Peter Hatherly

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Peter Hatherly
PhD university Macquarie University

Peter Hatherly is a geophysicist with 35 years experience in research and consulting for coal mining. Over that time, he has had involvement with many geophysical techniques but mostly with geophysical logging, seismic reflection methods, and microseismic monitoring. The applications cover diverse areas such as mapping coal seam structures, geotechnical characterisation of rock masses, monitoring of the stability of rock masses, and estimation of greenhouse gas emissions. In seeking to solve practical mining problems, he has worked closely with geologists, geotechnical engineers, and other geophysicists. Peter currently offers geophysical services through his own company, Coalbed Geoscience. He is also employed part-time at the University of Sydney where he is contributing to a large mine automation project funded by Rio Tinto. Previous appointments include CRC Mining Professor of Mining Geophysics at the University of Sydney and Senior Principal Research Scientist at CSIRO. Peter holds a PhD from Macquarie University and has received a number of awards for his contributions to geophysics and coal mining.

2012 SEG Honorary Lecturer, Pacific South

A role for geophysical methods in meeting the resource requirements of the 21st century

Despite the temporary impact of events such as the oil shocks of the 1970's, prices for most earth resources were stable throughout the last half of the 20th century. The conventional wisdom was that supply could meet demand and that prices would generally remain flat. However, as the 21st century unfolds, it is clear that this situation no longer holds. Asia, with China and India being obvious key players, is urbanising and industrialising at an unprecedented rate. Resource companies are now being stretched to the limit to meet the demands for raw materials and energy products. Over the past decade, commodity prices have dramatically increased, and they are likely to continue to increase for the foreseeable future. The increases in demand also raise questions as to the availability of resources in both the short and long term.

Within this context, the global exploration effort has increased while companies mining existing resources are seeking to maximise their output and productivity. Mine expansions, the use of better equipment, and a more skilled work force provide some of the solutions. However, better understanding and management of the geological environment under which the mining occurs are equally important factors. In this regard, geophysical methods, by virtue of their ability to map and characterise rock masses prior to, during, and after mining provide essential tools for modern mining.

The use of geophysical methods by the Australian coal mining industry provides an excellent example of the emerging role for geophysics in assisting mining companies meet the resource requirements of the 21st century. This lecture will illustrate the varied applications of geophysical methods in coal mining, including those in important new areas such as estimation of greenhouse gas emissions; as well as, insights into the future directions of mining and the significant roles that geophysics has to play in that future.

Additional Resource

A recording of the lecture is available.[1]


Please tell us a little bit about yourself. (e.g. your education and work experience, why you became a geophysicist, etc.) In my childhood, my family lived in the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney. My parents passed on their enjoyment of the outdoors to their children and there were many family camping and hiking trips. My father was a scientist and so his enjoyment of the sciences was something that was also passed on to me. Australia is a country with a strong mining tradition and, as a matter of course, I was exposed to geology in my schooling. Geophysics was not something I knew about, but because I could also handle mathematics, a scholarship from the Geological Survey of NSW when I began my university studies sealed my choice of career.

In my first job as a geophysicist in the 1970s, I worked with Derecke Palmer while he was developing his Generalized Reciprocal Method of seismic refraction interpretation. Together we undertook seismic refraction surveys at engineering sites across the state of NSW. My PhD was completed while at the Geological Survey and concerned wave equation modeling for the seismic refraction method.

It was after completing my PhD that I began to work on mining problems – first at the Geological Survey where we conducted high resolution seismic reflection surveys and undertook geophysical well logging as a precursor to coal mining leases being offered to mining companies. I then took employment with Australian Coal Industry Research Laboratories where I worked with Iain Mason from Oxford University and others to introduce underground in-seam seismic surveys to Australian coal mining. This technique had been recently developed in England and Germany.

