April 2018

Developments in geoscience

  • By AusIMM Geoscience Society

In this special series of articles, we asked some of our AusIMM professional societies and networks for their industry insights.
The following is a collection of thoughts from our professionals on how practices have developed over the past 125 years.

Is there a single event that defined the beginning of this technical discipline in Australasia?

Mineral and coal deposit discovery is arguably the starting point for geological disciplines in Australasia. Most early discoveries were made by prospecting, which involved surface field observations in search of valuable minerals without the need for geological understanding. Over time, greater geological understanding has been applied to both extend current deposit limits and discover new deposits.

Some important discoveries have included coal along the Hunter River in 1795; gold near Bathurst, NSW in 1823, followed by the 1851 Victorian gold rush commencing in Ballarat and the Kalgoorlie gold discovery by Paddy Hannan in 1893 – the same year the AusIMM was founded.

What industry issues or problems has this discipline helped to address?

The resources industry provides many of the raw materials needed to manufacture goods used by communities across the world. Our societies depend on mining. Mining operations consume mineral and coal resources, and without replacement of these resources the industry would stop producing. Geoscience addresses this need through greenfield and brownfield exploration. Exploration models and methods are constantly evolving to provide exploration investment the best opportunity for discovery.

Geoscience work also improves the efficiency of mining through increasing ore deposit knowledge as infill drilling, mapping, geological interpretation and computer modelling. The emerging focus on geometallurgy, combining the interests of geoscience and mineral processing, offers improvements to mining and mineral processing along with environmental benefits.

Geoscience improves safety in mining and civil applications through geomechanical science and geotechnical engineering. Applications include ground and slope stability analysis, ground support design and monitoring, foundations, footings, road construction, and seismic and tsunami monitoring.

How has this discipline changed and how might it look in the future?

Early prospectors paved the way for modern geosciences. Many early discoveries are still operating mines today and stand as a great legacy of early work alongside more recent discoveries. Although the search for mineral resources is a common theme linking the past and present, there are some remarkable differences.

Drilling to recover samples for logging and analysis has been a standard practice for much of the last century. However, drilling methods were not used by early prospectors, and access to sub-surface rock was limited to excavation of shaft, adit or costean. Drilling methods have continued to advance throughout the years with a range of drilling options now available to suit the application.

Geochemical analysis has also advanced, with a range of instruments and techniques now available to deliver rapid and inexpensive analysis for a wide range of chemical elements, compounds and minerals of interest to the geoscientist. Some well-used methods include atomic absorption spectrometry, X-ray Florescence Spectrometry and Inductively Coupled Plasma.

Geophysical methods have been a regular part of mineral exploration for more than 40 years. Advances in geophysical exploration methods over the past 20 years have focused on refining existing methods to improve sensitivity, resolution, portability and enabling airborne surveying. Regularly applied geophysical methods include gravity, seismic, magnetic, electromagnetic, electrical (IP, resistivity), radiometric, spectral and Lidar.

Increases in drilling, sampling, geochemical and geophysical methods have produced large volumes of data. Increased data volumes have benefited from the advent of computers with relational databases for systematic storage and programs for data processing and modelling. The modern geoscientist is now able to process and visualise large volumes of data in three dimensions. Advances in mathematical algorithms, geostatistics, simulations and other state-of-the-art applications support geoscientific modelling.

What are the big challenges or opportunities facing this discipline?

The future will always hold opportunities for new mineral deposit discoveries and extensions to existing deposits. The prospect for discovering deep or undercover deposits presents a challenge for mineral exploration and mining. However, in the past 20 years there have been several examples of outcropping or shallow (less than 200 m deep) mineral deposit discoveries, suggesting shallow deposits may still await discovery. Other challenges are likely to come from future mineral resources being lower grade than currently economic ore. In addition, future mineral resources may have higher concentrations of deleterious elements or minerals that require improved modelling or mineral processing technology. There is also the prospect that changes in technology and markets may deliver new commodities of interest, much like the recent focus on rare earths and lithium.

Whatever the opportunities and challenges that face geoscience in the future, one thing is certain: we will need to attract and retain motivated, highly-skilled and knowledgeable geoscientists. It is likely that significant benefit will be achieved from combining the knowledge and wisdom of several disciplines, much like the emerging science of geometallurgy, but not limited to geosciences and metallurgy alone.

The AusIMM and its societies are well placed to promote interest and continuous learning in geoscience and mining-related disciplines that complement geoscience.

What has AusIMM’s role been in advancing professional practice in this discipline?

The AusIMM and Geoscience Society have a long and rich history of delivering quality conferences and publications. In recent times several important AusIMM Monographs have been published including Mineral Resource and Ore Reserve Estimation – The AusIMM Guide to Good Practice (Monograph 30), Mineral Deposits of New Zealand (Monograph 31) and Australian Ore Deposits (Monograph 30). In 2017, the Tenth International Mine Geology Conference was convened in Hobart. The next big event will be the Australian Geoscience Council Convention titled ‘Big Issues and Ideas in Geoscience’, which will be held at the Adelaide Convention Centre during October 2018. The Australian Geoscience Council is supported by and has representation from the AusIMM and Geoscience Society.

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