Tag Archives: mining

Australian Mining

Improving funding for mining and exploration companies

Following some key conversations at Science meets Parliament last year (2017), the Managing Director of gemaker, Natalie Chapman, was better able to engage and work with MPs to improve funding access for small Australian mining and exploration companies.

Australian company Alkane Resources was seeking Government export investment for the $1b state-significant Dubbo Project which will provide new age metals for vital modern technology including electric cars and wind turbines.

Australia’s export credit agency, Efic – which can finance projects such as this – was constrained by its mandate, which prevented Australian junior miners and explorers from accessing vital support.

Following day one of Science meets Parliament; Natalie said she had gained deeper insights into how to better grow and leverage wider support for policy change.

“I picked up some useful connections and tips on how to tailor my message based on the Parliamentarians’ drivers and the timing of parliamentary processes” said Natalie.

“I was also able to share learnings from my own work by engaging in useful discussions with Members of Parliament who wanted to know why research commercialisation wasn’t working as well as it could be in Australia.”

Meetings were held with the local member for Parkes, Mark Coulton MP, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Steven Ciobo MP and the NSW Department of Industry and Department of Resources and Energy to outline the issues for small mining and exploration companies.

In September 2017, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Steven Ciobo MP announced the funding obstacle for these Australian companies was removed.

With the mandate amended, Alkane Resources is now eligible to apply for funding for the Dubbo Project which will create hundreds of jobs in rural NSW and hundreds of millions of dollars in export revenue.

First published by Science & Technology Australia

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Off-earth mining

Mining the skies

Just three kilometres in diameter, asteroid 1986DA is a fairly tiny affair by astronomical standards. Yet it contains astonishing wealth. Using radar, astronomers have discovered 1986DA is mainly made up of iron and nickel.

“Essentially, it is a ball of naturally occurring stainless steel,” says Serkan Saydam, a UNSW expert on the mining of off-Earth objects.

Asteroid 1986DA is also estimated to contain more than 10,000 tonnes of gold and 100,000 tonnes of platinum.

The prospect of such mineral riches excites some entrepreneurs. These visionaries picture a fleet of robot spaceships crossing the Solar System to mine its interplanetary resources. This would also open worlds like the Moon and Mars to human colonisation.

With its vast mining experience, Australia is keen to ensure it is in the vanguard of these operations. Hence the appointment of Saydam as an associate professor of mining at UNSW, where he is putting together a small team of off-Earth mining experts. The work of Saydam’s honours student Georgia Craig on asteroid 1986DA highlights the importance of the careful planning that will be needed in future – and the problems that lie ahead.

Named after the year in which it was discovered, asteroid 1986DA orbits the Sun 75 million kilometres from Earth and is rated by the International Astronomical Union as a Near Earth Object, or NEO. But calculations by Saydam show that 1986DA is still too remote to be mined economically. On the other hand, his research suggests that if the asteroid were half its current distance from Earth, it could be viable to exploit.

That is good news because there are about two million other near-Earth asteroids orbiting the Sun. If we can find a better-placed candidate, it could become a target for mining operations. Hence the activities of companies like Planetary Resources (see ‘Frontier horizon’, above) which is preparing to carry out detailed surveys of NEOs to find one best suited for mining operations.

Asteroids like 1986DA are not the only targets for future missions. Other types of asteroids contain far less mineral wealth, but much more water. That could be crucial, says Saydam. “Water will be our prime source of fuel in space, and finding sources will be a priority. Hydrolysis of water produces hydrogen and oxygen, which can be burned together as fuel, and used in space shuttles and/or satellites. To put it bluntly: water is going to be the currency of space.”

Worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has a vast ocean below its frozen surface, and Saturn’s tiny Enceladus, which vents water into space, would be good targets but are too remote.

“We will have to find water much nearer to home, and given that we have to start somewhere, Mars is the logical place to begin our hunt for water on another world,” says Sophia Casanova, a geologist and PhD candidate who is now studying off-Earth mining at UNSW. “Finding and extracting water will be crucial for setting up colonies there.”

