Scientist of the Year drills into mining breakthroughs

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By Belinda Willis

South Australia’s top scientist is hoping world-leading drill rig technology created in this state will generate millions of dollars for the local mineral exploration industry.

The RoXplorer rig was developed at the state’s renowned Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre (DET CRC) and is being hailed as a game-changer in cutting costs, time and improving safety.

Geologist and explorer Professor Richard Hillis says vast tracts of the continent contained potential undercover mineral deposits currently too difficult and expensive for geologists to pursue.

“What I’m hoping for is this new cheaper and safer drilling will spark a new wave of undercover exploration and discovery in SA and Australia,” he says.

The rig was developed under Professor Hillis’s leadership as chief executive of the CRC.

And it was this work, along with his extensive contribution to his field and in commercialising a range of world-leading technology that led to Professor Hillis being named the state’s Scientist of the Year on August 10.

The revolutionary new drill rig, the RoXplorer, has been labelled a “game-changer” for the mining sector.

The Scotsman first joined the University of Adelaide in 1992 and held positions that included Mawson Professor of Geology and Head of the Australian School of Petroleum, before he joined the DET CRC for the past eight years.

Professor Hillis believes the future of SA’s mining sector and its supply chain industries is promising.

“I think job opportunities are good at the minute, the mining industry is picking up and probably longer term, and hopefully it will be less cyclic in mining services,” he says.

The potential value of discoveries during Professor Hillis’s time at the DET CRC was estimated to be US$200m in extra value each year to Australia, according to Industry and Skills Minister David Pisoni.

“His work at the DET CRC has led to the commercialisation of technologies with projected future licensing income of around $3m per year,” Mr Pisoni said at the SA Science Excellence Awards night.

“For example, the RoXplorer, a coiled tubing rig developed by the centre, is a revolutionary game-changer for the mining sector and has recently been licensed to global mining equipment, services and technology giant IMDEX.

“This rig will drill low-cost bores and produce a suite of real-time geological data at a drilling cost of $50 per metre, around one sixth of the typical cost.”

SA Scientist of the Year Professor Richard Hillis.

The RoXplorer CT rig replaced individual drill rods with a continuous steel coil.

“In my view, research works best when industry defines the problem, industry knows what challenges it has and in this case, industry had to drill holes cheaper or Australia was going to lose mineral exploration,” Prof Hillis says.

“In the old days, if you were at 1000m you unscrewed 333 drill rods to put a new drill bit on and screwed them back on and got the drill bit to the bottom of the hole.

“What this rig, that drills about six times cheaper than conventional drilling, will do, is make mineral exploration in Australia cost effective again.”

Professor Hillis says the RoXplorer rig was successfully tested earlier this year near Port Augusta and another site at Horsham in Victoria.

Since then it was licensed to the ASX-listed global mining equipment, services and technology giant IMDEX, with its headquarters in Perth, and a new drilling trial was now set to happen with Barrick Gold exploration in Nevada, USA.

While he was now planning a year off after finishing at the DET CRC, Professor Hillis suggests those wanting to explore the world of mining, energy or geology in SA should take advantage of the state’s focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

“We have good courses, I think there are currently not as many students in them as we would like,” he says.

“I’m feeling positive about employment at the minute but the mining sector can be cyclic.”

DET CRC chairman Tom Whiting is proud of the research centre’s work, saying its major technologies – Wireless Sub, Lab-at-Rig, AutoSonde, AutoShuttle and RoXplorer CT drilling system – had been taken to working prototype and licensed in revenue-generating agreements to supplier participants, Boart Longyear and IMDEX.

The project team developing the RoXplorer coiled tubing drilling system was led by Soren Soe and it also received contributions from Boart Longyear, CSIRO, Curtin University, University of South Australia, University of Adelaide and IMDEX.

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