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Australia releases treasure trove of exploration data to spur new discoveries

Australian Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Matt Canavan released data collected from the world's largest airborne electromagnetic survey from an area bigger than France and Germany combined in what he called a "Christopher Columbus era" in the country's exploration sector.

The data he released at the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies convention in Perth on June 13 covers more than a million square kilometers across the Northern Territory and Queensland around the South Nicholson Basin to help identify potential new mineral deposits buried under cover.

The data, undertaken as part of the Exploring for the Future program, was from the first phase of the airborne electromagnetic survey. A second survey is planned for later this year west across the Northern Territory and into Western Australia to increase the understanding of the region's resource potential.

The next tranche will be finished by August, and data integration and interpretation will continue throughout the year to identify target areas in the Mount Isa and Tennant Creek region for stratigraphic drilling in 2019 to guide industry exploration.

The survey is one of Geoscience Australia's 18 projects that are underway across northern Australia and South Australia as part of the government's A$100.5 million Exploring for the Future program. It was undertaken by CGG Aviation (Australia) Pty. Ltd.

Canavan said the area is "incredibly prospective" and had "exceeded our expectations in terms of what we might find. Early discoveries there have helped attract Anglo American PLC back into the exploration space in Australia."

Alan Yusen Ley-Cooper, senior geophysicist for geophysical acquisition and processing in Geoscience Australia's resources division, told S&P Global Market Intelligence on the conference sidelines that there is a "paucity of boreholes" in the area, "so there's not much information; it's under cover and is highly prospective. There are quite a few known mineralizations in the area."

"By the end of this program, it will be the most analyzed piece of lithosphere in the world because we're throwing a whole bunch of techniques behind it like passive seismic, magnetotellurics, gravity for the deep crustal lithospheric information," he said. "So we're looking at the very near surface and down into the lithosphere; we have some seismic lines that sample 20 to 30 kilometers deep."

Martine Woolf, acting branch head of resources advice and promotion with Geoscience Australia's resources division, said the real value in the data sets is when it is combined to "create a more complete picture of the system that you're interested in, which can help develop targets for further investigation."

Science key to future of exploration

Canavan said that while Australia has the geology to play a key role in delivering the key commodities the world needs in the future, "to find and use those opportunities is becoming increasingly challenging," highlighted by the fact that the area of the country not exposed to surface mineralization is about 70%, "so we're in the 'Christopher Columbus era' of discovery."

"We have to face the fact, though, that there has not been a major mineral find in Australia for 20 years, and given it takes at least seven to 15 years to take a discovery into production, we're looking at a three-decade drought of major developments in Australia, even if we're to find something soon," Canavan said.

To this end, the government also recently invested A$50 million to create MinEx CRC, a collaborative research center, to help develop the latest and best drilling techniques, which could also help lower drilling costs.

The government also recently announced A$260 million to improve the GPS accuracy of Australia's networks and said it would continue funding Digital Earth Australia, a satellite imagery map of the continent for the last 40 years.

"We probably have the richest and deepest satellite data in the world," he said.

"These tools help deliver better geophysical surveys for miners and can increase productivity and efficiency of the transportation of ore, improve mine safety through the planning of vehicle movements and personal tracking; better understand the impacts of mine de-watering and benchmark and establish the progress of mine rehabilitation, in which we also lead the world."