Five years after UNCOVER was first mooted by the Australian Academy of Sciences, the concept – which some call the biggest initiative in geoscience for the past 100 years – is throwing up as many questions as it answers. ADAM COURTENAY reports.
Article from resourceful: Issue 9, March 2016.
UNCOVER – a collaboration of government, research institutes, universities and industry – is about finding and extracting the hidden wealth that lies beneath the top surface regolith.
It's a project that’s dimensions are likely to increase before they diminish – the complexity and make-up of the earth just a kilometre below us still remains largely unknown.
Knowing so little about buried natural treasure has not daunted Australia's geoscience community. UNCOVER hopes to take Australia from a country that has barely scratched the surface of its own geology to one that is confident in exploiting the full extent and value of its subsurface mineral wealth using a completely new set of exploration tools and research methods.
Australia's mineral wealth is not confined only to the near-surface search space. As much as 80 per cent of the country is considered prospective, hosting hitherto unseen, high-quality, large economic resources, which demand new infrastructure development and new mines replacing the surface operations that are in long-term decline.
"The petroleum industry made the change many years ago when their discovery rate went into decline – they needed to open new search space, and in particular explore and mine deeper," says Dr Steve Beresford, chief geologist at First Quantum Minerals, who also chairs the UNCOVER Geoscience Committee.
"But, the mineral industry hasn't been forced to do this with the same level of urgency. Miners still think they can make money from the minerals lying close to the surface in riskier countries, so the commitment to do this hasn't been nearly as urgent as it should be.
"UNCOVER is about Australia and replacing the decline in resource quality in this country. To achieve this need, we have to encourage companies to invest, explore, discover and mine in Australia," Dr Beresford says.
Mineral exploration is often talked about being a process of sequential volume reduction until you find the deposit, but according to Dr Beresford, this isn't how the majority of the industry has explored.
"Crucially, it isn't how successful exploration at the surface has been undertaken. In fact, it builds its story around facts, around certainty."
As Dr Beresford explains, this approach is unsustainable at depth and has led to higher discovery costs and poorer discovery rates. In other words, diminishing returns.
"Again, we have lessons to learn from other industries that have been through this same decline due to searching for their goal in a sea of uncertainty.
"These industries have transitioned through the focusing of their science (e.g. rare disease pharmaceuticals, airport scanning) and collaboration with other sciences (e.g. human connectome, terrorism intelligence) to bring new decision-making approaches, new technologies, and new extrapolative and interpolative science."
The industry is going through a transition in where and how it explores. This transition requires a collaboration with government agencies and research agencies on a scale we haven't seen in geoscience before.
UNCOVER is about Australia and replacing the decline in resource quality in this country. To achieve this need, we have to encourage companies to explore, discover and mine in Australia.
— Dr Steve Beresford
"Our country has a long proud history of leading the world in minerals collaboration but we are being asked to lead a bigger change because this is a bigger challenge," Dr Beresford says.
Dr Rob Hough, CSIRO's exploration research director and one of UNCOVER's leading members, realises there’s unlikely to be a 'eureka' moment in the UNCOVER story. Rather, there's more likely to be a number of smaller moments of understanding that add to the whole picture.
The industry is in the midst of one of the heaviest commodities downturns in years and there is little incentive for greenfield exploration. But, there is no alternative if Australian mining is to survive.
"If we do not invest in the research and development that feeds into the next level of exploration technology, there will be nothing left to mine here," Dr Hough says.
The big players will simply go and scratch the surface elsewhere. We are seeing that already with the likes of Barrick and Anglo American effectively exiting Australian exploration in recent times.
Mineral systems understanding is at the heart of the UNCOVER initiative and both Dr Hough and Dr Beresford agree that it requires a new way of thinking.
As an exemplar, a $17 million project based in northern Western Australia's Capricorn involves a team of 25-strong researchers and a number of junior miners who are working to find mineral 'signatures'. These may be related to groundwater or ancient weathering events or anomalies that remain unseen under cover.
