The future of exploration doesn’t look like the past

By Dr Geoffrey Batt, Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia

The internationally competitive Australian mining industry rests on the bedrock of an innovative and energetic exploration sector. Constrained by the calculus of the extractive industry, a continuous pipeline of new mineral discoveries is required to replace deposits developed and brought to market.

Amplifying this challenge, global moves towards a low-carbon economic future offer the promise of a boom of epic proportions for Australian mining. Our rich mineral endowment is ideally positioned to supply the metals to enable renewable energy production on an unprecedented scale – but only if the sector can deliver the resource discoveries to service this demand.

Responding to this opportunity, the Western Australian Government recently announced $40 million of investment to enhance mineral exploration. By funding the acquisition of new datasets dissecting the geology of the state, and delivering advanced infrastructure and technology to make those insights accessible to the companies working at the forefront of mineral discovery, this investment is intended to turbocharge the already world-leading exploration research sector in Western Australia. This will support the state’s miners in their mission to discover and develop new ore bodies that stack up economically, and meet the increasingly stringent environmental standards of both local communities and global markets.

As any explorer would attest, this challenge should not be underestimated. Ore bodies derive their value from representing a spectacular concentration of desirable minerals in a comparatively tiny volume of rock. Recognising these paying grounds hidden in a vast and complex landscape unquestionably takes luck – but good fortune alone is not enough.

Successful exploration also needs an organisation operating at the intersection of corporate and individual understanding of geological potential to target the right areas of the landscape. It needs a skilled and persistent workforce to deliver the systematic sampling and analysis needed to sniff out the markers of mineralisation beneath the surface.

And it is not for the faint-hearted.

Even with a brilliant strategy and the dedication of highly trained professionals to deliver it flawlessly, the exploration game may require years of investment before the chance of an economic payback emerges. Sometimes, in the imperfect match-up between even the best model and the unyielding nature of reality, all that work and the investment it entails can also still come up empty. Where the process delivers, though, the rewards of discovery can deliver spectacular returns in line with that risk, and can provide the raw materials to anchor the development and wealth of the industry.

Australia has long been among the world leaders in this critical field, developing a host of innovative exploration technologies, and training generations of skilled and creative geoscientists to probe the landscape for its mineral riches. As recently as the mid 1990s, a quarter of global expenditure on mineral exploration occurred in Australia and, through the latter years of the 20th century, this vigorous investment and the pioneering exploration culture it supported delivered a host of spectacular discoveries. Some of these discoveries include the Century (zinc), Cannington (lead, zinc and silver), and Ernest Henry (copper-gold) ore bodies in Queensland; Cadia-Ridgeway (copper-gold) in Central West New South Wales; and the Bronzewing and Wallaby deposits (both gold) in the Yilgarn region of Western Australia.

Despite such storied successes, through these years and on into the current millennium’s progressively increasing costs – with the industry driving into the economic headwinds of needing to push further and drill deeper to maintain rates of discovery success – we began to see interest tip away from Australia as a mineral exploration domain of choice.

With all the accessible ground having been walked, and all the prospective rocks having been kicked by the boots of generations of keen-eyed and highly successful prospectors, a view began to emerge of the Australian search space as diminished. This view saw few of these world-class ore bodies – and the paydays they represent to the explorers discovering them and proving their worth – waiting to be stumbled across.

The great majority of the Australian landscape, however – up to 80 per cent by some estimates – remains essentially unexplored for minerals, albeit masked by blankets of weathered rock and younger sediments that have discouraged previous generations of prospectors and explorers.

And critically, for both the future of the mining industry and the value proposition driving investment in exploration research, recent advances in the understanding of Australian geology show these covered areas to be richly prospective for future discoveries – once we can develop the means to make their exploration economic, that is.

Geophysical signals show that many of the same richly endowed Archaean and Proterozoic packages of rock underpinning the past century of Australian mining success continue beneath this unexplored country. Indeed, many of the most celebrated Australian mineral discoveries of recent decades – the fabulous Tropicana gold resource in 2005, the DeGrussa ore body in 2009, or the spectacular Julimar discovery of 2020, for example – have been made under such covered landscapes, in areas often thought of (at least, prior to these company-making strikes) as lacking in exciting exploration potential.

The opportunity for the future of the industry is to reinvent and reinvigorate the exploration process to suit this new reality, turning these undercover discovery stories from spectacular tales of serendipity to regular – even routine – occurrences.

This Australian challenge – a rich history of leadership in mineral discovery tuned to the ancient basement rocks of the country, coupled with vast domains of prospective geology concealed beyond the reach of proven exploration insight and understanding – can be likened to the well-known streetlight parable.

Like a man impotently searching for his lost keys around a lamppost late at night ‘because the light’s better there’, even though he knows he dropped them half a block away in the dark, exciting mineral deposits unquestionably remain to be unearthed across great areas of the country. But conventional exploration practices leave us expending more and more resources, probing the same 20 per cent of the landscape – the exhausted search domain of the pools of streetlight, rather than the fertile potential of the darkness.

The exploration research going on today in Western Australia and across the nation is addressing this imbalance. Inspired and passionate scientists and engineers are working in our universities and research institutes to develop new sensing technologies to see beneath the surface – uncovering new scientific understanding of how rocks and fluids have moved and interacted over geological time to concentrate valuable minerals, and new drilling technologies to reduce the cost of bringing physical samples – and potential paydirt – into the hands of exploration geologists to test the reality of their theories. Together, these research programs offer to deliver the tools and insight we need to fill the shadowed spaces on the map, opening up the mineral potential of areas of Australia where exploration has previously been impractical or uneconomic.

Although representing a complex challenge, these innovation solutions could offer the keys to a dynamic new chapter for Australia’s wealth-generating mining industry.

An exciting future awaits those prepared to make it happen. 

Dr Geoffrey Batt is a Research Portfolio Manager with the Minerals Research Institute of Western Australia – a state government body working to catalyse and support impactful minerals research for the benefit of Western Australia. Batt leads the institute’s focus on Exploration Amplification, working with leading scientists and research groups to address the challenges and opportunities of future mineral exploration.

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