The trouble is that, while the poles of Mars have ice, they are too cold and inhospitable to provide homes for early colonists. By contrast, Mars’s equatorial region is warmer and more amenable but lacks water – at least on the surface. “That means we will have to seek it underground,” says Casanova, whose research is now focused on finding ways to pinpoint rich deposits of clays and hydrate deposits at lower latitudes on Mars. “There could be some kind of artesian wells, but we have no evidence of their existence as yet. So we will probably have to use hydrate minerals.”

But how can we extract water from rocks? Casanova explains: “You could put your minerals in a chamber and heat them to extract the water. Alternatively, you could use microwave generators that heat the underground to break up the rocks and release the water that way.”

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Saydam’s team has developed models to evaluate multiple off-Earth mining scenarios.

Another practical problem concerns the use of seismic detectors. On Earth, a charge is set off and seismic waves that bounce off subterranean deposits reveal their presence. But as a tool for exploring other worlds, the technique is poorly developed. “Some seismic measurements were taken of the Moon by Apollo astronauts, and that’s about it,” says Michael Dello-Iacovo, a former geophysicist and now a PhD candidate at UNSW. “An early Mars lander was designed to do that but crashed. Now the Mars InSight Mission is being prepared to carry out seismic studies but will not be launched until 2018.”

Seismic waves may behave very differently on asteroids or other planets, says Dello-Iacovo. “There will be no atmosphere, and virtually no gravity, and we have no idea how that will affect seismic wave behaviours. My research is aimed at tackling that problem,” adds Dello-Iacovo, who is spending a year at JPL working on methods for improving our understanding of asteroid interiors.

“We still don’t know if asteroids have solid cores or are just piles of rubble held together loosely,” Dello-Iacovo says. “If the latter, they might break apart if only a small force is applied to them during a mining operation.”

A host of ethical and legal issues also need to be overcome, says Saydam. “What treaties are we going to have to set up to exploit space? And what would happen if we suddenly turned a rare metal like platinum into a commonplace one by bringing huge chunks back to Earth? We could trigger a crash in international metal markets.

“On the other hand, off-Earth mining has the potential to trigger great expansion in the global economy and we must make sure that Australia can influence that through its research capabilities. We also need to make sure we have trained manpower to take advantage of this great adventure.”

– Robin McKie

growth centres

The bigger picture

Featured image above: the Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals Industry Growth Centre, MTPConnect

The Growth Centres launched in October 2015 with $250 million in government funding to 2019/2020. With six now up and running, new collaborations, with the CRCs and others, are beginning to bear fruit.

Take the pioneering idea of using a 3D printer to build joints and limbs damaged through cancer or trauma. The Medical Technologies and Pharmaceuticals (MTP) Industry Growth Centre, MTPConnect, extended BioFab3D@ACMD a grant to set up Australia’s first robotics and biomedical engineering centre within a hospital.

A group of researchers, clinicians, engineers and industry partners will work together to build organs, bones, brain, muscle, nerves and glands – almost anything that requires repair – for patients based at St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. One of the big benefits is that the 3D printing will be more cost-effective for patients.

The path for BioFab3D from clever research to commercial success is still a long, complicated one. Collaboration is key and BioFab3D is working with St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, University of Melbourne, University of Wollongong, RMIT University and Swinburne University of Technology.

According to Sue MacLeman, CEO of MTPConnect, Australia has many strong and innovative medical and health groups that are on the cusp of realising their full commercial potential.

This is where CRCs come in. “CRCs already have research before it is picked up by the multinationals,” she explains. MacLeman says MTPConnect works with 12 CRCs and aims to help drive their commercial success.

“The MTP sector is hindered by constraints including a lack of collaboration between business and research, skills shortages, the need for more focused investment, and the need for more streamlined and harmonised regulatory and market access frameworks,” says MacLeman.

To meet these challenges the Australian government has provided six Growth Centres (see “Six of the best” below) with funding to help smart projects realise their full potential.

“Growth Centres have an enormous range of things to do. Everyone wants them to do everything. They work in tight timeframes,” explains Professor Robert Cowan, CEO of The HEARing CRC, which has been meeting with MTPConnect.

