Opal miners in sustainable hinterland deal with virtual industry plans

Opal miners in remote areas outside the confines of “normal” society have long been considered – a bit remote and secretive, with their own traditions and superstitions.

But two young miners in Yowah, in southwest Queensland, are looking to revolutionize the conservative industry, bringing opal mining into the 21st century and the virtual world.

Fingers hold a sparkling blue and green rock opal.
It’s a beautiful opal like this that miners spend their days prospecting for.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

Josiah Kotsur, 33, and his girlfriend Lisa van Heijingen, 25, spend most of their days down to earth, with jackhammers and hand-held shovels, digging into fault lines in the sandstone, hoping to hit “color.”

Yowah is located about 1,000 kilometers west of Brisbane, and a world away from their previous lives in Sydney and Spain.

When he’s not looking for gems, Mr. Kotzur spends his time working on his computer replicating the scene around him in virtual reality so that people anywhere in the world can see them, and the opals they’ve mined, in the metaverse.

Off-grid mining

Mining is not an industry that is considered particularly “green”.

This pair is set up differently from other mining operations, with both the underground mine and Mr Kotsur’s home base, a reused bus, powered by solar panels.

“It allows us to run the entire mining process using renewable energy,” said Mr. Kotzur.

The top of the mine - solar panels and a crane surrounded by red soil in piles.
Unlike other opal mines in Australia that use diesel generators for power generation, this mine in Yowah has recycled solar panels that also power Mr. Kotzur’s home.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

They also set up botanical gardens to live more self-sufficiently.

“It’s good to have, because it can be very difficult to get food from the store,” said Ms Van Heijingen.

“[Being so remote] It means you can’t walk to Woollies and get what you want.”

Mr Kotzur moved to Yowah from Sydney when the pandemic started, to try something new.

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Mrs. Van Heijingen also joined the industry, traveling for ten hours internally to buy a motorbike from Kutzor, but was so impressed with the area that she decided to stay.

default opal

Besides trying to become a sustainable process, they are working to make opals more accessible through rapidly growing virtual reality.

The metaverse is a thriving digital or virtual shared environment that can be accessed by anyone online.

While still in its relative infancy, metaverse expert and educator Laurel Papworth believes it will one day become a huge part of people’s lives.

“It usually happens that this is something friends of friends know, and then it falls into your lap,” Papworth said.

Out of nowhere, the possibility of a metaverse is at the forefront of the minds of Mr. Kotzur and Mrs. van Heijningen

They are slowly building their mining site into the metaverse, so that anyone with a digital avatar – or virtual profile – can explore the site in 3D, and eventually even buy from their opal treasures.

“We scanned this garnet and put it into the metaverse, so we’ve got the digital twin,” said Mr. Kotzur.

Looking at a computer screen with a large opal, holding a small opal (same thing) in front of it.
Creating a 3D model of opals means potential buyers know exactly what they are getting – and can also own the rights to the online version.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

The scanned opal is an online asset with a unique identification code.

“We are dealing with different forms of technology – blockchain, cryptocurrency, and NFTs,” he said.

NFT stands for a non-fungible token, which is a unique, collectible virtual asset associated with, for example, a piece of digital artwork or in this case a digital opal.

“We are digitizing the opal so that its digital twin can be traded in this virtual mode,” said Mr. Kotsur.

“Shopping in a virtual space will allow real-world assets to be purchased in a virtual space and then delivered to your doorstep.”

Beyond the opal

The seemingly endless market possibilities within the metaverse have already been taken over by global corporations.

A recent report by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company said the metaverse has the potential to generate up to US$5 trillion (about A$7.5 trillion) by 2030.

But Ms Papworth said small businesses should get involved, too – and they will.

Find ladder top underground mine.
Mr. Kotzur and Mrs. van Heijningen climbed 10m into the ground to search for opals in their underground mine.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

“This is the democratization of those trading platforms,” Papworth said.

“If you remember the early days of the Internet, the only people with websites were the big corporations, the Coca-Colas of the world, or the governments of the world.”

Similar to online shopping, the use of online reality means that more people can be reached.

“You can have millions of people [from around the world] In a virtual shopping mall.

A man with long hair in a hard hat holding a jackhammer in the rock wall of a mine.
Mr. Kotzur digs around fault lines in the earth, where water settled millions of years ago, mixing with silicon dioxide, producing opals.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

“Whereas you’d have engineering problems if you put millions of people into a traditional shopping mall in the real world.”

It’s something skilled opal miners are keen to explore from their remote base.

“We are currently building this platform to allow trade to happen,” said Mr. Kotzur.

“What I hope to do is allow small businesses to have the same exposure as big brands.”

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