Minerals Basics

Australia is a leading producer of minerals for the world and produces 19 minerals in significant amounts from nearly 400 operating mines. Minerals are produced in all States, the Northern Territory and Christmas Island. There is no mining in the Australian Capital Territory apart from quarries used to mine aggregate and other construction materials. Some of Australia's major hydrothermal and orthomagmatic mineral provinces are described.

Minerals are an important part of the Australian economy, accounting for ten per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012-13. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that at June 2012 the mining industry employed around 266 000 people directly.

Minerals are Australia’s largest export. According to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE) External site link, the industry’s exports (excluding oil and gas) were worth approximately $107 billion in 2012-13, accounting for around 59% of goods and services exports and 71% of merchandise exports. Australian mining companies trade freely in the global marketplace, exporting goods on a commercial basis around the world with principal markets in China, Japan, South Korea and India.

Australia is one of the top mineral producers in the world and has a large resource inventory of most of the world’s key minerals commodities. Australia is the world’s leading producer of bauxite, rutile and zircon; the second largest producer of gold, iron ore, lead, lithium, manganese ore, tungsten and zinc, the third largest producer of ilmenite and uranium; the fourth largest producer of black coal (also the largest exporter), nickel and silver; and the fifth largest producer of brown coal and copper Australia’s Identified Minerals Resources Table 1.

Australia has the world's largest resources of gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, rutile, uranium, zinc and zircon as well as the second largest resources of bauxite, cobalt, copper, ilmenite, niobium, silver, tantalum and thorium. Australia's resources of black coal, brown coal, magnesite, tungsten, lithium, manganese ore, rare earths and vanadium are ranked in the top five in the world.

Resources and Production

Geoscience Australia compiles and reports on an annual basis the national inventory of mineral resources from information released publically by mining companies in Australia’s Identified Mineral Resources and Australia's Mineral Resource Assessment. Geoscience Australia also provides national scale maps showing Australia’s mineral deposits and endowment by region for a wide range of mineral commodities.

Australian mineral production and exports are reported quarterly by BREE in the Resources and Energy Quarterly External site link along with the outlook for commodity prices, consumption, trade and supply.

History and Use

Mining in Australia dates back to around 1800 when coal was first mined near Newcastle in New South Wales. Metal mining commenced with mining of lead at Glen Osmond (South Australia) in 1841 followed by copper shortly after at Kapunda (South Australia) in 1842. Gold mining has played a major role in Australia’s development following the initial gold rushes near Bathurst in New South Wales and Ballarat and Bendigo in Victoria in the 1850-1860s, and at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia in the 1890s. Mining of the major base metal deposits of Broken Hill, (discovered in 1883), Mount Isa (1923) and the Golden Mile at Kalgoorlie (1893), which now operates as the Super Pit, continues today and is responsible for the continued development of these regional cities. Other mining developments of major economic significance were the expansion of the coal mines of the Hunter Valley and Bowen Basin, the iron ore mines of the Hamersley Basin in the 1960s and 1970s and the production of copper, gold and uranium from South Australia's Olympic Dam mine in the 1980s. Further details on the history of Australian mining are provided in the Australian Mines Atlas External site link.

Minerals are essential to modern living and have many applications. Coal is used to generate electricity and for steel production. Mineral ores are used for the production of a wide range of metals and mineral products including iron ore for producing the steel used in construction, ships, motor vehicles and machinery, bauxite used for aluminium, copper for electrical wiring and plumbing and other metals for a range of alloys, such as nickel for stainless steel. Metals such as niobium, tantalum and rare earths are used in high-technology applications such as mobile phones, magnets and batteries. Further details and other examples can be found in the Australian Mines Atlas Minerals Fact Sheets External site link.

Minerals Pipeline

All minerals are extracted following a similar sequence that begins with exploration using a range of geological, geophysical and/or geochemical tools followed by drilling to find and evaluate mineralisation. If these steps provide promising results, more detailed work is undertaken to estimate the size and quality of the resource, followed by a prefeasibility study to assess the economic potential of the identified resource. If favourable, a feasibility study is undertaken to assess the commercial viability of mining the resource, including mine planning to evaluate the commercially recoverable part of the deposit, the metallurgy, value and market potential of the mined ore, the full costs of mine development including infrastructure, mining, milling, and recovery of the ore, the cost of finance and mine closure and rehabilitation.

International Trade

The largest importers of Australian minerals and metals are China, Japan, South Korea and India. The European Union is one of the world’s largest consumers of non-ferrous metals. Australia’s coal and iron ore are generally traded between supplier and consumer based on a contract price negotiated quarterly which is set using various benchmarks. Most base metals (copper, lead, zinc and nickel) are traded internationally on the London Metal Exchange with smaller volumes sold directly or through the smaller Comex and NYMEX exchanges in the United States and the Shanghai Futures Exchange in China. Other commodities are generally sold outside the international clearing schemes by direct sales at negotiated prices. The market for a number of smaller volume commodities is dominated by a single or small number of dominant suppliers.

Topic contact: minerals@ga.gov.au Last updated: February 18, 2014