While technological advancements in exploration have been limited in the past few years, the industry is moving forward with the commercialization of a more cost-effective mineral analysis and logging technology that could help find the next generation of mines.
Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, revealed last week that it has licensed its HyLogger technology to Australian mining, equipment, technology and services company Corescan, which operates a network of labs across Australia, Southeast Asia and North and South America.
HyLogger uses the light reflected from mineral surfaces to interpret the mineralogy of the material, a method CSIRO said is far more reliable for systematic mineral identification than the visual techniques used in most drilling programs.
HyLogger uses visible and infrared light to characterize selected minerals from drill cores, chips and pulps that are often difficult or impossible for human observers to interpret correctly. © Damien Smith Photography.
It also greatly reduces the costs and delays associated with laboratory analysis by providing near real-time mineralogical analysis that can influence geochemical sample selection and priority.
Robbie Rowe, an executive committee member of UNCOVER, which is an industry and government-backed initiative to improve exploration performance under cover, said at the recent Association of Mining and Exploration Companies Convention that Australia's share of global exploration spend has more than halved, to less than 10%, from 20% in 1995.
Richard Blewett, Geoscience Australia's branch head mineral systems, expressed concerns over the decline in the number of new high-quality economic discoveries, with most of the near-surface opportunities already exhausted.
"They're not going to be sticking out of the ground like they were when they were first discovered, they're going to be undercover," he told delegates at the conference. "Around 80% of the continent is covered by some sort of post-mineral cover rocks and so the search space is large, but the technical risks are difficult too."
According to CSIRO, the Australian exploration industry spends close to A$600 million each year drilling holes to locate economic resources.
CSIRO Research Director Rob Hough said in an interview that the HyLogger technology has been in development for a long time but prior attempts to commercialize it have been unsuccessful.
"It's been in CSIRO in development for over 20 years and it's had a couple of goes at going into the commercial environment, but probably at times ahead of its time," he said.
"CSIRO has worked for a long time to encourage industry to collect more reliable mineralogy and multi-element geochemistry and has worked hard to create new technologies that actually facilitate that."
"HyLogger is a good example of that ... but shifting the culture and actually getting it happening is an ongoing challenge."
CSIRO believes that Corescan will be able to succeed where others have failed in getting the industry to embrace this new technology.
"What we've seen over the last five years or so is that Corescan has really developed into a major player in terms of provision of spectral mineralogy to the mineral exploration and mining industry worldwide," Hough said.
"So not just in Australia, and their business model isn't just around engineering and leasing, but also includes the operation of on-site laboratories and geological application support, which means there's definitely a business model there now where the industry will have an appetite for this technology in a way that it probably didn't have before."
Corescan is aiming to make the technology available to industry within the next six to nine months.
Managing Director Neil Goodey told S&P Global Market Intelligence that the recent downturn has been a contributing factor in the industry's hesitation to adopt new technologies.
"I think the industry has wanted to innovate. It would have been ready for it," he said. "We've just been through a commodities downturn, so there's a natural conservatism that comes with that."
"Any additional spend, or spend on things that aren't 'proven,' gets rerated as a high-risk expenditure. The industry downturn probably played into a bit of that."
The HyLogger technology, which has been in use for several years by the Australian state Geological Survey organizations, reduces the guesswork in mineral identification and makes it more objective.
"In the traditional workflow, a lot of the geological knowledge building is done by a geologist in a manual sense and using a lot of individual experience and skill combined with a bit of subjective capability," Goodey said.
"This technology takes a lot of that subjective part out of it."
HyLogger also improves an explorer's chances of making a new discovery.
"Having better, more reliable data and more confidence in what you're seeing means you have a better understanding of the formation of these deposits and a higher probability of knowing where they are in the system," Goodey said.