Western Australian mining: access all areas

By IM Staff
Published: Friday, 10 April 2015

As the downturn in mineral prices continues to drag on Australia’s economy, a project led by Perth’s Curtin University is seeking to create an open access digital mineral inventory of WA that it hopes could stimulate interest in further exploration in the state.

By Cameron Chai

The declining fortunes of Australia’s mining industry have been a graphic illustration of how the collapse of the commodities boom can pull the rug out from beneath entire economies.

Data from the financial year 2013-2014 indicates that Western Australia’s (WA) minerals and energy output alone was worth $122bn for the year, dominated by iron ore, which accounted for approximately 60% of the sector’s income.

This equates to almost 65% of Australia’s national output, with minerals being Australia’s major export earner.

The collapse of iron ore prices to below $50/tonne, down from a peak of $190/tonne four years ago, has hit WA hard and the state is now urgently seeking ways to stimulate its mineral sector and diversify its resource base away from iron ore.

One avenue being considered is the public documentation of WA’s mineral resources. It is hoped that by allowing free, open access to this information, further interest in developing domestic mineral reserves will be stimulated and create a more varied and sustainable mineral economy.

In WA’s capital Perth, the state government is sitting on a collection of over 2,000 heavy mineral concentrate samples. These have been systematically collected and meticulously catalogued by the Geological Survey of Western Australia (GSWA) over the last 30 years of geological mapping.

The mineralogical makeup of these samples is largely unknown, but technological advances in both microanalytical and geoinformatics science may shed new light on the contents of the vials.  

In addition to some of the world’s largest iron ore projects in the northern Pilbara region and the similarly gold mines further south – including the famous Super Pit owned by Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines Pty Ltd – WA is home to a number of industrial mineral developments.

These include an aluminous clay resource being exploited by Altech Chemicals Ltd; operating and prospective lithium projects run by Galaxy Resources Ltd, Talison Lithium Pty Ltd, Neometals Ltd and Cobre Montanna NL; mineral sands developments numbering those belonging to leading producer Iluka Resources Ltd; as well as antimony, graphite, potash and rare earths projects at various stages of progress.

However, much of the region’s mineral wealth remains unexplored and untapped.

In an ambitious project led by Curtin University’s John de Laeter Centre (JdLC), with support from the Australian National Data Service (ANDS) and AuScope research infrastructure programmes, the team plan to not only characterise the Perth samples, but also make all the data openly accessible to everyone.

Pooling knowledge

The project will both expand the knowledge base of the GSWA and will make these samples discoverable and available by academic, government and industry researchers.

The project is of major significance to WA, due to its heavy economic reliance on the mineral resources industry.

From a geological perspective, the GSWA samples represent the key basement lithologies from all major time periods in the formation and evolution of WA. Professor Brent McInnes, director of JdLC, explains: "Some minerals contain chemical fingerprints that indicate the physical conditions and history of rock formation – and these parameters can be useful in exploration targeting by the minerals industry."

"A key issue for successful exploration is discriminating geochemical anomalies from background signatures, and the GSWA samples are the best representatives of geochemical background because they were collected for fundamental geological studies. The JdLC is developing this open access digital mineral inventory of WA because we believe this innovative approach will inform explorers and stimulate further interest in geochemistry research."

The technology that the team will use to characterise the samples is called automated mineralogy.

This refers to an analytical solution based on scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and/or and Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDS or EDX), which provides largely automated quantitative analysis of minerals, rocks and even manufactured materials. Automated mineralogy is now available through a number of commercially available systems, including the TESCAN Integrated Minerals Analyzer (TIMA), developed by Czech Republic-based TESCAN Orsay Holding.

Paul Gottlieb, TESCAN TIMA’s business development manager, one of the founders of automated mineralogy from back in his days at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, describes the technology as "a step change technology that creates mineral images of mineral samples by identifying the minerals directly from rapid point-by-point chemical analyses."

"The technology allows geoscientists, geologists and metallurgist to measure the proportions, textural distribution and elemental deportment of the minerals in the sample," Gottlieb says.

Automated mineralogy is relevant to a large number of applications that require statistically reliable, quantitative mineralogical information. This includes mining, oil and gas, environmental sciences, forensic geosciences, coal, archaeology, agribusiness and planetary geology.

Professor McInnes’ team are using a TESCAN TIMA, a field emission scanning electron microscope (FE-SEM) with highly integrated energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDS) detectors.  Designed specifically for automated mineralogy, TIMA generates mineralogical analyses very quickly and can be used for onsite mineralogical assays as well as production control and optimisation. As such, it is able to generate quantitative mineral analyses of rocks, ores, concentrates, tailings, leach residues or smelter products.

While SEM-based systems are typically the realm of high technology analytical facilities such as those found in universities, the TIMA is also suited to mine site operations. An example, is the Northparkes Mine in central west New South Wales, which has just installed a TIMA for mine production tests on their copper and gold mine. Furthermore, with the robotic auto sample loader, the TIMA system can be used continuously for 24/7 analysis, minimising manual labour, providing continuous automated streams of data.

Adam Brown, the software architect for the Major Open Data Collections (MODC) project says: "We have created an innovative laboratory information management system that seamlessly registers sample metadata and TIMA-derived mineralogy data outputs, and delivers it to the AuScope Discovery Portal, where it can be openly accessed by anyone interested."

While project funding is currently limited to producing a "pathfinder" dataset of 150 WA localities by June 2015, the JdLC team are hoping to build a nationwide collaboration capable of producing mineral data from key basement lithologies, such that it will create a virtual heavy mineral map of Australia.

 Automated Mineralogy at Curtin University
(Left to right) Elaine Miller, deputy manager of the JdLC Microscopy and Microanalysis Facility and Adam Brown, JdLC software engineer for the Open Access Mineral Map project, undergoing TIMA training with Dr Kamran Khajehpour from AXT.


Government of Western Australia, Department of Mines and Petroleum

Geoscience Australia


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