The Australian Academy of Science is proposing the development of a new ‘downward-looking telescope' that could look at least 300km beneath the Earth's surface to unlock Australia's hidden mineral wealth.
The proposal is one of several in a ten-year plan for Australian Geoscience (2018-27) launched today by the Academy's National Committee for Earth Sciences.
The 10-year plan highlights how the world's shift towards mobile device technology, renewableenergy sources and electric cars will involve massiveincreases in demand for copper, cobalt, gold, rare-earth elements and other specialty metals.
The Committee's Chair, Professor Sue O'Reilly AM FAA, said one of the challenges for Australian geoscience in the coming decade is to ensure the right infrastructure is in place to know how and where to explore for the critical resources needed for Australia's future.
“This is where the downward-looking telescope comes in,” Professor O'Reilly said.
“A piece of infrastructure like this would transform our minerals sector by making deep Australia visible. It would give us a new understanding of the vertical makeup of the continent and allow us to direct our mineral exploration efforts in the two-thirds of Australia that aren't currently cost-effective to explore.”
“By 2030 global demandfor cobalt will be 47 times what it was in 2016so, unless we can become self-sufficient in thisstrategic metal, Australia may be held to ransom withmassive price increases and chronic shortages,” Professor O'Reilly said.
“This exemplifies the need to generate new geoscience knowledge that will allow us toexplore successfully in the covered areas of Australia.”
The plan also draws attention to the weakness in geoscience in Australia's education system.
“Geoscience is largely absent in Australia's school system because of a lack of teachers with qualifications in geoscience. Geoscience should be embedded as a core subject within every level of Australian STEM education and earth science graduates should be incentivised to obtain education qualifications,” Professor O'Reilly said.
The plan also calls for an expansion of Australia's national computational capability to ensure that Australia retains and extends its lead in geoscience simulation and modelling capability.
The National Committee for Earth Sciences acknowledges the support of the following organisations in the development of this plan: the Australian Research Council,Geoscience Australia, the University of Melbourne, the Universityof Queensland, Macquarie University and the Australian Geoscience Council.
Media note:Professor Sue O'Reilly is available for interview to discuss the plan and its key recommendations. It is being launched today (Monday 15 October) at the Australian Geosciences Council Convention in Adelaide. A copy of the plan is available for download via this link: https://we.tl/t-Vlqna5J1nC
Copper and cobalt – a case study
The relatively small size of renewable-energy electricitygenerators and their intermittency means we requireabout four times as much copper per unit of electricalenergy generated compared with a conventionalthermal-powered plant. There is a strong move to electriccars and so we will require much greater amounts ofelectricity. Overall, in the next 15 years we will need asmuch copper as we have ever used to date. Relativeto how much of it we use, copper is geologically oneof the scarcest industrial commodities and in the nextfew years we will be looking at an annual copper deficitalmost equal to our current global copper production.An electric car requires around 65 kg of copper andtypically about 10 kg of cobalt. Cobalt currently costsabout US$60 000 per tonne.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimates thatwithin two decades sixteen per cent of cars (that is 282million cars) will be electric, which equates to about 2.8million tonnes of cobalt. Set against a current globalannual production of cobalt of only about 100,000tonnes (Australia's annual production is around 6,400tonnes) it is clear that we will not be able to moveen masse to electric cars without an enormousincrease in our ability to find and produce cobalt.Furthermore, 63 per cent of the world's cobalt comesfrom the Democratic Republic of the Congo and theirmarket share is currently set to rise to 73 per cent by2025. BNEF estimates that by 2030 global demandfor cobalt will be 47 times the demand in 2016and so, unless we can become self-sufficient in thisstrategic metal, Australia will be held to ransom withmassive price increases and chronic shortages.