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18 January 2022 3 min read

Dr Rob Hough, Director CSIRO Mineral Resources ©  Ian Dickson

The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in 2021 that clean energy systems will require a massive increase in demand for minerals. Clean energy technologies will have an increased share of total demand over the next 20 years ‘to over 40 per cent for copper, 60-70 per cent for nickel and cobalt, and nearly 90 per cent for lithium’.

It is estimated to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement would require 'a quadrupling of mineral requirements for clean energy technologies by 2040' and 'to hit net‑zero globally by 2050, requiring six times more mineral inputs in 2040 than today'.

Our industry itself is also changing with the emphasis on exploring through cover, ore quality and recovery, automation, electrification, ESG performance and digitisation all requiring a new wave of science, technology and talent if we are to be successful.

I'm delighted to lead CSIRO's Mineral Resources business unit, where we have over 300 dedicated, multi-disciplinary, applied researchers with capabilities situated right across Australia and spanning the value chain of the minerals industry in our work – from exploration to mining, processing and closure.

It is, however, worth remembering that CSIRO as a whole, has 5,000 applied researchers delivering impact across a wide range of fields, and I won't even attempt to go into all of them here but should give you an idea.

This is a truly significant resource available to support Australian industry across multiple sectors. The diverse industries CSIRO supports share similar challenges, so we have a unique opportunity to tap into these different capabilities and technologies to find and deploy new solutions that might have worked elsewhere.

In this issue of Resourceful, we highlight some of these wider capabilities and how they are being used to support the minerals sector.

This includes developing autonomous systems, managing our water, reducing emissions and creating a circular economy to reduce waste. These are all activities that help our industry to remain globally competitive, to foster future talent and even to use our expertise to grow new sectors (e.g. Space).

Our newly launched Autonomous Sensors Future Science Platform is a nice example of how Team CSIRO comes together, in that it involves collaboration with 10 business units across CSIRO, it will be home to a new wave of early researchers and engineers and has the exciting challenge to develop new sensor technologies and autonomous platforms for decision support that could be deployed in different applications.

Innovations in sensor technology will allow us to sense with increasing accuracy, sensitivity, traceability, and resolution, with technology adapted for the uniquely Australian challenges of harsh environmental conditions and of course remote locations.

Harsh environments also feature in two other articles in this issue, firstly, our work to take advantage of mining technologies to enable in-situ resource utilisation of minerals on the Moon, creating opportunities to invent new space technologies here in Australia.

Then, there is our success in the global 2021 DARPA Subt challenge, that saw our team from CSIRO Data61 and partners autonomously explore an underground setting, using robotic technology that is increasingly finding application today in underground mining environments e.g. drone based mapping by the CSIRO spinoff Emesent.

Finally, we have world class mineralogy and materials characterisation expertise, that routinely finds application in environmental science, soil quality, material properties.

Using that expertise and our facilities, we have been able to support mining companies to quantify the 3D mineralogy of the deposits leading to improvements in recovery, reduction in processing issues and a more predictive capability to tune in advance, rather than reacting to the often un-wanted surprises.

As part of Australia's national science agency, with a remit to support Australian industry through applied research and technology, it is exciting to note that while the Mineral Resources business unit has deep expertise attuned to the industry, we can also draw on this wider, amazing, talent base right across CSIRO to find solutions to problems – delivering real impact through science!

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