“We have 48,000 people in our sector, but we can’t speak to all of those people,” explains MacLeman. The MTP is well served by membership organisations such as Medicines Australia, the Medical Technology Association of Australia, and ARCS Australia (previously the Association of Regulatory and Clinical Scientists), adds MacLeman. It has signed a number of memorandums of understandings (MOUs) with membership associations to appreciate what is important in the sectors, particularly global best practice.

But Growth Centres need to remain independent, not heavily skewed to certain groups, says MacLeman.

“What is important is that we don’t take paid membership. You can sign up and showcase your work, but we want to keep it independent and not to be seen as a lobby group.

“That is very powerful for us. To have a strategic voice and a lot of alignment.”

Collaboration was essential for The HEARing CRC when it recently trialled an electrode that released an anti-inflammatory drug into the cochlear post-implantation. The trial brought together devices, drugs, analysts and the ethical and regulatory approvals.

“This new electrode array helps reduce inflammation and the growth of fibrous tissue around the electrode array triggered by the body’s immune response,” says Cowan.

Unlike a drug trial that involves hundreds and thousands of patients, the trial could be tested on a small number of people undergoing surgery. The world-first study was only possible through an interdisciplinary team of researchers, engineers and clinicians from Cochlear, the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children’s Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre, The University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong.

Cowan says he expects MTPConnect will provide assistance to med-tech companies and research institutes in finding and developing new markets, collaborators and investors for Australian medical technologies.

Growth centres for the future of mining

The mining industry is also tapping into groundbreaking research coming out of universities through CRCs and engaging with the new mining equipment, technology and services (METS) growth centre, METS Ignited.

Extracting minerals from the Earth has become much more challenging. Mineral grades are dropping as reserves are being used up and environmental issues are impacting on mining operations. As a result, mining companies are looking at new ways to extract minerals, using technology as cost-effectively as possible.

“The downturn in the mining market is really focusing the mind,” explains Clytie Dangar, general manager, stakeholder engagement at the CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE). “We can’t afford to stand still.”

CRC ORE has around 20 active research programs that span robotics, mathematics, data science, predictive modelling as well as broad engineering that focuses on blasting techniques and efficiently extracting minerals from waste. Dangar says the CRC has total funding of $110 million up until mid-2020. This is made up of $37 million from the government and the balance from industry.

CRC ORE and METS Ignited signed a MOU in January to work together to improve commercialisation and collaboration outcomes for Australian METS companies.

Australia has the world’s largest reserves of diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, zinc and rutile (a major mineral source of titanium), according to METS Ignited. “Australia is at the forefront of mining innovation over the years. A lot of countries have looked at Australia, certainly over the boom years. The challenge is to stay there when the money isn’t there and the nature of the reserves has changed. One way is to utilise the skill set,” says Dangar.

With sharp falls in commodity prices, mining companies are keen to participate in game-changing technology, she says. CRC ORE is engaging with big miners, such as Newcrest and BHP Billiton. It’s also tapped into the $90 billion mining sector, together with universities and PhD students who are carrying out innovative research.

The role of the Growth Centre is to link up all the stakeholders and capture the research, says Dangar.

“It is important to be well engaged. Our job as a CRC is to translate the needs of the miners to the researchers and make sure the researchers are addressing those issues.

“It is very applied because we have a short timeline. We must meet our guidelines and we provide small buckets of funds in grants,” says Dangar.

The key is being nimble as well as courageous in supporting research, even though it may not always work, says Dangar. CRC ORE is not in the business of funding long-term research with a horizon of seven to 10 years, but prefers a two- to three-year timeframe.

“In the past, there was a natural tension between METS and miners, but now they can’t wait until it is up and running,” explains Dangar. “Miners need to support METS earlier.”

Some of Australia’s step-change advances in mining include flotation to separate materials, bulk explosives, mechanised mining and large mills. One of the biggest issues for miners is how to separate metal from rock more efficiently. Dangar says CRC ORE is working on solving this problem to lower unit costs, and reduce energy and water consumption. Some of these approaches helped Newcrest Mining get better mineral grades at a cheaper cost at its Telfer mine in Western Australia.

