Like going to the dentist, mineral exploration and discovery can involve a lot of drilling and a fair amount of (financial) pain. And much like your friendly neighbourhood dentist, the longer it takes to understand what’s happening, the more it costs.
When it comes to getting information about the minerals and chemistry of a single drill hole, the process can take up to three months. This is because a typical setup involves: setting up the drill site, drilling, extracting rock cores, sampling and logging those cores and sending the samples to a laboratory (which is often a considerable distance from the exploration site) for analysis. Then there is the process of entering and analysing the data, popping the findings into a database and getting it back to the company, so they can make a decision – it’s more complex than a root canal and much more expensive.
To speed up the process of understanding the mineralogy and geochemistry of drill hole cuttings we developed a portable lab, one that can be fitted to the exploration drill rig and analyse in real-time.
Instead of taking three months this process now takes about one hour – that’s more than 2000 times quicker than the current arrangement.
We’ve called this technology Lab-at-Rig®. Developed in partnership with Imdex and Olympus Scientific Solutions Americas, this onsite lab can be fitted to a diamond drill rig and a solid recovery unit to drastically speed-up the process of analysing an exploration site.
The lab includes a sample preparation unit that collects solids from drill cuttings and dries them; X-ray fluorescence and X-ray diffraction sensors to provide chemistry and mineralogy of the sample respectively; and the capability to upload that data to the cloud for analysis, in less time than it takes to watch a movie.
The project came about back in 2011, when a group of researchers were watching a diamond drilling operation near Adelaide and asked a simple question: ‘what if we could analyse the cuttings separated from that fluid in real time?’ We now know the answer: we can save a lot of time and money.
And now, after two years of research and development we’ve just announced that we will be commercialising Lab-at-Rig® and bringing this technology to the world, with the help of our commercialisation partner REFLEX.
With the prototype becoming a reality, perhaps we should turn our attention to making dentist visits quicker.
The Lab-at-Rig prototype was developed under the Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre (DET CRC).
CSIRO, Imdex, Olympus, University of Adelaide and Curtin University are now working on the $11m collaborative DET CRC Lab-at-Rig Futures Project, which will build the next generation system to cover: new sensor technologies, improved data analysis and processing for decision making, and development of the system for new applications and drilling platforms.
This article originally appeared in The Australian.
Australians are great inventors: as a nation, we’re responsible for more than 100 great inventions, such as fast WiFi, ultrasound for medical imaging and the Cochlear implant. But of those, only one has built a great domestic tech company. This is our innovation dilemma.
It is easy to confuse invention and innovation. Invention can often be an individual achievement but innovation is always a team sport. Innovation is about taking an idea and realising the value — along with all of the sweat, tears and pain it takes to get there. And innovation happens best at the intersection of different disciplines and different ways of thinking. Collaboration is the fuel that drives it.
Herein lies part of our dilemma: Australia has the lowest level of research collaboration in the OECD. This is for two reasons: we don’t collaborate enough with business, and we actively compete against each other in science.
Thankfully, there is some good news. For one, we are so inventive, and invention is the wellspring of innovation. Even more important, we have the fourth largest funds management industry in the world, with $2 trillion looking for things to fund. But overall, our innovation dilemma — fed by our lack of collaboration — is a critical national challenge. (I applaud The Australian for allowing a platform to talk about it.) We must do better. Lucky then that CSIRO’s sole purpose is to solve national challenges.
After spending a quarter of a century in Silicon Valley, I learnt to share my ideas early and get feedback. Other entrepreneurs didn’t steal those ideas. They made them better. The value wasn’t in the idea, it was on the delivery. I started six tech companies, and the ecosystem I operated in supported me: from universities such as Stanford and MIT to venture capital funds such as Sequoia and Accel. When I stumbled, that ecosystem picked me up and encouraged me to go again. When I got lucky, that ecosystem made sure I paid it forward.
The most resounding reward in my first initial public offering was seeing how many millionaires our employee stock ownership plan created in our team. Those millionaires went on to found new companies and create more value. This is the virtuous cycle of innovation. It’s why start-ups created 100 per cent of the jobs growth in the US over the past 35 years.
This is the nature of an ecosystem of support and collaboration, where value is created by pure entrepreneurial alchemy out of a blue ocean. We can create a similar ecosystem in Australia, but first we have to stop clawing at each other for scraps and work together to create enduring value.
CSIRO must help the 41 universities of our nation to deliver impact from their great science and inventions. We must meet industry halfway, providing solutions, not just science.
This is critical because universities should not be forced to divert from fundamental research. We know from history the greatest inventions come from out of left field — ultrasound for medical imaging, the silicon chip, optical fibre comms, the router, WiFi and the internet itself all came from fundamental deep tech breakthroughs in areas far from the markets they created — markets that didn’t exist when they started.