"We don't know what may have caused these 'hot spots' or anomalies. We think they could be an expression of a mineral system or they could simply be a normal geological event," Dr Hough says.
"We haven't done enough modelling to test and simulate what we might encounter and analyse the regional data to put the results into context. We don't know what the far-field systems look like – what the distal footprints are.
"What, for instance, does Olympic Dam look like 10 kilometres away from the orebody? We haven't done that yet.
"If it's a null result, we need to reverse engineer models to retest and re-simulate into things like our geophysical data and ask what that teaches us about where we go next. We don't celebrate failure enough – it can still teach us a lot about the geology," he says.
Dr Hough is optimistic about UNCOVER with good reason. Among its successes is the growing intelligence being gathered as part of the Capricorn project.
Progress on an 'exploration tool kit suite' is encouraging and progressively enabling researchers to support industry in lowering the risk of exploring in deeper environments.
An example is the knowledge being gained on mineral grains, each with their own chemical and magnetic signatures, which is helping scientists navigate towards mineral systems.
CSIRO researchers are also applying magnetotellurics and passive seismic monitoring, which use sound to collect images of deep earth at high resolutions.
"These models take a long time to develop and the team is constantly updating them based on the data that is coming in.
"It's providing a whole new image of the Earth's crust in the area," Dr Hough says.
What is most important for the research team is how they work with industry on the project. The researchers spend time with the industry partners in the field, often staying in their exploration camps or at mine sites. It’s this kind of close and regular interaction that helps get the research outcomes across to industry more quickly.
"This also serves to encourage industry to get more engaged in the research, which is great," Dr Hough says.
Also under the UNCOVER umbrella, the South Australian Government is now working closely with industry and the Deep Exploration Technology Cooperative Research Centre (DET CRC) on a mineral systems drilling program. Together, they are working to produce a transect of drillholes while demonstrating the new technologies at the drill sites.
The Geological Survey of South Australia has also been highly proactive in producing a seismic survey across its part of the Nullarbor Plain. In tandem with its counterpart in Western Australia, the survey gives us a whole new understanding of the underground geology.
According to Dr Hough, South Australia is being very proactive because much of its mineral wealth is literally under cover and it wants to be a major global player in the copper industry and attract overseas mining companies.
"UNCOVER can play an important role in supporting the South Australian Government's recently announced copper strategy.
"It will provide stronger links between industry, government and research organisations in South Australia where a research hub for copper excellence is explicitly recognised," Dr Hough says.
Another DET CRC project is developing a new deep and rapid drilling technology known as coiled tube drilling. It will be capable of zipping through earth to create a readily analysable rock powder as opposed to the standard heavy cores.
"It allows a team to move along a very large region cheaply and quickly with far less people and with a far smaller environmental footprint.
"It can literally zip through the Earth's crust, navigate the subsurface and provide both geochemical and geological pictures in real time using deep samples.
"At CSIRO, we are delighted to have a new partnership with the Northern Territory Geological Survey, for the first time we are embedding two researchers in Darwin with the survey.
"The project aims to develop the UNCOVER tool kit in areas like the McArthur Basin that are so important to metal production in Australia," Dr Hough says.
Geoscience Australia is also doing innovative work trying to standardise the depth of cover products it produces. It has also undertaken deep stratigraphic drilling in parts of Australia that have up until now been ignored, covering areas in western Victoria and moving into northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.
All this points to a collection of technologies and research methodologies that will take Australian geoscience to the highest levels internationally.
Dr Hough says success will breed success.
"If early adopters take it up, others will follow. It then leads to an increase in exploration and a greater ability to raise funding to support companies who will then take on more employees," he says.
Dr Beresford agrees, "At the end of this, we have to be as good at exploring to a depth of one kilometre as we currently are at exploring just 100 metres below us."
For more information on UNCOVER, visit uncoverminerals.org.au.
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