CSIRO, in partnership with industry, will develop a scale-consistent, quantitative database of rock properties in Queensland's Cloncurry region, which will ultimately support the development of innovative tools, methods, machine learning and artificial intelligence for the wider minerals exploration industry.
Developing these exciting new techniques will help to integrate geoscientific data – a breakthrough that will change the way we do exploration at a regional and deposit scale.
Rock properties are a vital link between observed geophysical data and interpreted geology. Historically though, rock property data has been collected by different people, from different institutions, using different methods – and subject to their interpretation. This has made it difficult to understand the relationships between different data types at a given scale, and almost impossible to integrate data objectively.
Integrating rock property data offers huge advantages. For example, a combination of structural, mineralogical and textural data can be used to predict the shape of an orebody based on only one drillhole.
"When it comes to geoscience data, you have a whole bunch of different scales represented across different dimensions and resolutions. You're not comparing apples with apples," CSIRO senior research scientist, Jim Austin, says.
Analysing rock properties in the Cloncurry region
The database will record results from the analysis of thousands of one-inch rock cylinders that Dr Austin and his team will take from the Cloncurry region. It will include information about the rocks' magnetic, radiometric and spectral properties, structural fabrics, densities, conductivity, mineralogy and geochemistry.
"We can figure out what the key relationships are between the different datasets and use those insights to develop new ways of exploring to try to find mineral deposits in that area," Dr Austin explains.
This makes the database critical for the Cloncurry region, because despite the region's rich mining history – dating back to the late 1800s – the last major discoveries were about 25 years ago. Without new discoveries, the region's future mining prospects are at risk.
"A lot of people are employed by the mines here, and many small businesses service the industry, so new discoveries are economically important for the region," Dr Austin says.
Geophysics data from the project could be used in a more integrated way to map mineral systems deep under cover in the Cloncurry region, and to develop practical tools that local industry can use to identify prospective targets.
"The project is really about thinking outside the box and trying to come up with something different to find new deposits," Dr Austin explains.
The projects look to use geophysical data to map mineral systems, rather than traditional exploration methods, like drilling.
"By reducing the need to drill you save a lot of money and reduce disturbance to the local environment. There's far less impact," Dr Austin says.
Industry partners key to driving research outcomes
The research is funded by the Geological Survey of Queensland. It combines a range of expertise from across the country, including CSIRO's petrophysical team in Sydney, its mineralogy team in Perth, the Centre for Ore Deposit and Earth Sciences at the University of Tasmania, and the Bryan Mining Institute at the University of Queensland.
Researchers are also working closely with industry from the Cloncurry region, including Glencore's Mount Isa Mines, Chinova, Minotaur Exploration, Red Metal, Exco, Hammer Metals, Sandfire and South 32.
Industry involvement is key to ensuring the project's research outcomes align with market needs and improve mineral exploration efforts.
"There's a lot of research out there that doesn't end up making a difference because the focus is too narrow," Dr Austin says.
"Whereas by working together with industry and government, we're covering all the bases. We expect to come up with some good products that are valuable to industry."
Conditions in the region have been challenging for the project, with temperatures often reaching more than 50 degrees in the sun.
But, Dr Austin explains, the biggest challenge to this work so far has been time.
"What we're doing, particularly on the petrophysics side, takes a lot of time," he says.
"It's the same thing with mineralogy. Samples need to be drilled, cut, polished, go into numerous machines and be scanned for hours, so it can take quite a long time to get all of these samples through the system."
Despite these challenges, the project has successfully completed its first year. About 1000 samples have complete data, with another 700 to go. The first full dataset for Ernest Henry Mine is due to be released by the end of 2019.
Taking Australian exploration know-how to Mars
While this database is clearly significant for mineral exploration in north Queensland, Dr Austin believes it could also play an exciting role in another project CSIRO is working on with through its Space Future Science Platform.
The Space initiative, which aims to develop new ways to find and extract resources from the Moon and Mars, could adapt and use the tools and insights from the Cloncurry METAL project.
"If you can figure out mineral deposits on Earth and learn to relate all these different parameters, then you can put a drill on a Mars rover, take these measurements in Space using on board sensors, and discard the cores," Dr Austin explains.
Other tools could also be attached to a Mars rover to measure magnetic and gravity fields, radiometrics and electromagnetics, providing a more complete geophysical picture of what is beneath the surface of Mars and the Moon.
"This is big thinking that is probably 10 or 20 years off, but the approach we're taking could be the foundation for the development of fully autonomous exploration platforms, which is what we are going to need if we want to explore the Moon or Mars," Dr Austin says.
"It sounds a bit of a long shot, even as I say it to myself, but that is where it could go."