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

Opal miners in the outback have long been considered just beyond the edge of “normal” society — remote and slightly secretive, with their own traditions and superstitions. 

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

It’s beautiful opals like this one that miners spend their days digging for.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

Josiah Kotzur, 33, and his friend Lisa van Heijningen, 25, spend most of their days descending into the earth, with handheld jackhammers and shovels, digging at fault lines in the sandstone, hoping to strike “colour”.

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

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

Off-the-grid mining

Mining isn’t an industry considered particularly “green”. 

This pair is set up differently to other mining operations though, 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 operation completely on renewable energy,” Mr Kotzur said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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Ms van Heijningen also fell into the industry, travelling the ten hours inland to buy a motorbike off Mr Kotzur, but liking the region so much she decided to stay. 

Virtual opals

Beyond trying to become a sustainable operation, they are working to make opals more accessible, through the rapidly growing virtual reality. 

The metaverse is a burgeoning shared digital or virtual environment anyone can access via the internet.

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

“Typically what happens is this is something that friends of friends know about, and then it’s dropped in your lap,” Ms Papworth said. 

A long way from nowhere, the potential for the metaverse is front-of-mind for Mr Kotzur and Ms van Heijningen 

They are slowly building their mine site into the metaverse, so anyone with a digital avatar — or virtual profile — can explore the site in 3D, and eventually even purchase from their haul of opal treasures. 

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

Looking at a computer screen with a big opal, holding a small opal (the same) in front of it.
Creating a 3D model of opals means potential buyers know exactly what they get — and they can 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 engaging with different forms of technology — block chain, crypto currency and NFTs,” he said.

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

“We’re digitising the opal so its digital twin can be traded in this virtual setting,” Mr Kotsur said.  

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

Beyond opals

The seemingly endless market possibilities within the metaverse have already been seized upon by global companies. 

A recent report by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company said the metaverse had the potential to generate up to $5 trillion USD (nearly $7.5 trillion AUD) in value by 2030. 

But Ms Papworth said small businesses should also take part — and will. 

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

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

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

Similarly to online shopping, using the online reality means the potential to reach more people is greater. 

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

A man with long hair wearing a hardhat holds a handheld jackhammer into the rock wall of a mine.
Mr Kotzur digs around fault lines in the earth, where water settling millions of years ago, mixed with silicon dioxide, created opals.(ABC Western Qld: Melanie Groves)

“Whereas you’d have engineering problems if you put millions of people in a conventional real-world mall.”

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

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

“What I’m hoping to do is allow smaller companies to get that same exposure the big brands have.”