For a science-driven technique changing the face of mineral exploration in Australia, Ultrafine+ can look like something from your favourite gardening show.
Five years into its life the CSIRO technique, developed with West Australian laboratory LabWest with an early focus on gold prospecting, is used in about 30 per cent of the surface chemical exploration being done in Australia’s largest state.
Other parts of the country are either catching up or taking note.
But far from ushering in a more disruptive age of greenfields territory under intrusive exploration, parts of the new method are simple to the point of looking quaint.
Small samples leading to big payoff in search for metal deposits
It has already slashed the need for arduous collecting of bulk soil samples. The samples it requires for analysis resemble dainty brown bags of pastries; traditional sizes are more like sacks of potatoes.
The reduced sample requirement lets clients off the hook manually and allows them to spread out their sample lines.
The technique illuminates what lies beneath wide expanses of greenfields.
So far, it is most conducive to exploring for gold, copper, zinc and lithium, but there is growing optimism that it can cast a wider net for deposits of rare earth metals.
The innovation requires clients to submit 200-gram samples of soil or, to your weekend gardener, the contents of a trowel or two.
Then, next generation analytics give clients access to advanced interpretative support through big data sets and machine learning techniques, complemented by specialists with decades of regolith expertise.
“We’re enabling our clients to see through shallow to moderate cover – a few metres to a few tens of metres,” says Labwest Managing Director Brad Whisson.
“The previous idea of looking at clays has been applied elsewhere in the world, but that has involved bulk soil collection.”
“We can separate out the clays and have a look at the metals in that fraction. We then present it for analysis.”
“We work hard to ensure our detection limits are the lowest available from any commercial facility. We can see it as a real signal, that’s reproduceable.”
From regolith to raging success
The bigger-picture obstacle that Ultrafine+ is designed to surmount is the difficulty of discovering new deposits in the deep layer of surface cover, the regolith.
It covers some 80 per cent of the continent. Geochemical survey techniques have long been used in the exploration industry, but the new method’s focus on ultrafine particle analysis helps detect subtle signatures of buried ore deposits that might otherwise be missed, and in doing so generates new exploration targets.
The key is an interplay of geochemical analysis of ultrafine particles – less than two microns – with mineralogical data, layered with landscape and terrane information.
“It’s up to two or three hundred thousand now. It’s really taken off.”
“For me it’s vindication of why we thought it would work. We put science behind it and tried to make it clear why we see the benefits of really fine particles.”
ASX shows impact of Ultrafine+
So far, mineral explorers like what they see beneath the surface and in the lab.
Ultrafine+ is being taken up most rapidly in WA’s Pilbara region, with the Gascoyne, Northern Yilgarn and Kalgoorlie making gains.
And the invisible hand of the market, it seems, is more than willing to scoop soil samples.
Australian Securities Exchange media releases catalogue the role that Ultrafine+ has played in hundreds of exploration projects.
Dr Anna Petts, at the Geological Survey of South Australia, is Program Coordinator for Characterising the State’s Cover.
She says the new technique is building a regional dataset for individuals and industries who want to come to South Australia.
“We’re able to say, ‘here’s the technology and here’s what’s available in terms of exploratory leads. All the information is really helpful not only on the exploration side but in terms of mapping,” Dr Petts says.
“Ultrafine+ is a really great example of working together to look at how we understand the regolith; bringing together the research that’s happened in the last 20 years, bringing together that regolith mineralogy and regolith chemistry and really trying to provide a great product that is useful for lots of different users.”
What next? Oh, Canada!
Canada faces similar exploration challenges to Australia in terms of transported cover.
Down Under it’s usually sand, while in the Great White North it’s often material spread across the ages by glaciers.
Still, Ultrafine+’s architects see similar potential for cut-through in Canada.
Interest has also been flagged in Africa. International clients are already sending in samples to Ultrafine+, from Africa, New Zealand and North America.
CSIRO views LabWest, initially an employer of five staff, as a model for an exported Ultrafine+ base in, say, Vancouver.
For his part, Mr Whisson has seen LabWest expand its workforce to 45 in the space of five years, “largely on the back of Ultrafine+”.
Dr Noble is content with the technique, he says, but he sees further potential in what can be done with the data.
So much data has been collected from sites across WA that now patterns can be determined; variables, different settings.
New datasets are embedded with value that will emerge in the coming years, Dr Noble says, in the Ultrafine+ Future project.
“The biggest driver for us is getting industry to be more efficient with the data they collect,” Dr Noble says.
“Standard methods had stagnated for the past two decades, I think; there hadn’t been much innovation, but we’ve triggered that.”
“Now, how do we make it easy for industry to interpret all that extra data? This wasn’t thought of a decade ago, now it’s accessible. That’s our next challenge.”
Dr Noble and Mr Whisson will be part of an Australian contingent at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), expected to be attended by 30,000 delegates over three days, in Toronto next March.