to be found again?

Dr Robert oodcock: So the AuScope Discovery Portal, well in fact the whole of the AuScope website can be found at www.auscope.org.au [external link].

Interviewer: Righteo. Well, thanks very much for that Robert. I’m sure it’ll make life a whole lot easier for those considering doing some prospecting, from the comfort of their living rooms. So appreciate your time today.

Dr Robert Woodcock: OK. Thank you.

Interviewer: Dr Robert Woodcock, from CSIRO Earth Science and Resource Engineering.  For more information visit www.csiro.au.