Gold has had a long and famed history in Australia since the first gold rush in 1851. But maintaining its lustre in the face of declining new discoveries, poor quality ores, growing community expectations and environmental pressures, begs the question: will the next 170 years be as golden? CSIRO Mineral Resources director, JONATHAN LAW, writes
Long-famed as the land of golden soil, as embedded in our national anthem, Australia is blessed with an abundance of gold.
Our nation's first big gold rush in 1851, sparked enormous economic and social change and quickly put Australia on the map as a world-famous gold destination. Tens of thousands of prospectors and associated businesses poured into the New South Wales and Victorian goldfields as discoveries were made. Soon after, there were similar gold rushes to Queensland and Western Australia.
Australia is a gold growth story
Gold has played a significant role in the nation's economy ever since and today we are the world's second largest producer.
Australia's gold production has grown dramatically over the last 40 years – from less than 50 tonnes in 1980 to over 300 tonnes in the late 1990s. After gradual decline over the last two decades, Australia reached a new peak with record production rates recorded last year.
Only the United States (US) has followed a similar trajectory off the back of the giant Carlin-style deposits. Meanwhile, long term, but gradual, growth in China makes them the world's largest producer today.
Overall Australia has been a gold growth success story. But what will Australia’s future gold story look like?
Gold discovery to ensure prosperity
A 2017 MinEx Consulting report estimated that only four out of 76 gold mines in Australia could be left operating by 2056. Largely due to the declining rate of new world-class gold discoveries to replace tapped out mines – this is not a challenge isolated to Australia and is the experience worldwide.
Some exploration companies have already turned their attention overseas. Still, there remains a rich opportunity deeper below cover in Australia and exploration success could reap high rewards. But exploration here is currently difficult and expensive: this is our challenge. We need to act quickly on innovative new techniques to secure our resource base for future gold production.
But new discoveries alone won't be enough. We need to better understand what underground orebodies look like before we turn them into mines. New sensors, data analytics and machine learning will be critical to build this picture, helping to reduce risks, attract investment and inform all downstream decision-making.
Technologies to enhance gold production
The other critical aspect is reducing the costs of gold production, and in a way that satisfies growing community and environmental expectations. Gold grades have generally declined over time, so the cost of production has increased along with the energy and water inputs required. Sensors, new precision mining methods and measurement tools will be just as important for capturing more value from gold ores, as they are for making the extraction processes less energy and water intensive.
Ensuring the industry maintains its social licence means addressing areas of greatest community concern and looking for new ways to balance triple bottom line demands. With bans in some jurisdictions in the US, South America and Europe already in place, miners are facing a future where cyanide and mercury use in gold processing may no longer be acceptable. There is some momentum to replace these techniques, where possible, with non toxic alternatives.
Our nation holds the golden ticket to these innovation challenges, and the world is watching.
Australia is home to several industry giants with a strong, emerging mid-tier sector.
We have a well-connected innovation system and strong collaborative research programs focused on the big challenges facing the industry today.
We have Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, focused on keeping Australia at the leading edge of innovation, production and downstream value generation in partnership with industry and other stakeholders.
Our research laboratories are among the world's most advanced, open-access mineral data analytical laboratories with cutting edge instrumentation from whole drill cores through to the nanoscale. This includes X-ray scanning to 3D image gold within host settings in unprecedented detail.
New Australian companies have been created to export our world-leading sensing technologies for measurement and analysis, which deliver both speed and accuracy, along with sustainability credentials.
And recent success shows how a locally developed cyanide and mercury-free alternative for gold recovery holds promise for creating niche markets for gold.
With all of this on our shores, the opportunity in Australia is still golden.