An unrepentant maverick
There is no debate about it: J David Lowell is the most accomplished mineral prospector in the past 100 years. Over his lifetime he has discovered 17 ore bodies, more than anyone on record, and at 87 years old he shows no sign of slowing down. Minestories spoke to the intrepid prospector about how he’s been so successful and why he considers himself an unrepentant maverick.
You have praised the advantages of freedom and said you excel at being wrong. How have these traits helped you become perhaps the most successful mining explorationist ever?
Mineral exploration is all about risk-taking: from the risk that commodity prices will fall to the risk that taxes will rise and many things between. Also, there’s the risk that, for some unrecognized geologic reason, the ore deposit model just didn’t work this time, or that for a few years global mining finance has dried up. There are a jumble of risks, and you can do one of two things: either take no risks and probably never in your career find a new mine, or you can try to play the odds and if you think there is one chance out of 10 that a new drill hole will find a new mine, you drill 10 holes and be wrong nine times and be a hero the 10th.
Which are the most important qualities necessary for a successful mine explorer?
I think experience is of more value than education. It also helps to know something about geology, but it may sometimes help more to know a lot about mines because the definition of “ore” is “rock that can be mined at a profit”. An explorationist should also know a bit about business and understand mineral economics. He should be optimistic, very hard-working and dedicated to finding an orebody. He should be a maverick willing to ignore dogmas. He should also be honest and truthful.
You’ve stated that new technologies have played a “very small” role in mine discoveries over your lifetime, yet mining companies are constantly looking to use new technologies to discover mines. Why is that?
Quite a bit of mining exploration technology has been borrowed from the oil industry, where 10,000-metre-deep offshore drill holes cost several billion dollars and are based on the very sophisticated technology necessary to find the target and design the drilling equipment. Their reward as well as their cost is an order of magnitude higher than in the mining industry. Hitting a big oilfield is like hitting the haystack and hitting a deep orebody is like hitting the needle in the haystack. “Broad-brush” oil technology doesn’t work well in mineral exploration. I have always felt that mining companies want to use geophysics to find orebodies, but they also have other motives. In a time of exploding technology there is pressure to tell your shareholders that you are using the cutting edge of technology. I have found that the simplest and cheapest common geophysical survey, the magnetometer survey, is also the most useful and reliable when used to map the underground contacts of relatively magnetic rocks like granite in contact with low magnetic susceptibility rocks like limestone.
Do you consider yourself a maverick, and if so, why?
I am an unrepentant maverick. Almost every square metre of the world’s rock outcrop has been looked at: first by indigenous tribesmen, then by the Romans, then by medieval people who wrote the beautifully illustrated De Re Metallica in 1556, then the Cornishmen from England in the 1800s, then Daniel Jackling looking for large low-grade mines in the early 1900s, and finally the people furnishing commodities for the later explosive growth of civilization. I assume that every obvious orebody would have been found 10, 100, 500 or 2,000 years ago by some diligent, hard-working explorationist of the time using the current dogma. When looking for new mines I assumed none of the classic dogmas had worked, so I tried to ignore them and consciously tried to come up with a new explanation for why an orebody might be present that didn’t fit the dogmas. It’s fun being a maverick.
About J David Lowell
J David Lowell is owner of Lowell Mineral Exploration, LLC, a company which currently has joint venture exploration programs with major mining companies in Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico. He has worked as a consultant for over 100 companies and governments in more than 25 countries and has participated in ten major mine feasibility studies. Seven major mine discoveries have resulted from contract exploration projects and joint ventures which he has managed and from one Lowell Mineral Exploration financed project.
Lowell has been awarded the AIME Robert Earll McConnell Award, the SME Daniel Jackling and Robert Dreyer Awards, the University of Arizona Distinguished Alumni Award, the American Mining Hall of Fame Medal of Merit, The Society of Economic Geologists Silver Medal, Thayer Lindsley Distinguished Lectureship and the SEG International Enchange Lectureship. He was Distinguished Lecturer for the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, and gave a short course at the Universidad de Chile. He was given the Northern Miner Canadian co-Mining Man of the Year Award.