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IT IS a bleak outlook for the future of Australian gold production and revenue unless we rapidly innovate the exploration sector to improve discovery rates, says <b>Dr Rob Hough</b> in this op-ed piece.

Noel Dyson
Dr Rob Hough believes exploration innovation is imperative. Photo: Damien Smith

Dr Rob Hough believes exploration innovation is imperative. Photo: Damien Smith

MinEx Consulting’s report released this month provides a realistic forecast of gold production to 2056. Gold is one of Australia’s major export commodities, with a long history of creating prosperity for our nation, but we cannot rely on current mines when it is predicted that only four of our 76 gold mines could be left operating by 2056. We are relying on exploration success to mitigate that.

The report exposes a fundamental challenge in Australia – the diminishing rates of world-class mineral discoveries because we lack reliable and cost-effective tools to explore the rest of what the country has to offer.

Despite our long mining history, 60% of Australia is still yet to be explored for mineral resources. This is largely because we need new technologies to help identify reserves under “cover” – the deep blanket of sediments that hides what lies in the bedrock below. 

This widely recognised challenge has seen the mobilisation of major collaborations such as Uncover, bringing together government, the research sector and industry to define the future vision for exploration geoscience in Australia. 

However, there has been little incentive for greenfield exploration in recent years, as the industry experienced one of its heaviest downturns. 

Things are starting to pick up, but if we do not continue to invest in the research and development that feeds into the next wave of exploration technology, Australia will be left behind in the race to discover the next generation of world-class deposits. 

The big players will simply go and scratch the surface overseas. We have seen this already with major companies effectively exiting Australian exploration in recent times. We have to win them back. 

Our exciting and emerging junior and mid-tier gold companies are hungry for new technologies to help in the task. 

What is needed is a greater ability to detect the far-field haloes of mineral systems, as well as smart data analysis tools to improve simulations and prediction for exploration targeting. CSIRO is working on these technologies to address the challenge of exploring under cover, working with industry, geological surveys and the universities.

Of course, there are promising breakthrough developments already in the pipeline that could further the success of Australian gold companies. CSIRO is working with the likes of Northern Star Resources, Evolution Mining and Gold Road Resources, which are doing well.  

Recent sensor and data breakthroughs developed with our partners in Deep Exploration Technology Cooperative Research Centre can provide valuable data on where to target exploration efforts, in the field in real time. 

By bringing the lab into the field, the Lab-at-Rig system allows exploration companies to make multi-million dollar decisions in minutes rather than months, leading to cheaper and more dynamic exploration programs. 

CSIRO is also investing in world-leading science with the potential to disrupt the sector. Earlier this year, we launched a $9 million investment into deep earth imaging that aims to deliver breakthrough science in exploration geophysics to more precisely image the sub-surface. The initiative is bringing diverse talent from around the world, with a focus on experimenting with new ideas and invention. It is science with a higher technical risk that we hope pays off with greater rewards for the industry.     

Australia has a proud history of innovation in exploration to build on. New innovative techniques in using shallow cover sampling led to key gold discoveries such as Bronzewing, Nimary, Jundee and Challenger in the 1990s. 

Delivering the next wave of innovation will not only reinvigorate the exploration sector, but make way for a new portfolio of technology exports and maintain our world-leading status in exploration geoscience research and collaboration. 

Under cover exploration is a key growth opportunity for Australia’s $90 billion mining equipment, technology and services sector, highlighted in our recently released METS Roadmap. The roadmap outlines how the sector can turn this challenge into an opportunity. 

While significant efforts are already underway, with greater investment and collaboration we can accelerate the innovation and industry adoption.

Acceleration is key. As the MinEx report states, it takes an average of 13 years from discovery to mine development. 

It is evidence that we need to really ramp up our efforts in solving today’s technical challenges before it’s too late to ignite an upward trend in gold production for the next 40 years. 

CSIRO is one of 12 sponsors of MinEx Consulting’s report: Long-term forecast of Australia’s mineral production and revenue – the outlook for gold: 2017-2057

  • Dr Rob Hough is head of CSIRO’s minerals exploration research.

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