While we at CSIRO are always looking how to solve problems, that capability will not always lie with us. When we collaborate great things happen: we helped professors at Macquarie University, in Sydney, create Radiata, Australia’s first WiFi company, and we helped Curtin University and the University of Western Australia create a global hub for metre-to-atomic-scale analyses of rock cores.
We helped the Queensland government, the University of Queensland and Griffith University create the urban water security research alliance to help address southeast Queensland’s urban water issues, and we helped Victoria’s Monash and Deakin universities 3D-print a jet engine.
People say CSIRO can be slow and cumbersome yet in 1942, isolated from the rest of the world by war and with no access to advanced technology or components, we created, in a matter of months, Australia’s first air-defence radar and defended Darwin. Innovation is hard; it’s meant to be that way. It’s what birthed the start-up nation, Israel. It’s what will transform Australia into a knowledge economy.
Most important, we provide a national platform to support science, technology, engineering and mathematics in schools through a unique volunteer network across publicly funded research organisations like CSIRO and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, universities and companies like Cisco, BHP and Boeing.
We co-ordinate thousands of school visits to help our nation’s children better understand technology, maybe to pursue a career in STEM, to inspire them the way we were inspired by our teachers. Above all, to teach them that they can create our future.
Work with us to help solve Australia’s innovation dilemma. We partner with small and large companies, government and industry in Australia and around the world.
By Roger Nicoll
‘Eureka!’ cried the Ancient Greek scholar Archimedes as he (allegedly) ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. He’d just discovered a method to prove the purity of gold by measuring its density, and was decidedly proud of his finding.
Thankfully, these days we favour blog posts to running naked through the streets when we make important new discoveries… but it doesn’t mean we can’t still give a good shout:
‘Eureka! We’ve found a way to produce cyanide-free gold!’
We’ve been working with an American company, Barrick, at their Goldstrike plant in Nevada, to produce the first ever gold bar that doesn’t involve the use of cyanide extraction. Cyanide is, of course, highly toxic and a potential environmental hazard. The new process we’re so excited about uses a chemical called thioshulphate, which will greatly reduce the environmental risks and costs associated with gold production.
Thiosulphate has long been seen as a potential alternative to cyanide for liberating gold from ores, but it has proved difficult to master – until now. Thanks to the new process, which incorporates patented technology we’ve developed with Barrick, the company will be able to process and profit from four million tonnes of stockpiled ore that was uneconomic to process by traditional methods.
As part of the thiosulphate process at Goldstrike, gold-bearing ore is heated in large pressure chambers, or autoclaves. It’s then pumped as a thick slurry of ore, air, water and limestone into the new ‘resin-in-leach’ circuit that takes place inside large stainless steel tanks.
Within the tanks, the slurry interacts with thiosulphate and a fine, bead-like substance called resin that collects the gold. At full capacity, 13,400 tons of ore can be processed daily, with leaching taking place simultaneously in two sets of seven tanks.
Our very own minerals expert Danielle Hewitt had a hands-on role in developing and proving the CSIRO technology incorporated at the Goldstrike plant. But for security reasons, it was strictly hands-off the resulting gold bar.
“This was a golden moment more than 20 years in the making, including three years working with Barrick to refine the commercial process,” said Danielle.
She said the new process will contribute an average of 350 to 450 thousand extra ounces of gold each year to the operation, allowing the large plant to keep operating.
The new technology could also have some benefits closer to home, with the potential to safely recover gold in Australia where cyanide would otherwise pose a significant environmental risk and environmental protection cost.
As with Archimedes, another gold standard solution.
By Beth Fulton– Head of Ecosystem Modelling, Marine and Atmospheric Research
Australians want a future of sustainable self-sufficiency and a healthy environment supporting a robust democracy – free of poverty and inequity. That was one of our projections, as part of the Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science.
Equally, Australians fear a future in which the stability of day-to-day life has been eroded by a degraded environment, depleted resources, lawlessness or warfare, limited access to health-care and education, extreme (or even increased) economic or political inequity and the fragmentation of social cohesion.
The question “What will Australia in 2050 look like?” will not be answered for sure for another four decades. But that future depends on decisions made today, and that means it is important to get some early insights into what the alternatives really are.
Of course, the future is uncertain and the projections discussed here may change as the different components are finally linked together. But some of them run contrary to current expectation and desires. They require careful thought in any personal, community, regional or national planning exercises.
Population, society and the economy
The human aspects of Australia’s future have received a good deal of attention over the last few years. Australia’s population will increase by 50-100% by 2050. The proportion of the population living in the north and west is projected to increase at the expense of smaller southern states.
Median age will increase from the 36.8 years of 2007 to between 41.9 and 45.2 years. The proportion of the population over 65 is projected to increase by 60%, or more in the southern states.
