In some ways it was a stroke of good fortune that set Dr Cathy Foley and her colleagues on the path to inventing LANDTEM, a device that has revolutionised the way mining companies detect ore underground and uncovered deposits worth billions of dollars around the world.
The invention won Foley, the deputy director and science director of manufacturing in Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the prestigious Clunies Ross award for innovation and commercialisation.
The story of the invention begins in the mid-1980s, when the discovery of high temperature superconductors opened the way for superconductivity to be used in everyday applications instead of only at extremely low temperatures.
The discovery provoked huge excitement around the world among scientists and engineers who set about seeking practical applications, no less so in Australia.
The CSIRO pulled together a team to collaborate on potential applications with industry: with Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA) on electronics and communications; Nucleus and now Cochlear on medical devices; and BHP on improving the quality of steel fabrication by measuring extremely subtle magnetic fields.
BHP held an internal meeting about the technology and it was there that some of the company’s geologists said that measuring subtle magnetic fields would be very valuable to them, providing the spark of the idea for LANDTEM.
Foley describes the moment as “serendipitous”, but says it’s also a reflection of the way CSIRO interacts with industry.
“Quite often when you’ve got something which is a platform technology that can be used in a lot of different ways, you start off thinking in a very diverse way or very open ended way so you’re not really sure where you’re going. And that’s why one of the things that differentiates the CSIRO from any other research organizations and particularly universities: we talk to industry a lot and get guidance from them,” she says.
“We might come up with the original science but then we engage with industry to say, ‘we’ve got this great idea, we think it could be useful there’.
“And they’ll say, ‘well, actually no, we think it could be useful over here’.”
LANDTEM allows geologists to create a three-dimensional map of underground ore bodies, and has uncovered ore deposits worth A$4 billion in Australia and more than A$10 billion overseas.
It consists of a big coil of wire placed on the ground above a potential ore deposit. It pulses a large changing current through the wire to create a magnetic field, and this in turn creates what’s known as an Eddy current in any conducting material nearby, such as an ore body underground.
Then the current is turned off, but an ore body’s current lingers for a tiny fraction of a second longer and by measuring this, LANDTEM can determine if there is an ore body and where it is. Crucially, it can discriminate between an actual ore body and the conducting soil that is so prevalent in Australia and that in the past would have led to muddled results.
Foley says the invention has helped mining companies find things they wouldn’t have found otherwise and find deeper ore bodies. It can also tell them whether it is worth the expense of putting a bore hole down to analyse the quality of the ore and where to put it.
Not all ore bodies are conducting, so LANDTEM is mainly used for finding silver, nickel and gold.
It’s one of a series of tools geologists use to find an ore body, and Foley says it has allowed many mining companies to cut out several of the steps needed in mineral exploration.
For instance, in Canada, Xstrata Nickel has bought three LANDTEM systems and is so confident about the technology that once it has located an ore body they don’t do much drilling at all and move straight on to mining instead.
When recognising the work of Foley and her colleague CSIRO engineer Keith Leslie at the Clunies Ross awards, the chair of the awards’ organising committee Professor Mike Hood said: “Their story demonstrates the importance of unwavering dedication in bringing a scientific discovery to market. Over the coming years LANDTEM will continue to play a major role in the worldwide discovery of new mineral deposits.”
Foley studied physics and education at Sydney’s Macquarie University with the intention of becoming a high school science teacher. “But I fell in love with research and I did my PhD in nitride semiconductors and did a smidgen of the early work that led to the white LED,” she says.
Having decided to pursue a career in research, Foley joined CSIRO as a post-doctoral fellow working in magnetics and was asked to join the team working on applications for the new high temperature superconductors.
Along with taking the new technology to industry to see how it could be used, another factor in the successful development and commercialisation of the LANDTEM is CSIRO’s ability to pull together a multidisciplinary team when an opportunity arises, in this case researchers in mineral resources, electrical engineering, devices, materials and cryogenics, and finally at the end, lawyers and business people.
“In order to be a survivor and also to really be profitable and commercially successful, you’ve got to recognize just how the world is changing and that you’ve got to be innovative, not just in your products but also in your business model and how you see yourself getting into the manufacturing world,” she says. “Australia is at a really interesting point where the current Government has recognized this and I think got a whole lot of things in place.”
Foley says the Federal Government’s recently-announced Industry Growth Centres, which aim to forge better links between industry and Australia’s top researchers, are a promising start.
She sees potential in agile manufacturing, where the manufacturers make small numbers of specialised and customised products and can quickly re-conform to make another product.
“Instead of being a manufacturer who has a big factory, you actually buy time in a factory to do a certain thing, part of it, and then you might even ship it to somewhere else to get another bit done where there’s a specialist and so you end up with products which are done more in smaller batches rather than mass market because they’re more customized,” she says. “These days successful societies have to keep reinventing themselves and recognizing where you can you use intellectual approaches rather than just brute labour.”
As a senior CSIRO executive, Foley is less involved in hands-on research than she used to be, but still finds it an exciting environment. “It’s pretty exciting to think that the work you do actually has an enormous impact and can make a difference. And I think if you ask people I work with, they all say that’s what they love about working at CSIRO. We do things that actually change the world and I think that’s a nice thing to do,” she says.