The declining fortunes
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.
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.
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
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
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.
The project will both
expand the knowledge base of the GSWA and will make these
samples discoverable and available by academic, government and
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
The technology that the
team will use to characterise the samples is called automated
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
"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
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
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.
|(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