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Australia's prestigious mining history

09 February, 2006

Constant innovation keeps Australia at the forefront of the mining and minerals industry, in new mining technologies, products, software and systems, as well as environmental and social safety standards, according to Austmine.


Australia has been a power in the global minerals industry for more than a century. New methods of mining and mineral beneficiation originate in this country at an ever-increasing rate. The quality of the technology and the cost effectiveness of the systems and procedures developed by our mining industry are a function of the tough working conditions in which they are bred.

In Australia, mining and mineral processing have been important influences in the economic development of the nation for almost 200 years. Today, Australian miners and their suppliers of equipment, technology and services have made Australia the biggest producer in the world of bauxite, alumina, lead and mineral sands. It is also the world’s largest exporter of black coal, bauxite, alumina, diamonds and mineral sands and is a substantial exporter of iron ore, aluminium, lead, zinc, copper, uranium yellowcake and gold.

The Australian mining industry has built a reputation for the practicality and efficiency which it can transfer to the world mining scene. Australian mining equipment, technology and services are found in all parts of the world especially where the environment and mineralisation require world-best solutions to allow mining operations to be undertaken in a sustainable, profitable fashion that satisfies all community standards. Australian products have a long-term, well deserved reputation as world-leading examples of the best in global mining products.

The Australian Government and Industry report ‘Mining Technology Services: Australia Leading the World’ anticipates that Australia’s mining supply sector can achieve exports of $A6bn by 2010, under the right conditions.

Austmine, Australia’s Mining Equipment, Technology and Services Export Association, has long been synonymous with the best of Australia’s mining industry goods and services sector. Austmine companies lead the way in providing innovative solutions that make effective contributions to the development and successful operations of most of the leading mining projects around the globe.

Australia’s well-deserved reputation for providing world-best solutions is embodied in the policies and practices of all Austmine members, as this reputation underscores their capabilities to survive and grow in the increasingly competitive global mining market.

The Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE) reports that, in 2002/3, Australian mining and mineral processing (excluding petroleum) accounted for A$43.9bn in exports of minerals and metals, representing 30% of Australia’s total exports of goods and services, and A$648m in exploration expenditure. In March 2005, ABARE forecast that the total value of minerals and energy exports from Australia will be A$82.6bn in 2005/6, up 22% on the previous year.

Mining technology and services

Australia has developed world-leading capabilities in the mining technology services (MTS) sector. This sector provides technology-based goods and services in mineral exploration, production and processing, contributing to the sustainable development of Australia’s mineral resources. It is currently seen as a global leader in several specialist areas, such as software applications for the mining and minerals industries.

In 2003/4, the MTS sector is estimated to have employed 16,800 full time equivalent employees. Gross sales revenue was an estimated A$4.75bn, with gross export sales revenue estimated at A$1.1bn.

Australia’s diverse and harsh environment and its vast distances have driven its development of world leading innovation. So inaccessible are most of Australia’s natural resources that entire towns have had to be created in remote regions, set down upon landscapes that have remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Through necessity born of its isolation, Australia has developed and perfected the technology needed to cope with the toughest of conditions, together with the capability to establish and maintain fast, reliable transport systems and extensive communications networks that provide essential services to even the most far-flung outposts.

Exploration and data interpretation. The days when intrepid prospectors merely stumbled upon rich finds are long over. Now, armed with the world’s most advanced technology, Australian geo-scientists provide accurate mineral target definitions, assessments, and evaluations. Remote sensing technology, combining satellite search with airborne and ground geophysics, allows rapid acquisition of digital exploration data. Areas of high prospectivity can be pinpointed and charted in detail using modern photo-grammetric techniques for geological mapping.

Through a wide range of geological formations, vastly improved reverse-circulation drilling techniques enable cost-efficient, high-volume recovery of uncontaminated samples. Automated core logging processes developed in Australia now allow rapid spectroscopic measurement of up to 1000 metres of core samples daily. Providing real-time visualisation in a multitude of data profiles, this invaluable technology can be used to create a virtual core laboratory for the world via the Internet.

