Critical minerals

Listen to our podcast on critical minerals, also known as new economy minerals.

Meet our guests

Matthew Greenwood, Janelle Simpson


Host: I acknowledge Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this country and recognise the connection to land, sea and community. I pay my respects to them, their cultures and to their elders past, present and emerging. Like many of us, I'm interested in how we can transition to a more sustainable future that harnesses renewable technologies. But I understand there's an important role in Queensland mining. To work towards this, we need new economy minerals such as cobalt for battery storage, rare earth elements to make solar panels, electric vehicles, smartphones and laptops, and a lot of minerals to make wind turbines. The reality is we need mining to do this. Material sourced from mining maintain the very lifestyles we live today. And supply is driven by the everyday demand of people like you and me, scaled up to a global level. Mining is part of the supply chain. But is this balanced perspective widely understood?

Hi, I'm Rachell Hansen and welcome to On the Ground a podcast brought to you by the Department of Resources that unearths, the rich stories of our people showcasing how the work we do drive sustainable prosperity for Queensland.

To mine minerals. First, you have to find them. First up, we're going to talk to 2 geophysicists who are trying to find out what's deep below the ground.

Matthew/Janelle: I'm Matthew Greenwood. My name's Janelle Simpson.

Matthew: A geophysicist is a geoscientist that looks at properties of the Earth like magnetics or gravity to understand both the surface and the sub-surface of the earth.

Host: So what's the difference between base metals and new economy minerals?

Janelle: Base metals is what we've traditionally mined in Queensland. So talking things like lead and sink silver, copper, all sorts of good things, like copper and gold, is still needed. But lots of weirder elements that live in the strange parts of the periodic table are also what we're interested in for new economy minerals.

Matthew: Some of these things that might have been explored for, like our base metals, like copper, lead, zinc that we've been exploring for years. Well, there might be new things that maybe we've we've seen around, but they've never had a value, um copper, copper often deals with cobalt – cobalt, is something that people haven't really focused on. But now, with a lot of batteries and a lot of new new technologies. It's become a more important minerals, and we know that lithium in terms of battery minerals, vanadium. So lots of different minerals that occur that haven't been explored for traditionally that are going to enable these changes in our global economy.

Host: What are some technologies were using to find stuff?

Matthew: So to find a lot of these new economy minerals we're doing a lot of some of the similar sort of work will be done in the past. So a lot of those large geophysical and geochemical surveys to understand that. But a lot of the time as well we're looking through older data. We have data in our warehouse that we know has high values of cobalt high values of graphite. There was a mapped sequence just north of Mt. Isa that was mapped as graphitic back when they did the exploration graphite and when when an explosion company saw that and they went up there and they looked at it, there was a world class graphite deposit sitting there back when it was mapped. Originally, it wasn't. It wasn't important. No one no one cared about. No one needed graphite. Now graphite is such an important mineral for for these new technologies.

So I think a lot of the work we're doing is looking back through a lot of that data and providing that data out in more consumable forms.

Host: So, Matthew, you said geophysical and geochemical surveys. What does that actually involve?

Matthew: A lot of problems we have in North Queensland and really the whole of Australia is that there's this veneer of cover over the top of the surface of the rocks that we’re really interested in. So the that might be a couple of metres or it might be a couple of 100 metres, but we really can't see through that. When we're mapping on the ground that women use geophysical techniques, we can sort of see through that cover and understand what's below those things.

Janelle: This whole suite of tools used to try and understand what's going on. We select the right tool for the right question. So if we're thinking about how do we understand the chemistry of a rock and bring it back into the lab, and then we might cut into really thin slices so we can look at it through a microscope and then we might grind some of it into a powder and send it off to a laboratory for analysis. Queensland University of Technology has got some great tools for analysis that allows us to shoot lasers at these rocks and low bits of them up. And then we can learn how old they might be.

Host: When most people picture a geoscientist, they think of a male rock doctor that wears long socks. Is this an accurate perception?

