Australia’s share of global mineral exploration spend has reduced from about 25% in the 1990s to just 12.5% today.

This decline is considered a major threat to Australia’s economy, as mining and the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector contributes around 10%-15% of the country’s GDP.

The newly launched MinEx Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), backed by major miners and the government, endeavours to reverse the slump by developing solutions to overcome the main prohibitive factor to exploration – the cost of drilling.

Only 25%-30% of Australia’s rocks that are prospective for mineral deposits are on or near the surface and thus easy to find. And many of these are already depleted.

The remaining 70%-75% are buried beneath barren sheets of sand, sand dunes and young sediment, making them technically very difficult and expensive to explore for.

This has resulted in Australia becoming less competitive in the global exploration space.

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“Competition for mineral exploration dollars is global and very fierce, and exploration companies around the world are trading technical risk in a country like Australia, which has little sovereign risk and agreeable legislation, for sovereign risk in places like South America, South East Asia and Africa,” says David Giles, chief scientific officer at the CRC and a professor at the University of South Australia.

To help Australia win back much needed investment dollars, the MinEx CRC plans to develop technology and techniques for miners to safely drill deeper, quicker, cheaper, and with a very small environmental footprint, says Giles.

State-of-the-art drilling technology

The MinEx CRC is backed by federal government funding of A$50m, some state funding, and major miners BHP, South32, Anglo American and Barrick collectively committing A$165m (cash and in-kind) over the next 10 years, for a total budget of A$218m.

It is also supported by 34 METS sector companies and around 70 researchers from 10 organisations, including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Curtin University.

Its first major programme is to further develop coiled tube drilling technology.

To find new mineral deposits at depth, a sample beneath the rock cover needs to be taken via drilling. Coiled tube drilling is better at doing this, as it differs from conventional drilling in that the drill string is a continuous, malleable steel coil, as opposed to being comprised of individual steel rods that must be connected and disconnected.

A previous CRC, called Deep Exploration Technologies, resulted in the launch of the RoXplorer coiled tubing drill rig, which is currently licenced to global METS company Imdex and is under option to Barrick for commercialisation.

MinEx wants to improve on this technology by expanding its drill depth from 500m to 1,000m, as well as giving it better steering capabilities and knowledge of where the drill bit is at any one time.

“Presently, the drill rig is nice and light and ticks all the boxes but it has limited depth extension, is difficult to steer and to know where the drill bit is at any one time,” explains Giles.

“Whereas we want to do very high precision drilling with it, which could be used not only for deep exploration but to drill out a deposit with a high level of accuracy,” he adds.

Delivery of the updated drill is expected at the end of the CRC’s term in nine years. After which, it would need to be commercialised.

It could then be used to find deep subsurface deposits to be potentially extracted via in situ leaching operations, says Giles.

“This rig would be good for this and it could therefore be the primary exploration and extraction tool,” he explains.

Collecting data faster

Another flagship aim of the CRC is to improve and speed up data retrieval and analytics by using sensors attached to the drill rig.

“We want to collect data from the drill rig as quickly as possible to shorten the exploration cycle,” explains Giles.

Presently, the conventional exploration method is to slowly drill a hole, with a diamond drill rig, for example, then pull up the core, log it, section it off and put it in bags to be sent to a lab for testing. When the results are returned, a geologist will then make a decision about the next phase of drilling.

MinEx is aiming to deliver data about the minerality, chemistry and physical properties of the rocks while drilling or immediately after. To achieve this, it has several on-going projects cumulating around geochemical data, petrophysical properties of rocks, and seismic properties and data from the hole.

“The vision is that decisions that would normally take weeks or months will happen the same day and you can use the steering capability of the rig to steer it towards a target or a different part of the geology right away,” explains Giles.

The CRC also hopes to deliver this at the end of its term.

Alongside the research and development, a drilling campaign will also take place, whereby sensors will be incrementally added to conventional and the coiled drill rig to collect samples from the covered areas for assessment. The first drill will take place mid-2019 and several times a year thereafter until 2025/2026.

Challenges of commercialisation

While developing and testing the technology is one challenge, commercialisation is quite another and can be particularly tough in the mining sector.

“People often underestimate how long it takes, it could be a two-to-five-year process because it requires gradually building confidence in the market place and showing that the technology works,” Giles explains.

“To speed up this process, we are working with companies from the start, so they can influence the research to make a more commercial product and so they will understand it extremely well when it comes to commercialisation,” he adds.

As for the future, Giles believes mining, especially in Australia, will be dependent on new fit-for-purpose technologies and tools, designed based on knowledge of the deep exploration search space, and focused on exploration ‘productivity’. They will need to be rapid, cheap, safe and environmentally friendly and combined with real-time data.

Now, he believes, is only the start of this new era in technology. “These technologies are starting to enter the market place but we won’t see them have a serious impact until two to five years’ time and then further on the horizon,” Giles says.