Methods of laboratory testing of sample material have also been enhanced. Nuclear physics now plays a big part in assisting Australian geochemists in providing prompt mineral assays through recent developments in x-ray fluorescence and gamma absorption techniques.

Over difficult terrain, such as in Chile, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, India and Pakistan, Australia’s sophisticated yet user-friendly remote sensing technology, together with the most advanced exploration equipment and resource estimation software, now gives geologists powerful tools with which to locate valuable new mineral resource deposits.

Project development and management. Once viability of a project has been determined, the method of mine development becomes a critical decision – should it be open-cut, underground or both?

Consultants working for Austmine member companies, with many years of experience behind them, have the cost-effective solutions to these questions and more. The economic modelling of every project is structured to generate the highest rate of return based on cost constraints, estimated ore reserves and world market values, along with safety, social and environmental impact considerations.

Comprehensive technical skills and services are brought together to coordinate and streamline mine development, plant construction, and the provision of facilities for the transportation and handling of bulk commodities.

Even when it comes to establishing and sustaining a large workforce in remote mining regions, Australian ingenuity provides the answer with pre-fabricated housing for people and equipment, built specifically to suit local conditions anywhere in the world.

Mining software. Specialised computer software developed in Australia has changed the face of the global mining industry. Worldwide, Australia is recognised as the leading innovator, developer and supplier of software systems and equipment that manage the technical and commercial issues of mine planning, design, operation and maintenance. Mine plan drafting, structural interpretation, 3D ore body visualisation, open-pit planning, ventilation and dragline simulation, and production scheduling can all be done on computer screens before one hole is dug. At the touch of a key, an operator can call up data on grinding and screening needs, equipment management, laboratory management and analysis, ground and airborne surveys, hazard assessment, seabed profiling, human resources, or even air pollutant dispersion modelling.

Australian consultants use state-of-the-art technology to provide aerial photography, photogrammetric mapping and digital terrain models as tools for exploration, mine design and measurement. Powerful data validation, processing and modelling tools allow users to convert raw geophysical and geological data into relevant in formation for interpretation. From exploration, resource estimation and mine planning to mine production management, Australia’s mining software suppliers are able to offer an integrated system of products and services for any stage of a mining project.

Mine safety. For as long as men have ventured into the earth’s deepest recesses, they’ve had to live with the ever present dangers associated with mining.

Nowadays, however, through continual research and development, Australia has pioneered and perfected important controls crucial for safeguarding workers and maintaining production at peak capacity. These include the use of strategically placed sensors to detect and monitor ground movement in areas of instability, for effective management of strata control.

Australia’s varied mineral geological structures have required a broad range of strata reinforcement systems to provide the highest possible safety and operating conditions to permit sustainable, profitable mining and specialised civil engineering projects in all conditions.

From an anchoring medium for rockbolts and long tendons that provide roof and sidewall support in mines and tunnels, to cable bolting and grouting to stabilise rock structures, Australian companies have developed an innovative range of products and systems for strata reinforcement that can provide tailored solutions across a broad range of strata conditions anywhere in the world.

Training simulators

Showcasing the limitless potential afforded by the highly sophisticated world of virtual reality, Australian-developed simulators are being used by major equipment manufacturers and mining companies around the world to provide completely safe and extremely advanced training for operators of large mobile plant and equipment.

Requiring only point-and-click computer skills to configure for different environments, training programs can be easily customised for specific sites, enabling operators to become orientated with their own work environment. Australian simulators can be used to eliminate the hazards and much of the expense of on-site training – especially for emergency situations, which would be too dangerous, difficult and costly to conduct on an actual site.

Australian exploration innovation

An outstanding example of world-leading Australian mining and exploration technology is the long-term, national initiative to enable the discovery of the next generation of giant ore deposits in Australia.

