Former SME president Will Wilkinson reflects on four decades of mineral exploration

William Gleason

March 4, 2021

Looking back on a career that spans nearly four decades, 25 countries and five continents, Will Wilkinson, recalled a few failures, many more successes and a great adventure along the way. Wilkinson is the 2020 recipient of SME’s Robert M. Dreyer Award in Applied Economic Geology.

The award was established in 1999 to recognize outstanding achievements in applied economic geology. “The outstanding achievements so recognized must have been accomplished through commercial exploration or development of metalliferous and/or nonmetalliferous mineral deposits.”

On Thursday, Wilkinson delivered the Dreyer Lecture. He spoke about earliest experiences in exploration as a young boy collecting rocks on a family trip in 1964 when he had his first chance to “bang the rocks out of the outcrop” which cemented his career in geology. That love for geology and exploration grew and ended up taking Wilkinson around the world in search of the next great mineral discovery.

“I couldn’t have dreamed as a boy in Mississippi that I would one day work in places that I thought only existed in the pages of National Geographic,” Wilkinson said.

During his career as an exploration geologist, Wilkinson worked in Africa, Serbia, Sweden, Afghanistan and the United States, among many other locations. It was an extraordinary career.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Wilkinson and his team traveled with armed security while exploring some of the most interesting geological places in the world. In Kamchatka, Russia, he flew on a Russian helicopter with seats attached to the fuel tanks and in Afghanistan he had to wear bullet-proof vests and travel with armed guards while keeping one eye open for minerals and the other for possible attacks from the Taliban.

Wilkinson retired in 2015 after nearly 25 years with Freeport-McMoRan. As vice president exploration, Africa, he was responsible for project direction, reconnaissance and acquisitions throughout the continent, which led to a major discovery.

In his talk, he revealed some of the challenges his faced along the way, not the least of which is working in a field where the probability of a major discovery is 0.0002 percent. He also spoke of some of the keys to a success, the highest being the discovery and development of a new mineral resource.

Wilkinson noted that while the perception of an exploration geologist is that of a person working alone and in remote parts of the world, his career was made possible only with the support of many people, the most important, his family.



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