Dan Wood led Australia’s Newcrest Mining’s exploration team during a time when Newcrest was considered the world’s most successful gold explorer (1992-2005). His top discovery enhancers are summarized below.
A solid foundation in the principles of geology combined with broad experience in mineral resource geology is the bare minimum. Geoscientists must also understand the mining process and appreciate the non geological factors that determine the economics of a deposit.
Experience + Intuition + Perseverance
It takes at least ten years for a geologist to become competent. The resulting experience leads to the kind of intuitive thinking that is crucial to a job where there is so little evidence to guide the discovery process. Persevering and acting on that intuition offers the best chance of reward.
There must be a discovery culture within the company that allows the exploration team to act with autonomy, a quality lacking in many mining companies where the focus is on the commercial aspects of the business.
Serendipity and People
Serendipity, or “the making of happy or unexpected discoveries by accident or when looking for something else”, is more important than luck where exploration is concerned and is more likely to happen to those who have made previous discoveries.
A major component of strategy is risk. Exploration risk progresses from moderate (seeking an extension to a known deposit) to very high (grassroots exploration in a mineral belt). Woods prefers to work at the moderate end of the spectrum, where the odds – about 1 in 5 to 10 – are considerably better than “rolling the dice.”
Woods main philosophy is that orebodies can be made and mineralization turned into ore, providing the geoscientist is skilled enough to recognize what needs to be done to bring about that transformation. The geoscientist who is able to find what escaped the attention of others is the most likely to uncover deposits in areas that have been picked over in the past.
Striking the right balance between reckless and irresponsible behavior and reasonable risk taking, however, requires the ability to visualize the discovery target when planning exploration. An appreciation of the dimensions of the deposit, for instance, allows for bold step out holes that can quickly determine if the deposit is large enough to pursue.
Creativity and Visualization
Perhaps this skill should be at the top of the list because Wood believes the ability to see the target in three dimensions is “the ultimate key” to discovery. He encourages geologists to use deposit models hand-in-hand with a 3-D dartboard visualization in which the ore is the bull’s eye and the encircling rings represent mineralized waste, then altered waste, then unaltered host rock in the outer ring.
A Systems Approach
Thinking of the target as a dynamic system that affects the geology around it, or “thinking like an orebody” can help geoscientists interpret and understand seemingly disparate pieces of evidence.
Woods advocates spending 40-60% of the exploration budget on drilling, the only measurable quantity in his list, and argues that it is better to overdrill a deposit than encounter unpleasant surprises once mining begins. On the other hand, he says an anomaly needs to be detected only once, not repeatedly using multiple techniques, in order to be drill worthy.
For a more detailed report see Issue #80 of the Society of Economic Geologists (SEG) newsletter http://www.segweb.org/login.aspx?page=/publications/mo_newsletter.aspx (accessible on-line to SEG members only).