“A lot of mining companies had their own research departments, but some of the issues are industry-wide issues, and it is better to be collaborative than go it alone,” says Dangar.

Six of the best

1. The Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre Ltd (AMGC) is working with the Innovative Manufacturing CRC, which kicked off in the 2015 CRC funding round. In February, the AMGC funded Geelong’s Quickstep Holdings, a manufacturer of advanced carbon fibre composites, to the tune of $500,000. The AMGC believes the project has the potential to generate export revenue in excess of $25 million.

2. The Australian Cyber Security Growth Network is an industry-led organisation that will develop the next-generation products and services required to live and work securely in our increasingly connected world.

3. Food Innovation Australia Ltd (FIAL), based at the CSIRO in Victoria, works closely with the relevant CRCs. CRCs have a long history of work in food and agriculture and have included the Seafood CRC, Future Farm CRC, CRC for Innovative Food products and many more.

4. MTPConnect covers the medical technologies and pharmaceuticals sector and includes the Wound Management Innovation CRC, Cancer Therapeutics CRC and HEARing CRC as members, among others.

5. National Energy Resources Australia (NERA) is the Oil, Gas and Energy Resources Growth Centre, and will work with the CRC for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) to “encourage industry-focused research and unlock commercial opportunities”.

6. NERA also has links with the mining equipment, technology and services growth centre, METS Ignited, which works closely with the CRC for Optimising Resource Extraction (CRC ORE).

– Susan Hely

Navigating the future of GPS

The world’s most accurate GPS service could be on its way to Australia, thanks to collaboration between the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (CRCSI), Geoscience Australia and Land Information New Zealand.

The pilot project, called a Satellite Based Augmentation System (SBAS), will improve GPS accuracy from several metres to less than one metre – and potentially down to a few centimetres.

“This is the first opportunity we’ve had to test this technology in Australia,” says Dr John Dawson from Geoscience Australia. “It’s also enabling us to test the next generation of this technology, and it really will provide unprecedented positioning accuracy for Australia and New Zealand.”

GPS satellites orbit at a constant, relatively well-known height above the Earth. They transmit precise time signals by measuring the difference between those time signals and its own clock, a GPS receiver can figure out how far away the satellites are. With three or more signals from different satellites, the receiver can calculate where it is on the surface of the Earth.

But these signals from space aren’t perfect. They are affected by variations in the satellite’s clocks and orbit, and by conditions in the atmosphere between the satellite and receiver. These error sources mean that the usual accuracy of a position calculated using GPS is five to 10 metres.

SBAS will use stationary receivers across the continent to measure these errors, calculate a correction, then broadcast that correction to GPS users using another satellite. With this data, the accuracy of a GPS location can be improved to less than a metre.

“We anticipate that most Australians’ devices will be able to see that signal, and exploit the improved positioning,” says Dawson.

“What we’ll be trialling, for the first time in the world, is a new sort of correction message that has the potential to get accuracy down to 10cm,” says Dr Phil Collier, research director at CRCSI.

“Our role will be to work with organisations across industry to run trials, demonstrations and research projects to find out what applications exist for this technology, and what the benefits are to those sectors,” he says.

“For precision agriculture, for example, where tractors are driving themselves around, an accuracy of 5cm means they’re not running over crops in the paddock.”

CRCSI and Geoscience Australia are seeking expressions of interest from industry to test potential applications of the new system, which is expected to begin operation from July 2017.

“This capability opens up a raft of applications in many fields. Mining, agriculture, transportation – the higher precision is a very tantalising prospect,” says Collier.

For more information, visit crcsi.com.au

– Rockwell McGellin

Read more CRC discovery in KnowHow 2017

job growth

What are the big three drivers to job growth?

Increased collaboration, stability of policy and acceleration of commercialisation are three main drivers of innovation and job growth that must be addressed to accelerate Australia’s economy in the next 15 years.

The top three drivers were identified at the AFR National Innovation Summit today by Chairs of the boards of Telstra, BHP Billiton and Innovation and Science Australia.

The panel warned that fears around the effects of disruption on jobs must be part of the conversation, and that the effects of digital disruption through automation, and artificial intelligence were inevitable.

