Gold boom for the west
Mining exploration arms race predicted for Diamantina area
TUCKED away in the Queensland outback, trillions of dollars lies buried beneath the ground.
A veritable gold mine of minerals essential for the future of the world’s entire technology industry lies untouched, in rare geological pipes in a remote band of terrain running from western Queensland up to the Northern Territory border.
It’s been called the Diamantina minerals province and could be the largest gold rush of its kind. Better yet, the trillion-dollar discovery is right in our backyard.
The State Government is beginning to marshal what is sure to become an arms race between mining exploration companies eager to strike gold.
Should early discoveries of traces of minerals such as platinum, scandium and gold prove true, Queensland’s mines and resources minister Dr Anthony Lynham said it could unlock billions for the state economy and thousands of new jobs.
“This may be a whole new gold rush for Queensland,” Dr Lynham said.
“While it is very early days, the potential this could present to the Queensland economy is very exciting. The discovery offers the opportunity for development of a new industry in a remote part of the state, with obvious potential for employment creation and regional development.
“If found in significant quantities, the minerals we believe are there could represent an entire new revenue stream for Queensland through newly established export markets.”
The potential lies in the discovery of a treasure trove of rare geological pipe structures south-west of Mount Isa, thought to be up to 6km in diameter and laden with valuable minerals.
They are believed to be holding vast deposits of gold, silver, platinum and rare earth minerals used in modern technologies such as mobile phones, batteries and engines, as well as cobalt, nickel, copper, niobium, hafnium, zirconium, tantalum and diamonds.
These minerals are essential for future technologies but supply is running low as the world’s lust for electronics grows.
China and Russia control the majority of the world’s supply, creating cause for concern among global tech giants wary that the two powerful nations could halt trade or jack up prices as political tensions multiply.
University of Queensland Emeritus Professor Kenneth Collerson, who led the mission, said a discovery like this could be a “company maker” and unlock unlimited opportunities for Queensland’s regional towns suffering from the mining slowdown.
“This could be a very significant stimulus for the local economy,” Prof Collerson said.
“At the two ends (one in Northern New South Wales and the other at the Northern Territory border) there is commercialisation but there is huge potential along the whole length of the track for mineralisation.”
Although he warns the discovery is still in its early days, punters are already watching to see whether it could be the spark that triggers Australia’s next mining boom.
WHY A BIG DEAL?
It takes a lot of different minerals to make a modern-day smart device and many of them are in short supply.
Global lust for new technologies has fuelled an unsustainable demand for rare minerals and, to date, the primary source has been found in one country, China.
About 97% of the earth’s rare minerals come from China, which has become increasingly protective of its bounty.
Prof Collerson said China’s monopoly had restricted supply and driven up prices, raising costs for manufacturers of smart phones, new energy technologies, batteries and cars.
“Although most consumers will never think about what goes into their devices, the reality is that they can’t be built without them,” he said.
Every megawatt of electricity generated in a wind turbine needs 200kg of neodymium. For every five turbines, that’s one tonne.
Even the cars we drive rely on minerals. A Toyota Prius uses 9kg of rare earths in its battery alone. There are more than 30,000 on the road in Australia and it’s just one of many hybrid vehicles being sold today.
If renewable energy is going to play a big part in replacing fossil fuels, the world needs to secure an increased supply of rare minerals in the coming decades.
It’s what makes this latest discovery in Queensland such a prize.
“The Diamantina mineral province…opens potential for the state to establish a new frontier for mineral development … to become a leading supplier of valuable and strategic minerals,” Dr Lynham said.
“Rare earths can be regarded as pivotal for the shift from a carbon-based economy to the new 21st century electron economy of the future.”
While the find is a boon for tech companies, it also comes at an opportune time for Queensland’s regions, which have been hit hard by the mining downturn and devastating drought.
Regional towns such as Mount Isa and Moranbah once enjoyed the abundant rivers of cash that flowed out of the resource-rich outback during the mining boom, but half a decade on, these very same towns have been left bleeding as almost 50,000 mining jobs vanished.
House prices in the once-thriving towns of the coal and iron ore heartland plummeted at an eye-watering pace, taking the fortunes of residents and mum and dad investors with them.
While other states drone on about housing affordability, those in former mining towns are left with mortgages that can be as much as triple the value of their homes.
Government representatives in regions such as Mount Isa, where youth unemployment sits at 28%, are keeping a close eye on this latest discovery, hoping it could be the answer to their prayers.
Mount Isa MP Robbie Katter says “jobs are the real prize out here”.
“We’re doing extremely tough,” he said. “This is a great find and we do have a powerhouse economy for the rest of our lifetime on our hands, but it won’t happen unless the government commits to building the infrastructure that enables industries.”
Discovering mineral-rich deposits is only the first step. For an industry to grow, a discovery then requires extensive searching and exploration, which comes from significant investment.
To kickstart mining in Diamantina, Prof Collerson said mining companies would need to fund further testing along the province and the State Government would need to make a commitment to return investment to the regions.
“We need to do more extensive field work along the track in some of the shallower areas north-west of Mount Mulligan and Lake Manchattie, where chemical sampling would be low impact and a cheap way of getting more information about what is happening in the depths of the earth’s crust,” he said.
“It’s pretty clear that there is something special going on in Queensland.”
It’s pretty clear that there is something special going on in Queensland. — Professor Kenneth Collerson
POSITIVE: The mineral discovery could help Queensland’s regional towns bounce back. PHOTO: JESSICA DOREY