Led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), it is being achieved by building upon and applying the successful outcomes of three mining-related Australian Cooperative Research Centres.

It involves the development of geological concepts that deliver validated area selection criteria to the industry, the creation of innovative technologies to recognise ore-bearing systems and locate ore deposits, and the specialised means for exploration within and through the Australian regolith to an approximate depth of around one kilometre.

Research and development

Australia’s commitment to research and development in the mining and processing areas is one of the industry’s key strengths. Australia has always been at the forefront of new mining developments. For a century, it has contributed many of the major breakthroughs in exploration, mining and process research. The reputation of Australian research groups provides them with a constant flow of offshore contracts.

One reason that Australian mining and processing R&D continues to thrive is that the industry operates on a highly cooperative basis. It uses national programmes coordinated by a central group called the Australian Mining Industry Research Association (AMIRA) to ensure the efficient channeling of R&D on exploration, mining, processing and environmental issues. A number of Austmine members are research contractors, working with a large range of technical institutes and universities undertaking contract research for AMIRA and individual firms.

Examples of R&D breakthroughs by Australian researchers have been:

the development of unmanned machinery for coal mining in highwall and dangerous environments;
realtime downhole analysis of metals and minerals in both exploration and chargehole drilling;
mineralogical investigations using QEM/SEM systems for ore characterisation, process definition and liberation studies; and
recontouring and revegetation of mined-out sites and re-establishment of native species.
In Australia, there are major concentrations of mineral research facilities in southern and central areas of the state of Queensland, north and south of Sydney and in the Perth-Kalgoorlie area of Western Australia.

Impact management. Resource projects in most parts of the world will not attract the funding necessary for development unless demonstrably sustainable. Early attention to community and social impacts, environ-mental management programs (including acid mine drainage), rehabilitation and mine closure planning are, in this day and age, as fundamentally important to a resource project as the quality of the ore mineralisation and the suitability of processing technologies.

Australia’s continual commitment to protect the environment has produced internationally-awarded rehabilitation and remediation programmes.

The ecological strategies and successes, which are now being studied and implemented by many nations, are the result of cooperative partnerships between Australia’s environmental management agencies and some of the country’s most responsible and foremost mining giants.

Australian mining technology companies play an important role in the provision of ecologically sound and proven processing methods, which recycle and conserve precious resources. Through both active participation and consultancy services, Austmine member companies provide effective environmental management based on world-best practice policies that have established many of the guidelines for today’s strict global standards.

Environmental standards. Australian mining companies are at the forefront of environmental assessment and management, and in the technologies associated with occupational health and safety. Much of the R&D activity associated with new mining operations is directed towards ensuring that the mine sites adhere to best environmental practices and that the workforce and surrounding communities are fully involved in the process.

Australian rehabilitation practice in industries which use large areas of land is the best in the world, as evidenced by the fact that many former mine sites are now included in national park areas leaving very little evidence of their previous use. The fact that Australian miners today successfully address these issues, yet continue to produce at costs well below world averages, is evidence of how successful they have been.

Training services. No matter how advanced the technology, it is still people who provide the key element for success – but without professional training, the full potential of many projects may never be realised. The Australian mining industry is successful because of the high quality of its technicians, scientists, engineers and managers. Through specially-designed training programmes, both at home and overseas, clients can take full advantage of Australian expertise.

Processing and control. In remote locations, where bulk transportation of mined materials is cost prohibitive, the capability to process the ores on-site can be the determining factor in the viability of a project. Because of varying geological conditions from one site to the next, processing plants need to suit the individual requirements of each mine.

The Australian experience has led to the development of processing equipment and techniques that are second to none. Today, Australia is the major world supplier of gravity and electrostatic separation equipment, and a world leader in the cost-effective gold recovery processes of carbon-in-pulp and carbon-in-leach.