We are fortunate in Australia that mechanisms exist to fund research into exploration and mining for coal and minerals. In the case of the coal mining, a levy, currently set at 5 cents per tonne of coal produced is paid by all producers of black coal. That money is made available for research into coal mining problems (see In the case of research in the minerals sector, companies have the opportunity to collaboratively contribute to selected research projects (see The AMIRA system is well known within the minerals exploration sector. ACARP is less well known but it is also a very effective mechanism for coordinating, facilitating and funding research.

In my own case, the coal levy funding allowed us to introduce new techniques to the coal industry such as high resolution 3D seismic reflection surveys in 1988 and passive microseismic monitoring in 1994. As well, we have developed new methods of analysis, for example a technique for undertaking geotechnical analysis based on well logging data.

In developing and working with these methods, I have also worked at CSIRO, CRC Mining, University of Sydney (currently part-time) and with my own company, Coalbed Geoscience. My work at the University of Sydney relates to the major Mine of the FutureTM program from mining giant Rio Tinto, which aims to introduce automation and robotic technologies at their mining operations.

Why did you choose this lecture topic? Why is it important? My lecture concerns many of the activities that I have undertaken over my working life. Coal mining is not a glamorous subject and not many geophysicists interest themselves in it. However, across the world, coal is the leading source of energy for electricity generation. Metallurgical coal also provides an essential ingredient for the manufacture of steel. In China, the world's biggest consumer of energy, more energy is extracted from coal than oil and gas. This relativity is maintained in the International Energy Agency's projections for the next 25 years.

The world is now in an interesting situation. Despite the economic turmoil of the past few years, there is also an unstoppable trend towards urbanization occurring in the developing world. This movement is being led by China and India. Globally, the mining industry is increasing production and making huge investments to meet the resource requirements of these countries. World-wide, coal production has increased by 18 percent in the period 2005-2009. For iron ore, the increase has been 33 percent.

Against this background, it seems incongruous to me that the geophysical profession spends so little time offering its services to the mining sector. Perhaps the glamour and excitement associated with a new discovery are not there but many of the problems of mine safety and meeting mine production targets can be addressed by geophysical methods. Proper geological characterization ahead of mining and the monitoring of the stability of mine openings are essential in all mining operations. The joy of the hunt associated with nutting out a previously unknown geological issue and the opportunity to marvel at the complexity and beauty of geology still exist when applying geophysical methods in mining.

Could you tell us in a few sentences what your course objectives are? Through my lecture for SEG, I am taking the opportunity to have a conversation with my profession about the opportunities that exist for geophysicists in mining. Many of the geophysical techniques used in oil and gas are also useful in coal mining. I will discuss these and the contextual differences that arise. I will also discuss related opportunities for geophysics in other sectors of the mining industry.

Are there any more specific areas that you want to emphasize? While I have already mentioned the role of geophysics in assisting with mine safety and production, I should also mention that there are other important applications in assessing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with coal mining and in the environmental management of mine sites. I will touch on these very important areas in my lecture.

What do you hope people will have learned after they attend your lecture? How is it different from other lectures? I hope that this lecture will allow participants gain better appreciation of the current trends in the mineral resource and energy sectors, and the role that geophysics has to play. This is not a technical lecture; this lecture is aimed at being a conversation with my fellow professionals about opportunities that exist for geophysics outside of the main areas of current activity.

Would you share with us one or two of your most exciting successes? For me, it has been a privilege to observe the growth in the role and acceptance of geophysical methods in Australian mining and to know that I have played a role in what has occurred. It is also very exciting for me to know that geophysical methods and understanding will have an even more important role in the future.

How about a couple of disappointments? Sometimes I feel that the pace of change and up-take of geophysical solutions is too slow. However, our science is actually developing rapidly, and what does a few decades really matter when the geological processes that we spend our lives trying to understand occur over many millions of years?

What advice would you give to geophysics students and professionals just starting out in the industry? Given the subject of my lecture, this is an easy question for me to answer. My advice to students and to those new to the profession is to look at the major changes that are occurring across the world and to position themselves so that no matter what their particular strengths and interests in geophysics may be, they can contribute to this changing environment. If they do this, their skills will always be in demand.


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Peter Hatherly
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