LONDON, Dec 5 (Reuters) – From intelligent drills to analysing 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 metres of soil, rock or sea water, 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 ageing, producing less and less metal for every tonne of ore pulled out of the ground. This has driven up costs and prompted companies to explore in 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 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 – many borrowing from innovation in the oil and gas industry, which is already drilling far deeper than a few decades ago.
Roughly 80 percent of Australia, for example, is under ‘cover’, which means 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, 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,” says Stephen McIntosh, head of exploration at mining major Rio Tinto.
“There have to be a lot more plums in the plum pudding as we advance through depth, and we are starting to see that.”
Many in the mining industry compare the potential change to that seen in oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty years or more ago, it was 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.
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