Untapped: Australia ‘underexplored’ despite rich endowment

In 2022, Australia spent more than $4 billion on mineral exploration, which is a 13% increase from 2021.

Critically, in decade to 2021 Australia accounted for 18% of all discoveries and since 2015 the country generated the greatest return on investment in the world achieving better ‘bang-per-buck’ than their foreign counterparts.

Included in the total 2022 spend was exploration for battery and critical metals such as lithium and rare earth elements (REEs), which increased by 66% to $483 million, according to the latest ‘Australian Critical Minerals Prospectus’.

Until recently, most Australian mineral discoveries were either exposed at surface or had some form of surface expression that could easily be detected by geological, geochemical, or geophysical exploration methods.

However, as the most recent ‘Australian Critical Minerals Prospectus’  highlights, there is absolutely no reason to suppose that resources will only be found near the surface. With most of the continent still underexplored there are many potential resources yet to be undiscovered.

Australia’s federal, state, and territory geological surveys provide ‘world-leading’ precompetitive geoscience to accelerate new mineral discovery and development.

As per the prospectus, Geoscience Australia’s $225 million Exploring for the Future program is the country’s premier investment in precompetitive geoscience aimed at progressing ‘world-class’, Australia-wide, geological, geochemical, and geophysical data coverages.

From these coverages, a national inventory of resource potential is emerging and informing regional projects, where government geoscience is further reducing risks for explorers.

Biggest ‘bang-per-buck’

Since 2015, Australia’s share of global exploration expenditure has risen 10% to 18%. The prospectus notes that over the same period the country generated the greatest return on investment in the world.

In terms of performance, as mentioned Australian companies exploring in-country achieved a ‘bang-per-buck’ (value-to-cost ratio) of 1.63 versus only 1.02 for foreign companies, suggesting a very strong ‘hometown’ advantage for local players.

Surprisingly, Australian companies also performed well exploring overseas with a ‘bang-per-buck’ of 1.56. Value-to-cost ratio or ‘bang-per-buck’ refers to the value generated per every dollar spent, and whether it created (rather than destroyed) value.

between the period 2012 and 2021 Australia accounted for 18% of all discoveries by number

What’s worth reiterating is that between the period 2012 and 2021 Australia accounted for 18% of all discoveries by number.

As the prospectus notes, precompetitive geoscience has been vital to supporting this value creation, underpinning three quarters of the 8 world-class discoveries made in Australia since 2017.

Australia’s geological surveys collaborate as to support the development of the minerals sector.

The ‘Australia minerals team’ provides coordinated and strategic actions to, among others, highlight investment opportunities; explain the nation’s competitive advantages; promote precompetitive data; provide unrivalled expertise about Australia’s geology, resource potential, mining regulations, and exploration and development initiatives in the country.

Critical mineral discovery potential

Critical mineral deposits are the consequence of Earth processes that concentrate elements, termed mineral systems. A mineral of interest can be concentrated in a number of different systems and accompanied by other commodities.

The ‘Australian Critical Minerals Prospectus’  sheds light on some of the particularly notable mineral systems across the country with the potential to supply critical minerals.

Felsic igneous-related rare earth elements (REEs), lithium, tungsten, niobium, tantalum, beryllium, and bismuth occur in known deposits and have potential for additional discovery across Australia.

Interestingly, Hamelin Gold (ASX:HMG) is using bismuth as a potential pathfinder for gold as it advances its West Tanami Project in Western Australia.

Australian Critical Minerals (ASX:ACM) is an example of one junior explorer with exposure to a raft of minerals and is developing a portfolio in Western Australia prospective for gold, lithium, and REEs in a bid to play a pivotal role in delivering minerals needed for a clean energy future.

Lodestar (ASX:LSR) has a focus in both the base and precious metals markets. The company last month as began a review of all drilling, geochemical, and geophysical data gathered from its Earaheedy Project in Western Australia after completing a maiden diamond core drilling program. 

Tungsten is incredibly critical to green technology and Group 6 Metals (ASX:G6M) is one of a few developing such a project with the Dolphin Tungsten Mine based on King Island. The mine recently achieved a new daily ore processing record, more than 1,000 tonnes of high-grade ore over 24 hours, marking a steady climb towards its nameplate production capacity. This equates to an hourly throughput of 44tph or 73% of the design nameplate capacity.

Group 6’s Bold Head Tungsten deposit is also planning to be developed as a satellite mine to the larger Dolphin mine, supplying the existing processing plant. The Bold Head mining lease has been granted, Full Feasibility Studies are underway and EPA Tasmania referral is targeted for the H2 2024. Offtake agreements are in place with Wolfram Bergbau und Hutten and Traxys for 65% of the first 4 years production.

