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11 October 2023 7 min read

Since 2006, AuScope, CSIRO and Australia's state and territory geological surveys have been working together to collect, organise and make available the nation’s geoscientific data and tools, for the benefit of researchers as well as industry.

The jewels in the crown are the National Virtual Core Library (NVCL) and the AuScope Virtual Research Environment (AVRE).

Turning a telescope underground

AuScope's clever analogy of the Downward Looking Telescope (DLT) helps explain how this geographically dispersed, digitally connected research infrastructure system help geoscientists better understand the Australian continent.

What the DLT 'sees' is a vast collection of data.

From the latest petrophysics and passive seismic surveys to more than a century's worth of drillcore data. Including hyperspectral data from obtained minerology scans by HyLogger, an instrument developed within CSIRO.

The hyperspectral HyLogger data is housed in the NVCL, while AVRE is home to an ever-growing ecosystem of geoscience data and tools from across Australian universities, government geological surveys and research organisations.

AuScope’s Downward Looking Telescope (DLT) is the Australian geoscience research community’s vision for a futureproof research infrastructure system to support Australia’s sustainable future. ©  AuScope

A new era for geoscientific data

Amid the challenges of climate change and the race for critical minerals to support the energy transition, all this data is a geoscientific gold mine.

Making sure the data is FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable) is vital.

"The volume of data that we’re dealing with has grown to the point where we need to be more thoughtful around how we use it," says Alex Hunt, Team Leader – Information Engineering with CSIRO Mineral Resources, whose team supports AVRE.

Alex joined the project this year and lauds AuScope’s work to provide a central location for Australia’s geoscience data, much of which had previously been siloed across the state surveys.

"To provide a holistic view across Australia was a huge step forward for researchers and industry," says Alex.

Alex and his colleagues are working to enhance the accessibility and usability of these vast and fast-growing datasets for the whole geoscientific community.

"Historically, the data didn’t overlap much. Drilling campaigns may have produced the only geoscientific data in that area," he says.

"Now there’s a lot of other data available. From campaigns collecting data from aerial electromagnetic (AEM) surveys to satellite data and other remote-sensing options. People are finding new ways to bring all those different pieces of the puzzle together." 

The consensus is the 'FAR' part of the FAIR data acronym is well in hand. Work is also underway across AVRE and NVCL to improve the 'I' – interoperability.

"The old way has been to download the dataset from NVCL onto your desktop and crunch it through CSIRO's TSG (The Spectral Geologist) processing package," says Shane Mulè, Project Leader, NVCL and the Mobile Petrophysical Laboratory (MPL).

"It's drill hole by drill hole. And the highly specialised software is open to a lot of interpretation."

As Shane points out, contemporary graduates are trained to run code to interact with data rather than the laborious dataset downloading and processing of yore (accepting that 'yore' in the tech world was only a few years ago!).

"We are developing a Python interface for NVCL data and increasing our engagement with universities, students and researchers. This includes running workshops to get their feedback so we can make our data easy to use," says Shane.

A data-powered circular economy for research and exploration
Dr Tim Rawling, Director of AuScope

AuScope CEO Dr Tim Rawling says that in addition to making their data FAIR, they want it to be as raw as possible.

"Rather than only producing beautiful data products, we want to provide data that has come off a sensor with as little processing as possible," says Tim.

"We want to make that data available so that people can come in and see opportunities that we might not see. Opportunities that are not limited by data that has been processed, meshed, merged or whatever. They can get the raw data and apply smart algorithms to pull out signals that others might not see."

AuScope's mission is to make the data infrastructure and supporting research instruments freely available to all.

"That drives research and supports anyone who comes in and creates IP as a result of that access is for the benefit of Australia," says Tim.

Combining old data and new

This carefully maintained and continually enhanced data ecosystem makes the most of historical data. Particularly data derived from drilling programs which are expensive, labour-intensive and create an environmental impact on the land.

