Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Mineral Exploration Malaise Uncovered

By Robert Smith

The UNCOVER Initiative aims to revive Australia’s minerals exploration efforts.

Australia’s global mineral exploration spending has plunged by half in the past two decades. New discoveries have become rare, and of the 12 tier-one discoveries made globally in the past decade, none were Australian.

With the right technology and commitment from the Australian government, industry and research sectors, we can create new opportunities.

What’s the Problem?

Discoveries in Australia were typically made at or near the surface by sampling minerals in an outcrop. A significant problem now is that the barren crust that covers around 70% of the continent usually provides no indication of what minerals lie below, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to explore beneath the surface in a cost-effective and competitive way. New technologies and new ways of applying them are necessary to assist in deeper exploration.

All ore bodies are finite, and all mines have a finite life. When the cost of recovery exceeds the value of the products generated, mines approach the end of their life and eventually must close unless the market changes. If new mineral discoveries aren’t made, the industry will die.

During a mining boom, when prices for mined products are high, there is usually money available to fund exploration. But when mines struggle to survive, cost-cutting is necessary and exploration suffers. Momentum is lost in these interruptions and many skilled explorers move into other careers.

The introduction of new technologies and their applications inevitably leads to the collection of more data. A lack of skilled workers means a portion of this data is never fully exploited. There is a further problem in the context of “Big Data”, which can easily overwhelm the ultimate users.

The Solution

The UNCOVER Initiative brings together geoscience professionals in industry, government and academia, and is designed to boost the discovery rates of major new mineral deposits.

This is accompanied by a 15-year-plan called the UNCOVER Roadmap. Facilitated by AMIRA International, the Roadmap will put UNCOVER into action. It describes a way to implement both the actual research necessary and funding options.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) supports this vision, and released a statement suggesting actions crucial to make UNCOVER a reality.

  • Non-invasive scientific data collection should be carried out over the whole continent to further scientific knowledge.
  • Understanding the geological framework and ore-forming processes help us focus our exploration efforts in the right places.
  • Education pipelines will also play a vital role in ensuring exploration has a well-equipped workforce.
  • Efforts must be made to attract graduates back to the industry to transition mining into a 21st century, gender-equal and culturally diverse industry.
  • Lastly, to achieve meaningful and permanent change, collaboration between industry, government and researchers is critical.

This could be driven by the mining sector introducing exchange programs between researchers and industry to provide students and researchers valuable practical experience in relation to the future exploration workforce. The exploration workflow would benefit from fresh ideas.

Anything we can do to foster and encourage collaboration will help us make the best use of the limited human resources we have. If we’re all playing in separate sand pits we won’t get much done.

Australian minerals exploration is dwindling, and collaboration is needed now for Australia to remain competitive. UNCOVER, AMIRA and ATSE have shown us the path. Now it’s time for action.

Robert Smith is running his own consultancy in exploration geophysics called Greenfields Geophysics.