Janelle: I love those socks. I think they're great. And what you might not understand is that when you're swinging a sledgehammer at rocks, rock chips will fly off. So the protective socks look right. Haha.

Matthew: I think if you were asking this question 30 or 40 years ago, you would have been pretty spot on. But I think as as this science is developing, we're getting I don't want to say geoscience is diverse. But it's getting much more diverse.

Janelle: Which is always good because you get better diversity of views that way.

More of what we do these days is computer-based studies, so we still need to go out into the field and collect rocks or collect data. But a lot of our work can be done behind a computer with geoscience information systems. So mapping satellite imagery or other sorts of data sets that we've got access to.

Host: You're out on the road in the country. Occasionally, can you tell us about some memorable moments on the ground?

Janelle: The thing that always sticks with me is just the real marriage beauty that lives out in the western Queensland, in the landscapes and in the people out there. I’m out here in western Queensland today visiting one of my MD crews. So, these guys are out to the northwest of Cloncurry, collecting a geophysical survey designed to help us understand what's going on in the ground beneath our feet. As far as I can see, there's nothing but tussocky yellow grass, skies bright blue, and it looks like it would be beautifully warm. But there's a biting gale wind today, which has taken the shine of things. Picked up some equipment this morning, the crew’s currently digging some trenches and some holes to bury the equipment at this site, and we'll leave it out here until tomorrow at least, and record all the data for the site overnight. We use a petrol or to drill in the vertical coil. We bury essentially a tube that's about 10 centimetres in diameter, and a metre long. We bury that guy vertically in the ground. There’s two horizontal ones as well. Involved deployment takes a lot of attention to detail, and we've got really good crew out here at the moment. It's always good to get out here and see what's correct here to make sure that all our procedures are being followed.

But also make sure that we understand what they're doing and what challenges they face after during the survey so we can support them better.

Matthew: It is quite a remote area that we do get out and do a lot of exploration, and I think a lot of time we’re out there sometimes the first, first experience that landholders and people have with the exploration industry.

Host: So Janelle. Why do you do what you do?

Janelle: Essentially because it's fascinating. I'm not sure if you've heard the phrase born too late to explore the world and too early to explore the galaxy. A lot of what we know about the Earth is already established. We know where the continents are. We know where the seas are. There some mysteries living in the deep sea. But if we can't understand what's going on in the deep sea, can you imagine trying to understand what's going on beneath a kilometre of rock? The continents that we live on seem very stationary. Um, and they are in our lifetimes, obviously. But over geological time they've gone through huge amounts of movement and they've crashed into continents and they've ripped themselves apart as they move around the globe.

Matthew: I really enjoy this. Being able to create this understanding about what happens at the surface of the Earth, but also what's happening in 60, 70 you know 100 kilometres below the surface.

Host: Why is it important to have this role on the ground?

Matthew: The exploration industry does amazing work, but they really focused on quite a small area compared to the size of the state or even a region. And just understanding that postage stamp scale doesn't help them understand the broader context of what they're doing. So where we sit and where other agencies like us Geoscience Australia as well sit, is to enable that broader regional scale understanding of the geology of the physical properties of the magnetics.

So when they do their own work. They can understand where they sit in relation to those larger features and then understand the context of their data.

Janelle: While there's lots of things we can do in the office, um, with desktop studies or with collaborative arrangements or analysis at the end of the day, the rocks that were interested in out in western Queensland. So we really have to go out and look at them to understand them.

Host: So, what is it we're looking for, Tony Knight and Helen Degeling tell us about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how this has sparked the hunt for a new class of minerals. Tony, can you first explain what the term fourth industrial revolution means in a nutshell?

Tony: Sure, look, the fourth Industrial Revolution is one of 3 major transformations society is going through at the moment. In industry, what we're seeing is really the physical world in a digital world are coming together like never before. That's resulting in the rapid development and deployment of new technologies, mobile phones and many, many other things that we use. In energy, we're moving from a time of combustion as our source of energy, into more and more use of capture and storage of energy, through solar panels, windmills, that sort of thing. And batteries, of course. And in sustainability there's a global move towards the circular economy where we've got to make the most of the resources we have, but also driving us to look more thoroughly. What's been left behind from the first phase of mining too.

