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Ron Britten
Exploring in challenging conditions

After decades of exploration in exotic locales, Ron Britten finds himself back in his home province of British Columbia, Canada, investigating what is surely the most extraordinary but potentially rewarding find of his career: an alloy deposit rich in nickel but devoid of sulphur.

“Nickel-iron alloy mineralization is difficult to see in the field because the lack of sulphides means there is no bright oxide or rust color to highlight the mineralization” says Britten, vice president of exploration for Vancouver-based First Point Minerals. “It’s also an unusual situation because we’re doing both exploration and metallurgy early on, before we’ve even done any drilling.”

The nickel-iron alloy mineral at First Point’s Decar property in north central BC is called awaruite. It’s a naturally occurring stainless steel that contains 75% nickel with the remainder consisting of iron and minor amounts of copper and cobalt. Awaruite is highly magnetic and heavy and could lend itself to either magnetic or gravity separation.

If First Point can prove up enough tonnage in the disseminated deposit and figure out how to extract the nickel, the junior will have expanded the repertoire of viable nickel deposits beyond nickel sulphides and laterites to include a sulphur-free awaruite source that requires no advanced processing.

“Without sulphides, you don’t have to worry about environmental issues like acid mine drainage down the road and you can bypass smelters and refiners,” says Britten

Britten spent his early childhood on an army base in Chilliwack, BC, where he developed a love of the outdoors that eventually propelled him into a geology career. He studied geological engineering at the University of British Columbia and later completed a PhD at the Australian National University in Canberra.

One of his most memorable exploration experiences was finding an outcrop containing chalcocite while following up geochemical anomalies in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the early days of his career.

Because sooty chalcocite is a copper sulphide mineral that forms as a result of tropical weathering and enrichment, the Canadian never seen the mineral in the field, only in a university lab. Even so, he identified the mineral correctly and uncovered a brand new copper porphyry system.
 
“It was one of those rare occasions when you send your samples off to the lab and then you get a radio phone call saying ‘hey, you’ve got lots of copper!’ ”

Britten went on to play a part in the discovery of  at least two more copper systems in PNG: the Nena deposit containing 32 million tonnes (mt) grading 2.3% copper, 0.58 g/t gold and 3.6 g/t silver and the Frieda River porphyry deposit containing 860 mt grading 0.47% copper and 0.31 g/t gold.

It was this early experience with copper porphyries in PNG and other parts of the circum pacific that helped him identify the unusual disseminated nickel at Decar.

The property was originally marketed to Britten in the 1996 as a potential gold target within ultramafics, but included in the option proposal package was a brief academic paper describing the style of nickel alloy occurrences.

“There were photos of a thin section that showed a disseminated style of mineralization associated with pervasive alteration and that was what piqued my interest,” says Britten.

But with nickel prices in the doldrums at US$3.5 per pound, First Point put the project on the shelf. About a decade later, when nickel was trading over US$20 per pound, Britten said to his partner Peter Bradshaw, the company’s president and CEO, “we need to dust off the Decar reports.”

This summer, First Point is drilling six to eight holes to investigate the potential for nickel alloy mineralization at depth. Cliffs Natural Resources Exploration Inc., a division of a large iron and coal producer familiar with the magnetic separation process, is earning an initial 51% interest in the property by spending US$4.5million on the property in four years, including a commitment of US$1million this year.

Britten, 59, considers the most important characteristics of a good explorer to be mental and physical fitness, a keen eye, and the ability to think in 3-D while considering the temporal events and processes that affect mineralization styles. Just as important is the willingness to put up with difficult physical conditions, says Britten, who once suffered from malaria and dengue fever, both potentially life-threatening tropical diseases caused by a mosquito-borne parasites.

“If you enjoy the outdoors and are not afraid of challenging conditions including bears, weather and bugs - both ones you can see and the ones you can’t - you’ll probably make a good explorer,” he says. “Just be sure to take a mosquito net.”