The army of termite mounds in and around the Katherine region could prove to be more useful than their current stature of outback 'snowmen'.
Researchers from Australia's national science agency, CSIRO, have found the mounds of clay, sand and soil, bound together with termite saliva, could help map a path to a low emissions future.
According to the researchers, metal deposits like nickel and cobalt - needed to transition the world to low emission technologies - can be discovered using metallic blue crusts, known as manganese crusts, in soils and on termite mounds.
Dr Sam Spinks from the CSIRO was the lead scientist on the research team.
He said his study took him to the southern Pilbara region of WA, where he was able to try out new advances in sample analysis in an area dotted with termite mounds.
The study showed how metallic blue crusts display unique "zinc signatures" that indicate the presence of other base metals in the surrounding area.
He said the exploration tools and processes are helping to tackle the global challenge of sustainable energy and resources.
"Australian explorers need new, cost-effective techniques to find the next generation of deposits below the surface," Dr Spinks said.
"As the world transitions to a low emission future, there's a need for more nickel and cobalt to build electric vehicles and batteries to store renewable energy.
"We've shown that analysing zinc isotopes found in manganese crusts have huge potential to be used to explore for these metal deposits, and others."
Dr Sprinks said his team analysed termite mounds and soils close to a zinc-lead-silver deposit and compared the data to samples from different locations, to prove the connection.
"Zinc is commonly found in most base metal deposits, and over time, it's released and ends up in a range of natural materials such as soils, termite mounds and vegetation," Dr Spinks said.
"The zinc is altered as it moves from the metal deposit to the surface, which has traditionally made it unreliable as an exploration tool, but we've been able to apply recent advances in data analysis to understand it in more detail.
"This new research shows we can now measure zinc variations, or isotopes, so accurately that we can identify what metal deposit lies deep underground."
The manganese crusts are also found in rock and cave varnishes, making them an easily accessible exploration tool for base metals including nickel and cobalt, which will support the world's transition to a low emissions future, Dr Sprinks said.
Termite mounds are already being used in Australian exploration, following earlier CSIRO research that found termites bring up small particles from an ore deposit and store them in their mound.
"Australian exploration companies have been analysing samples from termite mounds in gold exploration in recent years, now zinc offers another technique for use in broader environments and to find a range of metals," CSIRO research group leader, Dr Yulia Uvarova, said.
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