Economic growth is forecast to continue over 2011-2050 at around 2.5% per year (a little slower than over past decades), and to shift towards services and away from primary and secondary industries (like agriculture and manufacturing).
This is despite an expected 13% increase in trade as Australia’s trade partnerships restructure – with the proportion of Australia’s total exports going to China, India and Indonesia projected to rise from 14% to 40% by 2100.
Even this rate of productivity is dependent on increasing labour force participation, facilitated by education and health programs and increased participation by people aged over 65. Despite this rising participation it is projected that the tax base will nearly halve, meaning the fiscal burden of the ageing population would lead to an accumulating and growing fiscal gap (where spending exceeds revenue) of up to 2.75% of GDP annually, with deficits reaching 20% of GDP by 2050.
Resources and industries
Australia’s resource sector has been one of the defining shapers of economic growth through the late 20th and early 21st century. Major fossil fuels (black coal, natural gas) and minerals (iron ore, bauxite, copper) are forecast to be exhausted in 60-80 years at current rates of extraction, much sooner for other resources (gold, lead, zinc, crude oil). The physical trade balance (including mining, manufacturing and agricultural sectors) is forecast to show continued growth in exports to the mid 21st century, but then to collapse rapidly to around neutral.
While Australia will be food secure, agricultural trade is projected to drop by 10-80% due to a drop in output. In the absence of any climate change adaptation in agricultural practices or mitigation, by 2050 Australian wheat, sugar, beef and sheep production is projected to drop by roughly 14-20%; with production in Queensland and the Northern Territory hardest hit.
Energy consumption will increase. Electricity generation and transport sectors remain the dominant uses. Fossil fuels are likely to continue supplying the bulk of this, despite 3.4-3.5% growth per year in renewables.
The trajectory of emissions is heavily dependent on the specific adaptation behaviour, mitigation policies and technology scenarios.
Climate, the environment and ecosystems
Air temperature will probably rise by less than 4°C by 2050, with the greatest warming in the northwest and away from the coasts. This has adverse consequences for heat stress on agriculture and urban systems, water availability in Southern Australia, the incidence of drought and fire.
Water yield from the Murray-Darling potentially drops by 55%, but the greatest increase in drought months (of 80%) is in the southwest. Substantial increases in the number of extremely hot days (>35°C) Australia wide are associated with increases in extreme fire days and area burnt. Northern settlements are particularly strongly impacted.
The impact of these changes on native terrestrial ecosystems becomes progressively worse as temperature rises. If temperatures increases are small (<1°C by 2050) only mountain and tropical ecosystems should be impacted; habitat for vertebrates in the northern tropics is projected to decrease by 50%.
If temperatures rise by 3°C or more the projected loss of core habitats is much more extensive: 30-70% or more of many habitat types, with the majority of rainforest birds becoming threatened and many species of flora and fauna projected to go extinct. Iconic freshwater wetlands, like Kakadu, are also projected to shrink by 80%. These changes are also associated with extensive compositional change and increased penetration of invading species.
The ocean is projected to change as much as the land, though with much more consistency across emissions scenarios. Most ocean warming is in the tropics and down the east coast. Sea-level will rise, potentially doubling the areal extent of flooding due to storm tides; ocean stratification is likely to strengthen, affecting mixing, nutrient supplies and productivity; hypoxic “dead zones” are likely to spread; and the rising levels of CO2 dissolved in the ocean will continue to cause acidity to increase.
While a range of species will adapt, future ecosystems may have very different composition to today. Differential capacity to adapt will lead to species mixes never before recorded.
Economically and ecologically sustainable marine industries are still possible despite the projected environmental changes. However, this is only possible if regulations, markets and social attitudes allow the industry to shift with the new ecosystem structures.
Beth Fulton was lead author for a group exploring modelling perspectives as part of the Australian Academy of Science project “Australia 2050: Towards an environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living”.
The Australia 2050 project for the Australian Academy of Science has just published Phase 1 Negotiating our future: Living scenarios for Australia to 2050 which emerged from 35 scientists working together to explore social perspectives, resilience, scenarios and modelling as pathways towards environmentally and economically sustainable and socially equitable ways of living. Phase 2 of this project on creating living scenarios for Australia is underway.
Beth Fulton receives funding from the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation.
The ‘I’ in CSIRO is fundamental to what we do. We work with thousands of companies each year, from small local businesses to large multi-nationals – whoever is best placed to take a new technology to market and provide benefit to Australia.
That’s why we’ve been working with our good friends over at General Electric (GE) to tackle some of Australia’s toughest challenges in healthcare, materials, energy, resources and ICT.
Want to see what we’ve been up to? Check out our shiny new video: