Sustainable outback opal miners take on the metaverse with plans for virtual industry

Opal prospectors in the outback have long been seen as something outside of ‘normal’ society – remote and slightly secretive, with their own traditions and superstitions.

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

Fingers hold a sparkling blue and green boulder opal.
It is beautiful opals like this one that miners spend their days after.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

Josiah Kotzur, 33, and his girlfriend Lisa van Heijningen, 25, spend most of their day descending into the earth with handheld jackhammers and shovels, digging fault lines in the sandstone in hopes of finding “color.”

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

When he’s not digging for precious gems, Mr. Kotzur spends his time working on his computer, recreating the landscape around him in a virtual reality for people all over the world to see them and the opals they’ve mined in the metaverse .

Off-the-grid mining

Mining is not considered particularly “green”.

However, this couple is set up differently than other mining operations, with both the underground mine and Mr. Kotzur’s home base, a repurposed bus powered by solar panels.

“It allows us to run our mining operations entirely on renewable energy,” said Mr. Kotzur.

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

They also create vegetable gardens to live more self-sufficiently.

“It’s good to have them because it can be quite difficult to get groceries out of the shop out here,” said Ms. van Heijningen.

“[Being so remote] means you can’t just go to Woolies and get what you want.”

Mr Kotzur moved to Yowah from Sydney at the start of the pandemic to try something new.

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Ms van Heijningen also got into the industry and traveled ten hours inland to buy a motorbike from Mr Kotzur, but liked the region so much that she decided to stay.

Virtual Opals

Not only are they trying to become a sustainable operation, but they are also working to make opals more accessible through the rapidly expanding virtual reality.

The Metaverse is a burgeoning shared digital or virtual environment accessible to anyone over the internet.

Though it’s still in its infancy, Metaverse expert and mentor Laurel Papworth believes it will one day become a big part of people’s lives.

“Usually that’s something that friends of friends know about and then it just falls into your lap,” Ms Papworth said.

Far from nowhere, the potential for the metaverse is paramount for Mr. Kotzur and Ms. van Heijningen

They are slowly incorporating their mining location into the metaverse, allowing anyone with a digital avatar – or virtual profile – to explore the location in 3D and eventually even purchase from their collection of opal treasures.

“We scanned this opal and put it into the metaverse, so it has its digital twin,” said Mr. Kotzur.

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

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

“We’re looking at different forms of technology – blockchain, cryptocurrency and NFTs,” he said.

NFT stands for Non-Fungible Token, a unique virtual collectible tied to, for example, a 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 environment,” said Mr. Kotsur.

“Shopping in a virtual space would allow you to buy the real good in a virtual space and then have it delivered to your doorstep.”

Beyond opals

The seemingly endless market opportunities within the metaverse have already been seized by global corporations.

A recent report by global management consultancy McKinsey & Company says the Metaverse has the potential to generate up to $5 trillion (nearly A$7.5 trillion) in value by 2030.

But Ms Papworth said small businesses should – and will – attend too.

Looking up a ladder to the top of an underground mine.
Mr Kotzur and Mrs van Heijningen climb 10 meters underground to dig for opals in their underground mine.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

“This is the democratization of these trading platforms,” ​​Ms. Papworth said.

“If you remember the early days of the internet, the only people who had websites were the big corporations, the world’s Coca-Cola’s, or the world’s governments.”

Similar to online shopping, leveraging online reality means there is greater potential to reach more people.

“You could have millions of people [from around the world] in a virtual mall,” said Mr. Kotzur.

A long-haired man wearing a helmet holds a hand-held jackhammer into the rock face of a mine.
Mr. Kotzur digs around fault lines in the earth where water mixed with silica formed opals millions of years ago.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

“Whereas you would get technical problems if you put millions of people in a conventional physical mall.”

It’s something the tech-savvy opal miners are also keen to explore from their base in the outback.

“We are currently building this platform to enable trading,” said Mr. Kotzur.

“What I hope is to allow smaller companies to have the same exposure that the big brands have.”