While there’s a myriad of companies in the rare earths space, companies of note include ABx Group (ASX:ABX), as well as Aruma Resources (ASX:AAJ), which also has exposure to gold and lithium.

OD6 (ASX:OD6) has also identified clay hosted rare earths at its 100% owned Splinter Rock and Grass Patch projects located in the Esperance-Goldfields region of Western Australia. 

Precompetitive geoscience contribution

According to the ‘Australian Critical Minerals Prospectus’  mafic-ultramafic-related platinum group elements, chromium, and cobalt resources often occur together with nickel and copper in mafic-ultramafic igneous complexes. Precompetitive geoscience contributed to large discoveries such as the Julimar PGE-Ni-Cu-Au-Co deposit near Perth in Western Australia.

Australian sedimentary basins host critical and strategic minerals such as magnesium, manganese, nickel, and vanadium. Of these, manganese, magnesium, and nickel are currently mined in the country.

Advanced exploration projects have identified significant resources of magnesite (source of magnesium) and vanadium (plus nickel and molybdenum).

Manganese explorer and developer Black Canyon (ASX:BCA) listed in 2021 and has the largest manganese deposit in Western Australia and second largest in Australia, in the ‘underexplored’ Balfour Manganese Field.

Newly merged entities Australian Vanadium (ASX:AVL) and Technology Metals Australia are on track to become the first primary producer of vanadium in Australia. With a BFS released April 2022, extensive pilot testwork completed and mining lease granted, the Australian Vanadium Project is one the most advanced vanadium projects in the world.

Since merging with Technology Metals, the company now owns the Murchison Technology Metals Project (MTMP) – one of the world’s highest grade primary vanadium projects, with feasibility studies confirming it will be a large-scale, low-cost, high-quality vanadium producer.

Focused on nickel are exploration companies Western Mines Group (ASX:WMG) and Great Western Exploration (GTE:ASX), the latter of which has exposure to other commodities. While in late 2023 Helix Resources (ASX:HLX) subsidiary Ionick Metals executed an option agreement with Alchemy Resources (ASX:ALY) to acquire Alchemy’s 80% JV interest in the West Lynn nickel laterite project in New South Wales. 

Moreover, the prospectus notes metamorphosed basins are also known to contain significant graphite resources. Scandium and rhenium resources are known in other geological environments.

Scratching beyond the surface

Australia’s near surface is emerging as an important search space for critical minerals. New discoveries of heavy mineral sand provinces in Australia, such as the Murray Basin, attest to the potential of the continent for further delineation of major resources, which host zirconium, titanium, and rare earth elements.

The country’s salt lakes have low potential for magnesium and lithium, but they have high potential for potash, which is now being produced in WA. Clay-hosted rare earth element deposits are also an emerging deposit style in Australia, with the potential to host large volumes of heavy rare earth elements.

ABx is progressing a project with ionic adsorption clay rare earths resources in Tasmania.

High purity alumina (HPA) is aluminium oxide with very low levels of impurities, which can be produced primarily from kaolin clay or processed bauxite. Impact Minerals (ASX:IPT), for example, has exposure to HPA among other minerals and metals. Interestingly, Metro Mining (ASX:MMI) is the only pure-play bauxite miner on the ASX.

Silicon for high-tech applications is produced from high-purity quartz (HPQ) with a purity greater than 99% silica. HPQ occurs through a variety of natural processes and a broad range of geological mineral systems, such as hydrothermal veins, gravels, and quartz-rich granites.

Metallica Car

Metallica Minerals (ASX:MLM) is one such company developing a silica sands project in Australia. The company will meet with ‘prospective customers’ in Asia amid a growing interest in ‘high purity’ silica sand from its Cape Flattery Project in North Queensland.  

The visit follows the company in September 2023 supplying prospective customers with product from bulk metallurgical tests at Cape Flattery. Early stage offtake discussions are ongoing as the company continues to develop an understanding of key drivers of the growing Asia Pacific seaborne silica sand market.

Australia also has untapped resources of lesser known minerals.

Antimony, indium, gallium, and germanium are primarily byproducts of the refining of major commodities, including gold, zinc, lead, copper, aluminium, and nickel. Australia holds significant resources of these major commodities and as the prospectus notes, there is potential for new or increased production of these minerals.

Write to Adam Orlando at Mining.com.au

Images: Supplied & Australian government
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Written By Adam Orlando
Mining.com.au Editor-in-Chief Adam Orlando has more than 20 years’ experience in the media having held senior roles at various publications, including as Asia-Pacific Sector Head (Mining) at global newswire Acuris (formerly Mergermarket). Orlando has worked in newsrooms around the world including Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and Sydney.