This disruption will affect people and jobs whether they are “in Woomera or Sydney”, says Bill Ferris, Chair of the board of Innovation and Science Australia.

“In five years we’ve seen the rise of Uber and Instagram, and the collapse of the mining boom. What is coming towards us will dwarf the change of pace [in disruption] to date,” says Dr Nora Scheinkestel, Chairman of Macquarie Atlas Roads and Director of Telstra Corporation and Stocklands Group.

Policy and R&D tax incentives

Crucial to Australia’s ability to innovate is the stability of policy such as the R&D tax incentive, which aims to encourage private investment in Australian R&D.

Along with Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, Bill Ferris was part of a team that reviewed the incentive for government to evaluate how much investment the incentive has created and the scheme’s effectiveness.

“I agree it is valuable and should be continued,” says Ferris. “Can it be improved? I think so. It’s been a $3 million cheque and the largest there has been. But there is nothing in the scheme that requires collaboration, whether CSIRO or academia.”

Incentivising collaboration is a no-brainer next step, says Ferris.

“I don’t think business is trying as hard as academia. Universities are getting on with business, creating spin-offs like QUT’s Spinifex, and Ian Fraser’s cancer vaccine. It’s very impressive.”

Stability of the R&D investment scheme is key to its success, says Carolyn Hewson AO, Director, BHP Billiton, Stockland Group and Federal Growth Centres Advisory Committee.

Hewsen says BHP Billiton was ‘deeply’ affected as a company by the collapse of the mining boom this year. “Every company is under pressure to innovate.” (See “How big companies can innovate)

“There is a role for government to address the KPIs they set around research funding.

KPIs need to move to speed of commercialisation rather than publication in tier 1 journals.”

“My concern is it is very easy for government with 3-year time horizon to make decisions on funding over a long term investment. Research projects extend out many years. To be subject to be changing regulation of government regulated by short-term political cycle is very worrying.”


How big companies can innovate

– Carolyn Hewson AO, Director of BHP Billiton, Stockland Group and Federal Growth Centres Advisory Committee

  • Hastening production
  • Accelerating technology competencies
  • Innovation hubs working to address innovative solution to specific challenges, eg. automation of trucks and drills
  • Step-up programs to build from the inside of the company
  • Partnerships with universities and CSIRO, CRCs on engineering and remote operations

Collaborate and commercialise for job growth

Ferris is optimistic about Australia’s ability to respond to the challenge to grow jobs by 2030. Agribusiness, aquaculture, cybersecurity, environmental services, renewables, and new materials were all strong potential job growth areas, he says.

“A lot more work needs to be done by business on reaching in. If we can’t commercialise around our inventiveness we won’t create the jobs that we could and that we deserve.”

Scheinkestel says the ecosystem is essential to drive innovation and job growth.

“The big message from Israel is the ecosystem created between business and academia, and in their case the military, where young people are taught strong leadership skills. They commercialise or adapt tech they have been looking at, get the backing of VC, which are supported by consistent policies from government around tax regimes.

“Again in Silicon Valley, you are talking about an ecosystem, a constellation of start-ups with shared resources and again consistency in policies and tax incentives.”

Hewson agrees that work skills are essential to our future and that there is concern about workforce skills in Australia across a number of advanced manufacturing, mining and medical sectors.

“We want to enhance global competitiveness and build on strategic collaboration within these sectors,” she says.

“It’s not just about growth, it’s about survival,” adds Scheinkestel.

Heather Catchpole

services boom

The services boom

Australia’s mining industry stands at a crossroads. This presents new opportunities for the industry, says one of the experts in the field: Dan Sullivan, CEO of METS Ignited, the new government-backed body charged with building the fortunes of one of the nation’s most important revenue earners – the mining equipment, technology and services industry (METS).

“Mining has to improve its productivity. The industry’s boom years are over,” says Sullivan. “But we have to make a choice about how we are going to do that. Either we find new reserves of high-grade ore or we invest in innovations that will make existing mines more productive.”

