Almost 20 years ago, Dr James Tickner and his CSIRO colleagues were using a Sydney hospital’s radiotherapy equipment out-of-hours to test whether X-rays could activate gold in rock samples.
He was a research scientist working in the then CSIRO Minerals Division, chasing different approaches for assaying precious metals such as gold.
A basic physics paper from the 1960s discussing X-ray activation processes had sparked his curiosity and “looked like an interesting route to explore,” he says.
X-ray experiments show golden excitation
So it was that the young physicist would lace up his running shoes for the experiment.
"We'd turn on the X-rays for 20 seconds to activate a sample, and you only had a few seconds before that activation would disappear," he recalls.
His job was to race in through the radiation-protective maze of the radiotherapy suite, grab the sample and speed it back to their detector system in the hospital corridor.
"It wasn't very sophisticated, but it was where we first figured out, 'Hey, this all hangs together', and that we could build something," he recalls.
Today Dr Tickner is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Chrysos Corporation, the company that was successfully spun out of CSIRO in 2016.
The market ripened for new gold analysis technology
"After those early experiments, development went on the backburner due to other projects," he says.
"Then around 2012, as gold prices went up, there was renewed interest in finding better ways to detect and measure gold."
A fortuitous introduction to a Canadian X-ray accelerator manufacturer led Dr Tickner to spend "several summers in Ottawa running a campaign of test‑work", which paid off.
"We came up with a concrete demonstration that we could use this method to measure gold in samples, quickly and with great precision."
Replacing a centuries-old fire assay
PhotonAssay is a chemical-free, non‑destructive technology that supersedes the traditional fire‑assay method for measuring gold concentrations in samples.
Fire assay is a fiddly, complex and hazardous process, using toxic chemicals and requiring sample fusion at temperatures up to 1200 degrees centigrade.
Due to its laborious nature, turnaround times for analysis using the centuries-old technique could often be weeks.
Chrysos's PhotonAssay sees a sample loaded into a barcoded jar, which is placed on an automated conveyor.
High-powered X-rays hit the sample and 'excite' the nuclei of any gold atoms present.
The unique signatures from the activated atoms are picked up by the system's highly sensitive detectors, enabling accurate analysis of precious metal concentration.
The analysis is complete in as little as two minutes.
Having access to almost real-time information has the potential to increase gold recovery during processing by 1% to 3%, significantly raising the profitability of mining operations – an efficiency estimated to be worth at least $2 billion per year to the global gold industry.
An assay with environmental credentials
Because it eliminates the need for hazardous substances, PhotonAssay also improves environmental outcomes and workplace health and safety.
For Dr Tickner, the path to Chrysos also tells the story of his own scientific journey.
"I joined CSIRO from a very academic background in high-energy particle physics – I was absolutely a lab nerd," he says.
"Over the years, my role inside CSIRO evolved; I was leading teams and increasingly focused on external projects – I've always been very interested in talking to industry and understanding how our technology could solve real-world problems."
"I love the intersection between science, engineering and practical application – that's what motivates me."
Chrysos emerges as new Australian company for gold analysis
Once the technique was validated, CSIRO partnered with a network of experienced investors to commercialise the PhotonAssay technology, naming the company Chrysos Corporation after the Greek word for gold.
"The cost just to build the prototype was going to be several million dollars," explains Dr Tickner of the decision to launch a spin-out.
He and CSIRO colleagues built the initial business model and then partnered with Sydney investment company RFC Ambrian to raise money.
Chrysos started as a very small and lean company.
"My first day in the office was January 2, 2017, assembling furniture with the CEO, and for the first year of operations there were just five of us in total."
Early success leading to growth
In late 2019, Chrysos had a successful capital raise of $30 million.
"Half of that became new investment into the company and half was an opportunity for early investors to realise some returns," says Dr Tickner.
"That was a substantial return for people who’ve supported us from the beginning, and most of our investors stayed with us. We're anticipating an ASX listing in 2021."
Dr Tickner says despite the upsides of being part of a commercial spin‑out, he does miss old colleagues at CSIRO and working on lots of different projects.
"In the commercial world, it's a much more single-minded focus on getting one thing to work really well, which is absolutely necessary," he says.
"And these days I find it hard to explain to people what I do; when I was with CSIRO, I'd just say, 'I'm a nuclear scientist'. Now I give a very long‑winded explanation of all my different roles; I'm always hunting for ways to describe what I do!"
South Australian tech jobs
Chrysos is headquartered in South Australia and currently employs 23 people "but every time I check, it's gone up by two more", he says.
"There's a lot of strong tech coming out of Adelaide unis and we've got the space research programs happening here," says Dr Tickner.
"Chrysos received early support funding from the South Australian Government to help us get started – I'm very impressed with Adelaide as a place to set up a high‑tech company."
The jobs at Chrysos are changing as the company grows.
"For the first couple of years, most of the people were involved in product development," says Dr Tickner.
"We had a lot of physicists and programmers – the detector systems and X-ray sources we deploy are complex and needed a significant hardware and software development team."
Now the operations and service side of the business is growing rapidly.
New employment opportunities in sales, service and installation
"Installation, commissioning, ongoing service and maintenance – that side of the business has to scale almost linearly with the number of units deployed, so that’s the area where we're rapidly appointing people at the moment," he explains.
For those jobs, Chrysos recruits people with electrical or mechanical engineering backgrounds, and industry experience in similar roles as field service technicians.
"We have complicated electromechanical systems, radiation detectors, interlocking safety systems and software, so we're always hunting for very smart people with a broad interest in engineering and technology."
Gold analysis units for labs and mine sites
Chrysos has two business models: supplying the technology to existing commercial assay labs, which on-sell the analysis service to miners, or providing equipment directly to mine sites.
"We provide the hardware against an agreed contract of a minimum number of samples to be analysed per month … a bit like the old Xerox model," explains Dr Tickner.
"We wear the upfront equipment cost and offer a model where customers can dip their toe in the water at relatively low risk to themselves."
"It seems to make commercial sense – and it's proving quite popular with industry!"
To date, four Chrysos™ PhotonAssay units have been deployed to sites around Australia.
The technology has tested more than 500,000 samples, including detailed evaluations for more than 60 major Australian and international mines.
Chrysos' most recent installation in Bendigo, Victoria will provide rapid analysis for Kirkland Lake Gold's Fosterville mine.
"At the beginning of 2021, we will have our first international installation," says Dr Tickner, who sees multiple paths for Chrysos to continue to grow.
"It's lots of fun working on really cool technology, engaging with customers and seeing people use a product that you've worked on for so long."