An experiment that Dr James Tickner conducted for CSIRO Minerals around two decades ago ultimately led to the creation of Chrysos Corporation.
The young physicist found a paper from the 1960s about X-ray activation processes.
He and his CSIRO colleagues used a hospital's radiotherapy suite out of hours to try to activate ore samples. "It wasn't very sophisticated, but it was where we first figured out that we could build something."
It went on the backburner, but when gold prices started to climb around 2012, Dr Tickner decided to have another look at it.
"There was renewed interest in finding better ways to detect and measure gold."
They came up with a concrete demonstration that high-powered X-rays could be used to excite the nuclei of gold atoms, allowing gold samples to be measured "quickly and with great precision", explains Dr Tickner.
The PhotonAssay process eliminates the need for fire assay at 1200-degree Centigrade temperatures and hazardous chemicals, improving both environmental outcomes and workplace health and safety.
A mixture of the commercialisation pathways have been deployed: Chrysos Corporation is part spin-out, part employee start-up, part investor joint venture (JV) and CSIRO still holds substantial equity.
Licensing is also in the mix: the equipment is leased and the technology is licensed to customers, creating a sustainable revenue stream.
Chrysos Corporation recently announced an intention to list on the ASX within the next year.
Dr Nick Cutmore, who chairs the advisory board of Chrysos. "In the past nine months, Chrysos has significantly grown their installations around the world."
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."
In June 2021, Chrysos announced that it had completed analysing 1 million samples using its PhotonAssay technology.
"I love the intersection between science, engineering and practical application – that's what motivates me," says Dr James Tickner.
The idea behind the technology that drives NextOre was born inside CSIRO's Mineral Resources business unit and is based on around 15 years of research on developing an analysing technique using magnetic resonance technology (MRT).
The focus was to find a sustainable, fast and accurate way of 'bulk sorting' ore, rather than the conventional approach of digging it up, transporting all of it to a processing plant, and then grinding and crushing it in order to extract the valuable elements.
"Grinding and crushing ore consumes huge amounts of energy and water," says Dr Nick Cutmore, Commercial Advisor to Mineral Resources and a director of NextOre.
"There are figures that suggest that the crushing and grinding of rock in mining operations is responsible for 3-4% of energy consumption globally, and up to 56% of the mining sector's energy use."
The problem has been accurately defining the greatest concentration of target minerals in a mined ore prior to the processing step.
"A resource is a bit like sultanas in a pudding – it's not uniform," says Dr Cutmore.
"There's high-grade ore in one spot, low-grade in another, but the traditional mining process is to process it all, and then analyse it."
NextOre works "a bit like an MRI machine in hospitals, but without the magnets," says Dr Cutmore.
"We send radio waves into the mined ore and excite the elements; the signals we get back allow us to accurately analyse how much of the valuable element is there."
This minimises the use of energy and water in the processing step, because the low grade ore can be discarded at the bulk stage and only the high-grade ore processed.
"The NextOre process is a more sustainable approach and can positively impact the profitability of a mine by between 10 and 30 per cent," says Dr Cutmore.
The company was formed in 2017 with three partners: CSIRO, global engineering giant Worley, and RFC Ambrian, an investor advisory group (which is also a partner in Chrysos Corporation).
NextOre follows the JV partner pathway, and, like Chrysos, licenses rather than sells its IP to generate ongoing revenue.
NextOre also plans to list on the stock exchange in the next two-three years.
With NextOre demonstrations and projects already underway in mines from Zambia to the Philippines, Dr Cutmore says NextOre’s story is a stellar example of commercialisation of CSIRO research.
"It's unique, disruptive technology, and it has global application."
LASC longwall automation and ExScan
CSIRO's Mineral Resources business unit is constantly researching ways to develop technologies that improve workplace health and safety, as well as productivity.
The longwall automation system known as LASC was developed by CSIRO in partnership with the Australian Coal Association Research Program.
Most underground coal mines involve longwall mining, where traditionally a mechanical shearer cuts along the coal seam beneath a roof, supported by hydraulic jacks.
In that scenario, miners operating the machinery are exposed to multiple risks, and it’s been a long-term industry goal to improve the safety of longwall mining.
The LASC system uses remote-guidance technology to steer the machinery, plotting its position in three dimensions and enabling workers to distance themselves from hazardous situations. The real-time progress of the longwall can be monitored from anywhere in the world.
LASC technology is used at most underground coal mines in Australia (older mines retrofitted their operations).
Since being launched commercially in 2009, several mines in the US and dozens in China have licensed the system, as have the major international suppliers of coal-mining equipment, including Caterpillar, Joy Global and Eickhoff.
A recent independent study estimated that over the next 10 years, LASC will contribute to a $AUD 3bn productivity improvement in the Australian coal industry.
Building upon the global success of LASC, CSIRO went on to develop ExScan, a laser-scanning system that provides real-time data for enhanced navigation in underground mines and 3D mapping capability.
Housed in an innovative and certified enclosure to make it safe to use in volatile underground environments, the ExScan system’s powerful sensing platform allows it to be remotely deployed.
The unit can be mounted in any orientation, even upside down.
ExScan's laser scanner and software generate real-time 3D maps of tunnels, walls and cavities deep underground, where GPS cannot penetrate.
These maps can then be used for locating, steering and navigating mining machinery and vehicles.
ExScan is already in use in six Australian mines, and can be integrated with LASC information systems or used as a standalone sensing and scanning solution.
Glencore, one of the world’s largest mining companies, successfully trialled ExScan to remotely monitor and manage the coal seam shearer and conveyor system at its Oaky Creek North Mine in Central Queensland. Glencore now has more than 60 ExScan units in use underground.
The innovative technology is attracting global interest and new commercialisation pathways are being explored.