Sullivan says that if the first course of action is chosen, it will inevitably take the industry overseas. “In Australia, the easy-to-find resources have largely been discovered. If we want high-grade ores, we’ll have to go deep underground or to other mineral rich countries in Asia like Laos.” However, when mining companies go overseas they have to deal with issues of sovereignty and politics over which they have little control.

The alternative is to become much more efficient at locating, extracting and processing ores in Australia – but to do that the industry must innovate. Hence the creation of METS Ignited, one of six Industry Growth Centres set up by the Australian Government to improve the nation’s industrial competitiveness.

The six Growth Centres are dedicated to food and agri-business; medical technologies and pharmaceuticals; oil, gas and energy resources; advanced manufacturing; cybersecurity and METS.

These Growth Centres are charged with facilitating better links between scientists and researchers; to harmonise regulations that control industry; to make better use of human capital – the workforce and management of companies; and to get better access to global supply chains. “These centres are led by industry, but are government-funded,” adds Sullivan, who served as Australia’s Consul-General in Lima and who worked for the Australian Trade Commission in Chile where he led a team that worked on developing business opportunities for Australia.

Launched in October 2015, METS Ignited is preparing a 10-year strategic plan to promote Australian mining innovation and support stronger collaboration between companies and research organisations. The plan should also ensure that Australian mining technology companies – the firms that build the sensors, drill heads, pipes, trucks and other machines that make mining possible – hold a strong position in global supply chains.

“The mining industry is on the cusp of a transformation, and where there is change there is opportunity,” says Sullivan.

services boom

During the early years of the 21st century, the Australian mining industry – fuelled by demands from China for our ore and minerals – went through an extraordinary boom.

It was “one of the largest shocks to the Australian economy in generations”, says Peter Tulip, senior research manager at the Reserve Bank of Australia.

Average incomes across the country rose substantially, while the boom triggered a large appreciation of the Australian dollar.

More importantly, Australia’s deposits of iron, gold and copper were aggressively mined.

The output of these mines has declined significantly since the boom, and operators now have to use 70% more energy because they have to dig deeper to access deposits.

Despite the extra effort, mine output has continued to decline. In 2000, goldmines produced 3 g of gold for each tonne of basic ore. By 2010, they produced under 2 g. “Productivity was already declining at the turn of the century,” says Sullivan. “The boom just masked it.”

Today Australia, which depends heavily on its mineral wealth, is expending more and more energy to dig up less and less iron, gold and other ores and minerals. Given the massive importance of mining to the Australian economy, this is cause for concern. The problem is that more than 80% of Australia’s mineral production comes from mines that are more than 30 years old, says Professor Richard Hillis, CEO of the Deep Exploration Technologies CRC (DET CRC). “We haven’t found new mines to develop – which is why we’re mining our old ones so severely.”

The situation is summed up by Elizabeth Lewis-Gray, Chair of METS Ignited: “The mining industry is facing challenges – deeper mines, lower grades, community opposition and more remote operations.” At the same time, there has been a relentless drive to cut costs.

“These challenges require solutions,” adds Lewis-Gray, who is also co-founder and chair of Gekko Systems, which specialises in designing and manufacturing mineral processing equipment.

One approach is to focus on exports of Australian mining technology, says Lewis-Gray. At present, this market is worth about $15 billion. The aim of the METS Growth Centre is to double the exports so they reach about $30 billion by 2030. “This is one of the reasons for branding the centre with a new METS Ignited Australia,” says Lewis-Gray.

What is needed, says Sullivan, are more sensors in mines, and more data, robotics and analysis of the total operation of finding, extracting, transporting and processing of minerals.

But this will require considerable investment. “The good news,” says Sullivan, “is that much technology already exists in other industries. If you look at the manufacturing or aerospace industries, materials and activities are sensed and analysed to maximise activity. The mining industry is just beginning to implement this sort of technology.”

services boom

Australia is ranked highly for its research in mining technology. Consider the example of the work of Hillis with DET CRC. It devised a system to simplify the lengthy process involved in cutting a rock core and sending it for analysis to an assay laboratory.