The 10 million metres of drillcore held in state surveys is steadily being HyLogged for its mineralogy-revealing hyperspectral data.

Some will even be rescanned by the next generation HyLogger-4.

Mobile petrophysical laboratory

Shipping container with named Mobile Petrophyisical Laboratory

The latest play is to bring more petrophysics data into the sandbox, boosted by collection via the Mobile Petrophysics Laboratory (MPL).

The MPL was enabled through a joint trial project between  CSIRO, AuScope and the University of Melbourne.

"We've containerised a GeoTek multi-sensor core logger (MSCL) to send around to the state surveys. This gives them access to the instrument in the hope measurements of petrophysics and non-destructive geochemistry on drillcores become routine," says Shane.

"We hope this will develop into a more standard approach of drillcore analysis."

Over the next five years, the MPL will make its way around all of Australia's geological surveys, refining techniques along the way.

"Some of the drillcore have very specific geologies and the MPL will help us determine which datasets are likely be the most useful."

After collecting this data, new algorithms will be developed to interrogate it.

Over time, these datasets will build the foundation of a digital twin of Australia's drillcore.

If you drill a hole, study the drillcore but no one ever looks at it again, that's wasted money and effort and a large opportunity cost too," says Shane.

"HyLogging for high-resolution hyperspectral data, high-resolution photography and petrophysical scanning to derive mineralogy data gives ongoing value on that core."

Upskilling researchers and industry to get on the tools

While hyperspectral data as held in the NVCL is becoming an increasingly standard dataset, it is not yet part of any standard geoscience curriculum in Australia.

Dr Jess Stromberg, Team Leader, Mineral Footprints, CSIRO Mineral Resources and leader of the NVCL outreach and training activity

"We run about eight workshops a year to help upskill researchers and industry to access the benefits of the NVCL effectively," says Dr Jess Stromberg, Team Leader, Mineral Footprints, CSIRO Mineral Resources and leader of the NVCL outreach and training activity.

"We often run the workshops in collaboration with the state geological surveys and they’re open to industry, researchers but really anyone," says Jess.

"It's also an opportunity for us to showcase our datasets and applications. A lot of workshops recently have been focused on critical minerals, rare earth elements and lithium. We often tailor the data that we use in demonstrations to the interests of the group."

Jess says the NVCL is not only world-class, it’s unique.

"We're pushing the limits in the research aspect of the data we collect in terms of the wavelength ranges to look at new minerals and elements of interest and then translating that for the industry and researcher users using the NVCL datasets," she says.

"We're using the data to look at commodities that weren’t of much interest 10 years ago."

Jess and her CSIRO colleague Dr Carsten Laukamp, a key pioneer of the NVCL, are always learning as well as teaching.

"We're always looking for ways to pull new information out of the data," she says.

"For instance, we’ve known for a long time that you can detect rare earth elements in the visible, near-infrared part of the spectrum. Understanding how to extract the information about those rare earths and the minerals in which they sit by looking at the thermal infrared is something that hasn’t been done before, so there’s a research component, too."

The commissioning of three HyLogger-4 instruments, supported by AuScope and NCRIS, will let them push things even further.

"It includes a section of the mid-infrared spectrum which hasn’t been investigated in great detail before – and certainly never been applied to geoscience," says Jess.

"We have some preliminary data and the information that we'll be pulling out of that, in a geology context, is brand new," she says.

"Through AuScope we've been developing new ways to use the entire spectrum."

It's not hard to understand why this Canadian-born spectral geologist makes her home in Perth.

"Australia is a global leader in this space and other countries, surveys and industries are coming to us for support to set up similar initiatives as NVCL," says Jess.

"In terms of research, the work that we've done to process these datasets, the spectral libraries we've developed and the algorithms are all considered cutting edge.

"It's a really exciting place to be. I reckon Australia has the highest concentration of spectral geologists in the world!"

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