12 May J. David Lowell, the legacy of the most successful explorer in the world who bet on Chile and its mining potential
Last May 5 and at the age of 92, the American geologist J. David Lowell passed away in Tucson, Arizona. Considered the best mining explorer in the world, Lowell achieved the discovery of 17 deposits throughout his career, including Escondida in Antofagasta, or the San Cristóbal gold mine near Lomas Bayas and Pierina mine, in Peru, among others.
He is recognized as the most successful mining explorer in the world in the last 100 years. A passion for geology was one of the main characteristics of the American J. David Lowell, who discovered 17 deposits throughout his career, a record that, until now, no one has equaled.
During his career, Lowell worked for various mining companies such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and Codelco, to name a few. As Codelco’s exploration adviser, the geologist developed an important bond with local mining and strongly believed in Chile’s mining potential.
In 1978, Lowell proposed the formation of a joint venture with the company Utah International and Sig Muessig of Getty Oil, to explore the northern segment of the so-called “Cuprifer Porphyry Belt” in the north of our country. This type of deposit is characterized by containing, mainly as dissemination, enormous volumes of copper minerals, although of low grade, associated with mining by-products such as molybdenum, gold, silver, and zinc. The strip proposed by Lowell for exploration corresponded to a fraction of this belt, located between the towns of Calama and Inca de Oro.
This was how the mining company Utah de Chile was founded in 1979. For two years, J. David Lowell’s team toured the mountain range in search of the deposit. “Based on the concentric zonal arrangement of alteration and mineralization that characterizes porphyric copper deposits, J. David Lowell’s exploration approach to locate hidden mineral deposits consisted basically of conducting geological surveys and semi-detailed geochemical sampling of a large number of copper anomalies and prospects, known or detected during surveys”. explains geologist Francisco Ortiz, who served as a chief geologist on Lowell’s team at the Atacama Exploration Project, who would later discover La Escondida, the largest copper deposit in the world. “When the results were positive, these works were complemented with rotary compressed air drillings, of low cost and great speed of operation, promptly drilling the most favorable targets.”
In mid-March 1981, the team of explorers would begin drilling that they found La Escondida deposit, which at the time was estimated to have some 300 million tons of enriched copper ore of 1.3-1.5%.
A life dedicated to the exploration
At the age of 7, J. David Lowell started his life passion, looking for iron in a mine that was managed by his father in Brazil.
He studied mining engineering and earned his doctorate as a geologist at Stanford University, California. His first find was from a displaced segment of the San Manuel Kalamazoo copper mine in Arizona, where he was originally from. His passion and hard work marked several generations of geologists worldwide.
In addition to La Escondida, Lowell discovered in Chile Leonor mine, linked to Tesoro -a fact that brought him closer to Andrónico Luksic- and San Cristóbal, a gold deposit located to the south of Lomas Bayas, which had a development and exploitation, but due to its low grade, did not continue to be exploited.
“For me, it was the first geologist who understood that exploration activity was part of the mining business. He understood it as a financial business”, explains the consultant and former director of Cesco Nicolás Fuster, who personally met J. David Lowell after a visit he made to El Salvador. At the time, Fuster worked as mine manager.
“I received him in other occasions at El Teniente and La Coipa. On his visits, he was always relating science and technology to the development and operation of the mine, what he was discovering with the new developments of the mine to check geological models. It was a very important contribution because he always brought new ideas and tried to confirm others conclusions that he had”, he explains.
The geology revolution
In the late 1970s, there was little interest in exploring in Chile. Investors’ eyes were on other mining countries, but not in the last country in the world. However, Lowell bet on our country.
At that time, the work of the geologist was very limited to its function: to explore and determine mineral resources. “But Lowell’s arrival changed it”, says Fuster. “He formed companies to develop, from the very beginnings of a discovery, the entire development of exploration, and give it economic value.”
For the president of the Chilean College of Geologists, Mario Pereira, “the legacy that J. David Lowell gave to mining in Chile and professional geologists was his pragmatism, enthusiasm as an explorer, and overcoming and neglecting dogmas. Lowell said that experience was worth more than academic training, and that is an explanation that should always be sought for mineralized bodies that did not conform to dogmas. The training of a geologist must consider understanding business and understanding the economics of minerals.”
The American geologist raised resources for exploration, and guaranteed a return to investors, with teams of no more than 5 to 6 geologists with the necessary technical and scientific skills.
“That feature in Chile was not known. One of Lowell’s contributions to local mining was to consider that exploration activity went beyond a geological technique to discover a deposit and stay there. He was thinking about the economic impact of it and how to develop the business from the discovery of a deposit, and then either develop it as his own or transfer it to a larger company that had the necessary funds to develop it in case the discovery was older, as happened with Escondida”, says Fuster.
“Geologists, many years after this, we began to have aconception of the mining business in terms of how we could also participate in financial, economic, evaluation aspects, and not stay in the hammer and on field trips”, adds the consultant.
The techniques and discoveries of the American geologist revolutionized the way of doing geology in Chile, and allowed an exploration boom in the country. This gave way to the discovery of new deposits that today have made Chile the world’s largest copper producer. And Lowell, until his last years, assured that there were still deposits to be discovered in the mountain range, betting until the end of his career for our country.