After a number of traditional global R&D leaders ‘dropped the ball’—due to funding cuts, industry disinterest or complacency—Australia saw an opportunity, seized the initiative and became a world leader in mining-technology innovation

By John Miller, Australian Editor

With the introduction of a carbon tax in Australia and growing awareness of the need for more environmentally friendly exploration and mining practices, now more than ever the country’s mining industry needs to work smarter and more efficiently to ensure its future viability. Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) is at the forefront of developing a range of technologies that can assist the industry improve its competitiveness and environmental performance.

                                The CSIRO’s Minerals Down Under Flagship works across the minerals value chain to deliver science and technology solutions that will help grow Australia’s resource base, increase the productivity of the minerals industry and reduce its environmental footprint, both in Australia and globally. The flagship’s director, Jonathan Law, said CSIRO is working with industry partners to develop technologies that assist the industry and also deliver positive flow-on effects into other challenging areas such as soil salinity, water quality and waste utilization.

                                Jonathan Law said the work of CSIRO is very important to Australia’s mining industry in two ways:

  • It takes a long-term view of the mining industry in Australia so it looks at the challenges in 10 or 15 years rather than the short-term challenges of today. It has the freedom because of the government investment and its resources to take the long-term view and work on technologies that will be important but that can’t be delivered in a two- or three-year timeframe.
  • It has a very strong engagement with industry on a day-to-day basis, working on the operations and issues faced daily. About 50% of the revenue comes from industry and CSIRO works closely with this sector, which makes sure it is aligned with what the current challenges are.

                                The mining industry is global and CSIRO’s work is also important at a global level. “Many of those we work with in Australia are global miners looking to deploy technologies around the world. Because many of the challenges the industry faces are shared globally and not particularly conducive to economic competitiveness, many countries are happy to work with Australia to develop solutions that are generally good for the industry,” Law said.

                                “There’s a whole range of factors like productivity, energy and water factors that have the potential to drive the industry out of business, and people are generally happy to share technologies in that space. Being connected globally is very important for us in terms of making sure we work with the best companies and organizations around the world. Having said that, we always try to make sure we deliver benefits for Australia. A lot of our technologies are based on Australia-specific challenges in which case we are happy to lead.”

                                CSIRO has brought together a portfolio of activities in the Minerals Down Under Flagship, he said. “About 10 years ago the organization took a look at itself and asked the question: Are we really working on the most important big picture things for Australia? There was a view that we were probably working on too many things in too many diverse areas and that we didn’t have a long-term strategy for real impact in some of the big national challenges, and this resulted in the National Research Flagship program led by CSIRO.

                “Five years ago the Minerals Down Under Flagship was formed in recognition that the minerals industry was important to Australia but in the longer term faced some serious challenges. We integrated capabilities across the organization to focus on the full value chain of the mining industry in four key areas: exploration, mining, mineral processing and metal production. Most importantly we wanted to focus on sustainability—how do we cope with low grades and more complex ores in terms of the implications for water and energy, and how do we make sure the industry is well linked beyond just the minerals industry into manufacturing and services. Almost A$15 billion a year comes from Australia’s services to mining sector, so there is an enormous opportunity for us and it is a global opportunity.”

Assisting Explorers
“If exploration is not successful in the longer term the industry will not grow,” Law explained. “With this in mind we try to ensure explorers working in Australia have access to the very best precompetitive data. We work closely with Geoscience Australia and the state surveys, and have worked with them on the AuScope GRID project. This is world-leading national data sharing infrastructure that enables data right across all geological surveys to be delivered in a seamless way.”

                                Law said the most recent initiative is delivery of an ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection) map. “ASTER is satellite-borne technology that enables you to map the surface of the planet and particularly to make inferences about the mineralogy of the surface. Working with Geoscience Australia and the state and territory surveys we have produced an integrated map of Australia that shows for the first time the broad mineralogical variations across the country. It is very important for exploration and for a range of other things, such as water management, agricultural management and the impact of the mining industry relative to other industries.

                                “The philosophy is to get people here, make them think Australia is prospective, give them the very best data for free, provide effective exploration tools and let them loose to start exploring and be successful,” said Law. “As soon as we released this map, we had inquiries from other countries saying can you do this for us? It is technology we can export to other countries and we are happy to do that.”

                                The flagship is developing a technology called ‘ReMoTe,’ which addresses the problem of getting skilled people on mine sites for maintenance or repairs. Law said having an expert on site at the right time is a challenge because you never know when you are going to strike a problem.

                                “We have developed this technology involving the use of a camera on a hard-hat that lets you interact through video and sound with somebody in another city or anywhere you like over the Internet,” Law said. “They can actually see what you can see in front of you and they can, through a monitor on your side, point to what you should be doing. It provides a real time interaction with someone who can visualize what you are doing and can direct you to undertake the repair.”

Mineral Processing Technology
In mineral processing, CSIRO has new technology based on ore sorting. Law said it’s a way of measuring on a conveyor belt the mineralogical composition of ore. “It has been the holy grail of processing for quite some time, but because of the volumes of rock passing through the big mines, we haven’t been able to deploy it in a useful way. We have developed a prototype instrument that can analyze a section of belt in a couple of seconds and let you make a decision about where [the material] goes in the process route. This will have a big impact on the amount of water and energy used in processing because you are not using those resources on waste material.