Helen: In the future, things like solar panels and electric vehicles. Um, and just our use of technology and our hunger for green energy solutions are becoming more and more important and more widely used. But that then puts a new demand on resources that we may not have mined previously.

And these these strange metals and things that make up those different technologies, metals and elements, minerals that go into make up just a small smartphone is huge. Some of them are things that we we know well, like copper and gold, Aluminium, that kind of thing. But then others, like indium and then the rare earths, neodymium and Praseodymium are they're not conventional. We don't know a lot about them. We're learning, but they are the sort of thing that we need to put more effort into findings so that in years to come we are well placed with supply. There's often about a 10, 10 years or more between that first exploration effort and actual discovery and production. And for these metals, the future demand is predicted to be far more than our current supply.

Host: Can you explain what the fourth Industrial Revolution looks like for the mining sector?

Tony: People always talk about things like drones and AI and machine learning all those things. I'm sure they are part of it, but really, we're seeing broad scale digitalisation. Having the data available makes the life of our resource sector explorers and developers and operators much better, more efficient and less impactful.

People haven't found new resources in a long time. So our goal is to try and do various geoscience activities to help explorers in the region find the next big deposit.

Host: We've all heard the expression you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink. In this context, we can provide all this data to industry. But how can we get them to invest in the sector?

Helen: Well, that is a that is a big question with a lot of these commodities because they are fairly unusual. The price of those metals fluctuates a lot and there's a lot of uncertainty in those markets that are a lot of the time. They're very political.

It's a lot more complicated than just finding the stuff and digging it up in terms of engaging industry and developing mineral resource companies to want to explore and want to extract these minerals. This is whether the government can step in to help in funding exploration programmes so we can create markets for our resources to then sell to those overseas customers. And one of those, of course, is also in Europe with the big electric vehicle makers in Europe who are looking for ethically sourced materials to make their green cars by selling them into that market. They are part of a far more green process in producing those vehicles than materials that might have been sourced from elsewhere.

Host: Is there potential for some abandoned mines to be reopened and if so, what are the benefits of this?

Helen: Copper mines, for example, in the northwest Minerals Province, they will mine for copper, whereas they often actually have a high concentration of cobalt or lithium ion batteries that make up electric vehicles and all that sort of thing we are discovering, I guess the extent to which these copper mines have associated cobalt and we have a big study run through the University of Queensland sampling various sites around Queensland to ascertain how how much missed value there is in those tailings and waste dumps.

Tony: We're seeing a lot of interest out of, for example, Japan. And they're interested in some of the old mine sites that we have in Queensland. Ah looking, going back through those sites to try and scour and recover what's left behind. That's a great story because it talks to economic rehabilitation of sites. So those old sites move from being a legacy problem into a source opportunity.

Helen: But it also alleviates some of the environmental legacy for those sites.

Host: Is there anything else you'd like to leave the audience with today?

Tony: There's a lot. Where to start and where to start.

Helen: I guess the biggest messages stay tuned because the new Economy Minerals Initiative it is it is really exciting. It is very, kind of new, frontier style of geology and geoscience continuously evolve over the next little while.

Tony: Diversifying our sector and it's contributing to that new energy future.

Host: Thanks, Tony, Helen Janelle and Matthew. That concludes this episode where we've learned about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what this means for mining in Queensland. We've learned about the work that's happening in the department to map mineral deposits, expand our data as a resource and provide value to industry. If you enjoyed the episode, be sure to leave us a review and help us grow our audience by inviting your friends and colleagues to subscribe to on the ground on your favourite podcast platform. Find us on Apple podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Deezer. Each podcast episode is produced for educational purposes only. The views, information or opinions expressed during the podcast are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of the Queensland government.

Last reviewed 30 November 2022

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