Powering the next mining boom with data

Sitting on a shelf at the Geological Survey of Western Australia in Perth are more than 2000 dusty vials containing what look like grains of sand. They are samples of crushed rock collected by field geologists from interesting outcrops all over the state, and they represent a snapshot of Western Australia’s surface geology and can provide clues as to how the state was formed.

At present, the mineral content of these samples is largely unknown, but researchers at the John de Laeter Laboratories at Curtin University in Perth have been commissioned to analyse them. Technological advances in both analytical and information science may shed new light on the contents of the vials. The age of each sample is dated by determining the ratios of uranium to lead isotopes trapped in grains of zircon sulphate. The residual concentrate contains other heavy minerals notably gold, rutile and magnetite and that content is of great interest both to researchers and the mining industry.

The mineralogical makeup of these samples is largely unknown, but technological advances in the field of geochemistry will help shed new light on the heavy mineral contents of these vials.

The researchers are using a TESCAN TIMA field emission scanning electron microscope to construct a detailed picture of the mineral composition of the crushed rock samples. The TIMA can produce data from points only 0.006 mm apart three million in a 2.5 cm round area and is able to generate mineral analyses from the historical rock samples and mineral concentrates. Professor Brent McInnes, Director of the de John Laeter Centre, explains: “Some minerals contain chemical fingerprints that indicate the conditions and history of rock formation and these parameters can be useful in exploration by the minerals industry.”

So far, the Centre has scanned 150 of the 2,000 WA locality samples. The resulting data is being made publicly available with support from the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) using the CSIRO developed Spatial Information Services Stack (SISS). SISS is a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) developed under the AuScope NCRIS Program to allow easier access to data sets by researchers and industry across Australia.

Professor McInnes, hopes the open provision of this resource will encourage industry and academia to come forward and contribute mineral data. He wants to broaden the project nationally by adding similar data from samples collected by other state and national geological surveys and by incorporating some of the vast information assembled by researchers and industry to create a virtual heavy mineral map of Australia.

This new initiative is important for the economic future of Australia. Mining companies do a lot of heavy mineral analysis in research and development but, because there isn’t a baseline for mineralogy across each state, it is difficult to have full confidence in the heavy mineral data. This creates an issue for pinpointing where the next major mineral deposits are. Having solid baseline data will help improve targeting which in turn will reduce the costs associated with exploration.

Opening up the historic mineral data also creates the opportunity for new investment by the minerals industry in Australia. It also ensures that Government programs like NCRIS which support creation of equipment and data infrastructure, leverage the government’s initial investment to ensure that every publicly-funded dollar is well managed and more importantly that the priceless resource of the data is not lost.

Initiatives like this are important tools for Australia to encourage the next round of investment in the mining industry, says AuScope’s Director of Infrastructure Development, Dr Tim Rawling. Any exploration company will tell you that Australia has some of the best publicly available datasets anywhere in the world. But even with these data, the easy stuff has been found. There is a recognition that the next suite of discoveries are likely to be under cover well below the surface and they are going to be lot tougher to find. We need to acquire more and better data, and make it available, because finding new mineral deposits is getting slower and harder and that has an enormous impact on the Australian economy.

Caption: Minerals library data is available through the AuScope Discovery portal.

Case Study : Mining boom

Category: ECE and Geochemistry