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Dr René Booysen

RESEARCH PROJECT: Innovative remote sensing for the exploration of critical raw materials. 

    Dr Booysen is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand and a researcher at the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology, a division of HZDR in Germany. 

    It was while working in the field, that she observed the challenges that traditional mineral exploration was presenting and the negative impact on the environment and she felt drawn to making an impact through an innovative turnaround strategy.

    Asked to explain her project to a layperson, she says, “As a society, we have become more environmentally considerate and are using a higher amount of green technologies such as electric vehicles and sustainable forms of energy production. This transition has led to an increase in certain materials which recycling alone cannot sustain. I use innovative and non-invasive remote sensing techniques to target possible mineral resources.”

    Typical exploration methods are usually invasive, environmentally impactful with low social acceptance. Dr Booysen proposes an innovative, non-invasive and socially-acceptable method for resource targeting by using remote sensing methods.

    By using satellite data, rocks can be mapped over a large area, at a low spatial resolution. Once promising sites have been identified, planes and drones are used to map the mineralogy in detail, thus refining the target zones. “These methods allow us to study the rocks from afar, thus lowering the environmental impact of mineral exploration while increasing safety and efficiency,” she explains.

    As a geologist, René wasn’t trained in the field of imaging data processing. This remains a daily challenge for her as she learns to understand and correctly process the remote sensing data she works with. Her other challenge is to be taken seriously, as a young, female geologist, in a field dominated by men. 

    Fortune has been on her side when it comes to successful grant applications and these have allowed her to conduct her work internationally at the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology, in Germany — which has broadened her network. This change in work environment, however, and the uprooting of her life proved to be a challenging step, but she is grateful for it, nonetheless: “It strengthened my perseverance and taught me to be self-sufficient.”  

    Dr Booysen was always drawn to this field of study.

    “I have always been fascinated by the Earth’s origins and the multitude of processed involved in shaping it: this has led me to a career in geosciences.” 

    She is quick to credit those who have encouraged her along the way. 

    “My colleague Dr. Sandra Lorenz has inspired me to improve my skills in the field of remote sensing. My advisors Prof. Paul Nex and Dr. Richard Gloaguen have patiently mentored me during my career so far and Prof. Judith Kinnaird has shown me what a strong woman in geology can achieve.  

    Her advice to aspiring female scientists is to identify a topic they are passionate about and then to  

    contact researchers working in those fields. “People are much more approachable than one would think and they can provide ideas, support and advice,” she explains.  

    While she celebrates the impact that her work will have on societal challenges, Dr Booysen is looking further ahead, too. “I would like to aid policymakers in making informed decisions in the mining and exploration sector in order to ensure responsible practices,” she says.  

    Research Summary

    Climate change is threatening diversity, natural capital and ultimately economic wealth. Our society is required to rapidly transition towards a net-zero economy, which requires the use of green technologies. Paradoxically, the technologies of decarbonisation require an increased flux of critical raw materials that recycling alone cannot sustain. A renewed and sustainable approach for the sourcing of metals such as lithium and cobalt is needed. I suggest innovative and non-invasive remote sensing techniques to enable the discovery of mineral resources. Remote sensing allows to acquire information from a distance, for example by precisely measuring sunlight reflected off Earth's surface and thus inferring spectral fingerprints of minerals. With this project, I propose a synergetic remote sensing approach. I first will acquire complex data from multiple platforms such as satellites and drones. I then intend to identify potential critical mineral deposits in southern Africa using advanced machine learning. Validation is performed with in-situ measurements. This project bridges data science, digital processing, robotics and geology. I use energy efficient, low impact technologies that decrease the environmental footprint and also improve the social acceptance of exploration.

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