From intelligent drills to analyzing gum tree leaves, an unprecedented push to develop new methods and technologies promises to transform the way miners explore for deposits, allowing them to dig deeper, faster and more cheaply.
The results could ultimately unlock so-called “covered” deposits: riches hidden under hundreds of meters of soil, rock or seawater, sometimes in or near previously explored areas.
That could reverse the steady shift away from mining regions such as Australia and Canada, to untested, frontier areas in the search for the next blockbuster find.
Many flagship mines are aging, producing increasingly less metal for every tonne of ore pulled out of the ground. This has driven up costs and prompted companies to explore new parts of Africa or Asia, despite the additional political risks.
“Deposits are becoming increasingly hard to find, and both the technology that we have available to us and the approaches are less useful when exploring deeper deposits,” said Dean Collett, a geoscience consultant working with Australia’s UNCOVER initiative, which promotes the exploration of covered areas. “The industry needs technology and improved geological insight to crack this.”
Change could now be closer thanks to a string of academic, government, company and combined initiatives like UNCOVER, with many borrowing from innovation in the oil and gas industry as it is already drilling far deeper than a few decades ago.
For example, approximately 80 percent of Australia is under cover, which means that the overwhelming majority of exploration and mining activity — 90 percent by some estimates — has been carried out on only a small portion of the vast country, on the slice where rocks above ground hint at the riches below.
“The laws of probability say that there must be an equal proportion of deposits sat under that cover. There is nothing unique about the geology that is sticking out — it just happened to be higher than the rest,” said Stephen McIntosh, head of exploration at mining giant Rio Tinto Group.
“There have to be a lot more plums in the plum pudding as we advance through depth and we are starting to see that,” he added.
Many in the mining industry compare the potential change to that seen in oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty or more years ago, it was known as the “Dead Sea,” as shallow wells began to run dry and companies could not tap oil in deep water.
It has since boomed thanks to seismic equipment — some of it now used in new mining initiatives — that allowed explorers to penetrate layers of rock, while engineering innovations transformed the ability to drill at depth.
For countries like Australia and Canada, it is about reversing exploration decline on their turf. Currently, 80 percent of Australia’s production comes from mines that were discovered more than 30 years ago.
For miners, even at a time of belt-tightening, it is about securing future supply, satisfying the investor push to get more out of every dollar spent hunting for new mines — potentially altering a balance that has seen miners prefer to tackle political risk than technical challenges.
Initiatives ranging from improving geophysical and geochemical techniques — including the measurement of metal traces in eucalyptus leaves and kangaroo excrement, as well as some methods first developed as long ago as World War II to track submarines — are already transforming how exploration works.