DET CRC’s researchers developed sensors that lie behind the drill bit and can analyse, in real time, the material that is being dug up, and assess if it contains worthwhile amounts of gold or copper. “It means you can stop drilling immediately if you find a deposit is worthless, without having to wait months for the assay report,” says Hillis. This is impressive, and gives an indication of the innovative quality of Australian R&D in mining technology.

Less auspicious, however, is Australia’s reputation for commercialisation. This a key factor to improve the industry focus and commercial rate of Australian mining innovation.

Sullivan points to the example of the Anglo-American mining corporation, which is holding open forums with NASA experts and advisers in advanced manufacturing and other industries to stimulate ideas. “A mine operating in a remote desert has a lot to learn from a NASA program placing robot vehicles on Mars,” he says.

Many mining innovations have already made it, of course. Caterpillar trucks are fitted with sensors that can tell when a driver is fatigued. Other devices can monitor tyre pressure, and can tell when a bucket is unbalanced because it has a huge rock inside it.

But not enough care is taken to study the data to create patterns revealing routes to further innovations. “The data is not being pooled and so cannot be optimised,” says Sullivan.

“It’s not rocket science. It’s really just a matter of getting the mining industry to aggregate the data it acquires so it can learn and go on to develop new products that will improve efficiency and cut costs.”

METS Ignited’s main challenge is finding a way to change the mining industry’s perception of itself as ‘a fast follower’; an industry that lets others experiment and take the risks before it then adopts the successful outcomes.

Such an approach means that, at its heart, the industry is reluctant to innovate. The function of METS Ignited is therefore going to involve helping the Australian mining sector make choices that will put it on the road to success.

“It’s a challenge, but it is certainly an achievable one,” says Sullivan.

– Robin McKie

detcrc.com.au

 

Beneath the surface

CSIRO scientists have revealed how much water lies beneath the surface of the parched Pilbara landscape in a study to help safeguard the resource as mining and agriculture expands in the region and the climate changes.

The $3.5 m Pilbara Water Resource Assessment project found the area’s extreme heat evaporates up to 14 times more water than falls as rain – highlighting the region’s dependence on groundwater.

The work also revealed 8–30 mm of rainfall is required to make the rivers and streams flow, and that the region is getting hotter and drier in some areas and wetter in others.

CSIRO hydrologist and study leader Dr Don McFarlane says researchers now have a framework to study the impacts of mining and better manage local water use.

The mining industry abstracts about 550 gigalitres of water a year in the area and half of that is used for ore processing, dust suppression and consumption.

Beneath the surface
Iron ore being transported by rail in the Pilbara. Credit: CSIRO

One gigalitre is the equivalent of Subiaco Oval, a stadium in Western Australia, filled to the brim. This figure is expected to double by 2042.

“Mine sites are often separate enough from each other not to interact… however current mining and new mines are increasingly below the water table requiring very large volumes to be extracted and there are several areas where multiple mines are interacting with each other,” Dr McFarlane says.

The Pilbara is a land of extremes, suffering through some of the hottest temperatures in the country, while its unpredictable rainfall comes mostly from summer thunderstorms and cyclones.

“It [the study] puts streamflow and recharge volumes into relative perspective,” he says.

“Nine aquifer types were identified and they interact in complex ways with each other and especially with streamflow.”

Beneath the surface
The pipeline that takes water to the West Pilbara Water Supply Scheme. Credit: CSIRO

In addition, the WA Government is investing $40 million to expand irrigated agriculture and enlarge the Pilbara’s grazing industry.

The research, which was funded by industry and government, analysed climate data since 1910, the relationship between rainfall and runoff since 1961 and how that impacts groundwater levels over an area of 300,000 km– an area which is slightly larger than New Zealand.

The researchers say streamflow leaks through riverbeds and is the main source of aquifer replenishment.

According to the three-year study, groundwater-dependent ecosystems expanded and contracted with the weather but the number has remained stable during the past 23 years.

Dr McFarlane says analysis of satellite remote sensing images could play a role in monitoring the future impacts of climate, grazing, fire, feral animals and mining on groundwater-dependent ecosystems and vegetation.

– 

This article was first published by Science Network Western Australia. Read the original article here.