High returns from low yielding ores are also being obtained through environmentally-sound bio-leaching technology. Using naturally occurring bacterial culture to oxidise precious and base metals, recovery can be increased to more than 90% by pre-treating concentrates prior to conventional metals recovery methods.

Australian companies are at the forefront in the treatment of refractory gold ores, base metal sulphide concentrates and laterite ores. By ultra-fine grinding, heap and pressure leaching, or solvent extraction techniques, innovation in processing has led to the profitable development of ore bodies that were previously uneconomic.

Both in electrorefining and electrowinning applications, the world-leading Australian process that delivers precision in cathode alignment and automation is a dominant technology being utilised across six continents. The ISA process now accounts for more than one third of world copper production.

Australian systems and equipment that redefine established benchmarks for superior processing are also realising higher efficiencies, improved availability and greater returns for coal beneficiation.

Modern process plants now consist of about one third the number of equipment items that comprise traditional, equivalent installations, bringing about a minimisation of capital expenditure and operating costs. In any operation, in order to attain optimum recovery, it is crucial that every stage of any extraction process be accurately controlled and monitored. This, in turn, adds to good environmental management.

‘In-stream’ analysis systems provide continuous assay information for the measurement and control of materials, both in wet and dry states of concentration and refinement. These systems, which output data in graphical or numerical forms, can be integrated with plant control equipment to meet the needs of metallurgists and plant operators alike.

Constantly setting new standards in the minerals industry, Australia has also revolutionised smelting technology. By delivering fuel, oxygen and air below the slag surface, the patented Submerged Lance system creates highly turbulent agitation. This volatility generates very rapid reaction with feed material to smelt 10 to 50 times faster than conventional methods.

Higher levels of recovery also mean that previously difficult or sub-economic ores and minerals can now be effectively smelted through an environmentally acceptable technique that answers the global demand for cost-effective processing.

Manufacturing and supply. In an industry where excessive wear and tear erodes a high percentage of company profits, the need for optimum equipment efficiency is of paramount importance.

Using computerised and automated fabrication methods, Austmine suppliers manufacture a wide range of robust parts and equipment that are all designed and precision engineered to withstand the rugged demands of the mining industry.

Tough new alloys developed in Australia have significantly increased the durability of plant and equipment. Up to twice the wear life of conventional metals has been attained in components specially built to withstand the corrosive effects of abrasive slurries and caustic solutions.

Remarkable improvements in mineral processing have also been achieved with complete systems that occupy one tenth the space of comparable conventional installations. Because of their reduced size, units that act either as thickeners or clarifiers provide almost immediate response to control action due to the reduced retention of the materials being processed.

Constantly exploring and conquering new frontiers, Australia’s advanced technological and mechanical capabilities have led to the development and construction of the world’s first conveying and bolting module for underground coal production.

Coal processing has also been made more streamlined and profitable with the fabrication of vastly improved centrifuges on which all mechanical parts are located on the outside. For the processing of either coarse or fine coal, this new generation of equipment has brought about much higher handling capacity with reduced energy consumption to achieve long-term cost savings.

In environments where conditions may pose a danger to human life, remote controlled machines can significantly reduce that risk. They provide the capability of pushing machines to greater limits of productivity – without ever compromising the operator’s safety.

Engineering and construction. There is no engineering or construction task beyond reach of Australia’s proven capability. Across the Australian continent, and in remote and harsh environments around the world, endless kilometres of concrete and steel convey the story of just how far Australian technology has developed. Towering peaks of hard-won mountains of ore symbolise the pinnacle that the Australian industry has reached.

Constant innovation

Constant innovation keeps Australia at the forefront of the mining industry. In every field of manufacture and supply, Australian quality and reliability not only equals the best in the world, but in most cases, exceeds the highest standards.

Across mountains and plains, aboard the mechanised muscle of the world’s largest locomotives, the wealth that’s been won opens up new frontiers as testimony to the proud achievements of resourceful Australians sharing their innovation strengths in mining technology services with the world.