Perhaps the challenges of understanding and exploring our vast and often inhospitable island continent drove the imperative for excellence, but whatever its origin Australia's world-leading geoscientific expertise is undisputed.
Since 2006, the nation’s geoscientific community has been supported by AuScope, which brings together a network of strong partnerships from across the full gamut of government agencies and universities.
"We invest in research infrastructure – we're buying the things that allow researchers to do what they do, and we make it open to academia, industry, government and even the general community," says Dr Tim Rawling, a structural geologist and CEO of AuScope since 2015.
Providing infrastructure for geoscience
AuScope is funded by the Federal government's National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and its broad vision is to build what it calls Australia's Downward Looking Telescope (DLT).
This integrated infrastructure – which aims to help researchers address national geoscience challenges by looking down into the Earth rather than up to Space – is well advanced and includes a range of virtual research tools that make hard-won geoscience data accessible to all.
"Since 2006, we have invested across Australia in everything from radio telescopes to geochemistry and geochronology laboratories, to characterisation technologies such as HyLogger, geophysical equipment and surveys, many data-delivery products and data repositories and open-source simulation analysis and modelling codes to help people add value to those data sets," says Tim.
HyLogger is the innovative hyperspectral drillcore-scanning technology developed within CSIRO, since licensed to West Australian METS company Corescan and used around the world.
"In 2006, CSIRO and AuScope partnered to set up the National Virtual Core Library (NVCL) to roll out the HyLogger technology nationally, via the state geological surveys," says Shane Mulè, Project Leader, NVCL and the Mobile Petrophysical Laboratory (MPL).
It's estimated that more than 10 million metres of physical drillcore lies in warehouses around Australia.
The state geological surveys have used HyLoggers to scan and digitise their drillcore to populate the NVCL, an open, central repository of imagery and hyperspectral data.
"The state surveys have committed significant funding, time and effort to ensuring the success of the NVCL," says Shane.
"Each of those surveys has contributed one or two people working full-time on the NVCL, because while the HyLogger instrument scans the drillcore trays automatically, preparation is needed to get it ready and data processing post-acquisition."
As a result of this dedicated HyLogging by Australia's six state and territory geological surveys, the NVCL is the world's largest drillcore mineralogical database.
And users from around the globe may access its hyperspectral reflectance spectra via the AuScope Discovery Portal.
The HyLogger scanning continues, but the achievement is impressive.
"We have more than 1.5 million metres of drillcore data available now," says Dr Jess Stromberg, Team Leader for our Mineral Footprints research.
"It's already a world-class dataset."
A virtual research environment to supercharge research and exploration
The race is heating up to find vast volumes of critical minerals to support various technologies advancing decarbonisation and these new target resources are getting harder to find.
"It's a massive challenge and Australia – rightly or wrongly – is viewed as quite a mature exploration environment," says Tim.
"We need to be smarter about the way we explore and to develop better predictive geoscience capabilities. We need to look at where mineralisation has occurred in the past to inform the targeting of exploration dollars, particularly under cover."
CSIRO has been a key partner in building AuScope's Virtual Research Environment (AVRE), an ever-growing ecosystem of geoscience data and tools from across Australian universities, government geological surveys and research organisations.
The initial challenge was to find a way to collect diverse datasets without requiring the suppliers to conform to one national data model.
"AVRE began as AuScope Grid in 2006, when CSIRO’s Dr Robert Woodcock and his team created a unified system, the Spatial Information Services Stack (SISS), which enabled this exchange," explains Dr Sandra (Sandi) Occhipinti, Research Director with CSIRO's Mineral Resources business unit and president elect of the Australian Geoscience Council.
"In the academic world, research findings get published but it's sometimes very difficult for the underlying data to find a home. AuScope wanted to make a platform for researchers to publish their data, too, so that other researchers can access it."
This is the sustainability aspect of the NVCL.
As exploration for critical minerals ramps up, this enormous repository of historical data unlocks ongoing and wide use of previous drilling programs.
"You’re building on what came before, rather than that data being locked away," says Sandi.
"When you're looking for something new, the data is always the same but you're going to look at it in a different way, with fresh eyes," says Sandi.
"The access to this wealth of geoscience information – the data and tools available in the AVRE – is invaluable not just to academia and government but also to industry. It really helps support mineral exploration in Australia."
She says the longevity of AVRE is to be celebrated, given the cyclical nature of AuScope's funding.
"CSIRO's partnership with AuScope is the biggest project of our Mineral Resources Business Unit," she says.
"It's in the national interest."
Teaching old data new tricks
There’s a mother lode of invaluable data within the NVCL to support finding previously overlooked minerals.
“A lot of that NVCL data will have been looked at with respect for, say, gold, but not examined properly with respect to lithium,” says Sandi.
“We’re also developing new algorithms within the NVCL to identify more minerals. Companies and researchers can access that data and look at it again with these new algorithms.”
As with all geology, there are multiple layers of complexity. Critical-minerals targeting is now a focus for hyperspectral research.
“As we search for more bespoke and strange minerals, it becomes harder to detect them in the drillcore data,” says Shane.
“It’s not as simple as clearly finding one mineral. There is often a lot of mixing as you go down the drill hole. When you have similar mineral characteristics mixed together, it is harder to break them apart to identify them.”
Shane says that CSIRO and the NVCL, in conjunction with the state geological surveys, are working on several new ways to solve these challenges, including building multiple new data sets to extract more information about the drillcore, such as via non-destructive petrophysical scanning.
“Over the next five years, we will build that up by bringing in more techniques to have alongside our hyperspectral data, in order to get a better mineralogical picture of our drillcore.”
Sharing outlooks, expertise – and resources
“From AuScope’s perspective, our relationship with CSIRO is really important, not just because they’re one of the country’s most important research organisations but also they’re closer to industry so they provide us with that lens,” says Tim from AuScope.
He believes Australia has led the way in building precompetitive datasets and tools for geoscience.
And the mindset of the research community has shifted to embrace open data since AuScope started.
Rocks may be the focus, but there’s nothing stolid about geoscience.
As the future minerals landscape unfolds, the science and technology to help explore it keeps evolving, too.
“The AVRE project is a good example of one that’s been agile in the face of changing requirements, and it continues to do that to meet the needs of the next generation of computational geoscientists,” says Tim.
“To develop better understanding of mineral systems, we will need a combination of additional datasets and more computationally advanced approaches.
“AuScope will continue to collate these datasets, make them freely available and provide the compute resources so that people can apply AI and machine learning approaches.”
AuScope and its partners work hard to ensure all the data held across AVRE is FAIR – Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable.
AVRE has enabled a whole generation of geoscientists across Australia from different universities to publish their data and to work together,” says Sandi.
“It’s encouraging collaboration across the different institutions and I don’t know of anything else like it in the world.”
As the questions get trickier and answers more urgent, it’s inspiring to see AuScope’s mission to help the geoscience community tackle grand challenges in action across the earth-sciences ecosystem.
“While we’ve seen it coming for a long time, the change in focus to critical minerals and to new energy systems presents enormous opportunities for Australia,” says Tim.
“The ability for us to reassess our mineral potential is exciting and there’s some fascinating work being done around natural hydrogen.
“On the technology-development side, new kinds of sensors and the miniaturisation of sensors are opening opportunities for deployment using UAVs (Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle) will help us increase spatial coverage and data density across parts of Australia where the data is currently pretty sparse. That’s an opportunity for the research community as well as the exploration community.”
The Downward Looking Telescope is live.