                                “Sensors and sensor technology are going to become more important, and a big opportunity for us is the use of real-time sensing to deliver the ‘digital revolution’ to mining,” he continued. “There are all sorts of information we should be getting there in real time and should be making decisions based on it.

                                “Also in processing we are keen to come up with technologies that let us exploit big resources that we know about but for whatever reason can’t be economically exploited. One of the big areas for this work is nickel laterites. In Australia about two-thirds of our nickel resource is nickel laterite, but most production comes from sulphides, so sooner or later we have to make that transition. The Pacific Rim countries all have these nickel laterites which would benefit from new technology. One of the things that makes processing difficult is that they consume enormous amounts of acid when you try to leach the laterite which requires expensive capital equipment and involves high ongoing costs because that leaching must be done at a high temperature.

                                “Instead of using sulphuric acid we are working with Sydney-based company Direct Nickel to use nitric acid rather than sulphuric acid,” said Law. “The clever thing about this technology is that you can replenish the nitric acid and don’t have to keep bring in tons of new acid, which has a huge impact on operational costs and has the real potential to make some of the Australian nickel laterites competitive again. You also don’t have to do it at high temperature so you don’t have the big capital costs of having to build the containers for high temperature and pressure leaching.

                                “We are working closely with nickel companies in this process, which is one of the underlying principles of the flagship—we want our technology to be relevant and used by industry,” he said. “As soon as we possibly can in this type of work we get industry to come on board and co-fund the research but we also try to bring in a technology provider that can deliver the commercialized product. We can only have an impact if we work with companies to commercialize these technologies.”

Future Challenges
One of the challenges for the mining industry in the future, according to Law, is that Australia is an expensive source of labor, and just about everything else that goes into mining, so for Australia to remain globally competitive it has to improve its productivity.

                                “This, in turn, is a challenge for CSIRO and takes us down a route of automation and skills development so that we can maintain the fantastic infrastructure Australia has by attracting the very best people in the world and then keeping them in Australia. We have a core role to deliver those things in the future.”

                                He said the most important factor facing the industry into the future is community perceptions that play into politics, and funding, and directly into the future of the industry.

                                “CSIRO will continue to invest in Australia’s minerals industry as it remains broadly supported by the community, and a valued part of the national economy. Sharing the risks and benefits of the resource business is an area in which we, as an industry, have to do better. Being a nationally funded flagship, I see that as an important role for us to play discussing the impacts of the mining industry and how we can do that better, and talking to all stakeholders.

                                “One of our major activities is ‘mineral futures’ which is all about leading thinking in what technologies will make a difference in the future, how will people perceive those technologies, how do different stakeholders in the community want us to proceed with R&D around the minerals industry and how can we link in with things like manufacturing, which is going through very hard times. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a manufacturing industry that leverages off our strength in minerals and starts to build mineral-related products that we could send offshore. In this way when Australia runs out of minerals, we have something else and are a global leader in manufacturing and services.

                                “Sliding commodity prices are another challenge for the industry,” he said, “and these are beyond our control, but generally speaking as commodity prices fall, companies are less inclined to co-invest with us, particularly with longer term R&D, as they focus on the short-term. We can’t afford to operate as solely an Australian research entity—we have to work with the big players all over the world. This is a challenge for us—how do we take the Australian expertise and work with the very best overseas without giving away the family farm in the process.”

                                The amount of money being spent on greenfields exploration is declining at an alarming rate, Law said, so not only is there less money available for juniors but they are not spending on greenfields exploration in Australia and around the world because brownfields exploration is cheaper and more likely to provide quick success. “We put a lot of effort into technology to help with greenfields exploration. If we can drag people out of brownfields areas and into new areas, those are where the big wins will be.”

World Technology Leader
In many ways, Australia is leading the world in mining technology because some others that were leading dropped the ball, according to Law—think of the dramatic changes in historically major industry players including the U.K., and parts of the U.S. and Europe.

                                “These places had strong R&D cultures and strong minerals industries but when the community tide turned against those industries, the infrastructure that went with it lapsed—the services and R&D—so there is a lesson for Australia. The other fundamental, is that Australia has a long history of mining which has allowed it to build up a credible R&D portfolio and take a leading role as others have dropped off,” Law said. “The federal government has also played a major role because they have been prepared to support the industry with ventures such as CSIRO and CRCs (Cooperative Research Centers) where money is put into longer term challenges with a clear focus on practical research outcomes.

                                “The industry has also got its act together in Australia in a way that no other country has been able to do—through AMIRA International, an industry-funded collaborative research vehicle—which has enabled companies to come together and work on shared problems. We can probably do even more and focus on bigger things as a collegiate group of industry people. This goes back to the community opinion on mining—if the industry is seen to be out there investing in its own future, that can only be a positive thing for the entire industry because not only does it get the benefits from the R&D but it demonstrates that it’s an industry that thinks about its future, that has a future in Australia and is prepared to put its money behind that.”

                                Jonathan Law sees Australia’s role in mining technology growing in the future. “We would be crazy to let it die. There’s a fantastic opportunity for us to grab and there are competitors such as Canada, Latin America and Africa who are also in this space, but I don’t think they are as well positioned as we are. I think there is a big future in R&D and particularly around the commercialization of R&D, which in the longer term is where the real money is going to be for the nation so we really need to nurture that.”

John Miller is editor of The Asia Miner, a Mining Media International publication.