Gold boom for the west

Min­ing ex­plo­ration arms race pre­dicted for Dia­mantina area

Warwick Daily News - South West Queensland Rural Weekly - - News - Jacinda Tutty news@ru­ral­weekly.com.au

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.”

NEXT STEP?

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

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