A Geological Journey to the West

Professor John Dilles, Fulbright U.S. Future Scholar, Oregon State University/Curtin University

My Fulbright Future Scholarship enabled me to engage in collaborative research at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia, providing a wonderful experience for me personally, professionally, and academically.

As a recently retired professor of geology from Oregon State University specializing in metallic mineral deposits, having the opportunity to spend 3.5 months in Perth with my wife (also a retired geology professor with expertise in volcanoes and igneous rocks) was a unique and special time that I will remember forever.

During our stay in WA, we benefited from interactions with diverse Australians, including long-term residents descended from sheep and cattle ranchers running vast stations in the dry outback, as well as Southern European immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Greece who came for work in the gold mines, fishing, and business. Perth, a modern city of over 2 million people, boasts a population where more than 25% were not born in Australia and came for employment. Despite being one of the world’s great mining and mineral exploration centers, Perth is isolated, separated by a 5-hour plane flight from the nearest Australian metropolis. Minerals like iron, gold, aluminum, and recently lithium, alongside oil/gas, have shaped the impressive skyline of downtown Perth, making it a prosperous city. We were impressed by the optimism of the people we met, the abundance of city parks, public transportation, and recreational opportunities.

Our personal highlights included a camping trip north along the Indian Ocean shoreline to visit living stromatolite colonies—one of Earth’s earliest life forms over 2.5 billion years ago. We also explored the spectacular Ningaloo Reef, easily reached by a short snorkel swim from shore and unaffected by the damage seen in the Great Barrier Reef. Additionally, we toured Karijini National Park, revealing red “iron-formations” that supply over 35% of the world’s iron ore, contributing $100 billion to Western Australia’s economy. Local trips to botanical exhibits in King’s Park, the Cottesloe “Sculpture by the Sea” festival, and the beaches and restaurants of Fremantle added to our enjoyable experiences.

Professionally, my collaboration with professors and researchers at Curtin University and the University of Western Australia involved utilizing excellent laboratories in the geology and physics departments. Dr. Chris Kirkland and I employed laser ablation inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometry to determine the U/Pb age of zircons from igneous rocks in western Montana. This study contributes to understanding copper, gold, silver, lead-zinc, and critical minerals occurring in mineral deposits of the Boulder Batholith, including the world-famous Butte district. Future collaborations with Dr. Kirkland are planned, and ongoing work with Dr. Katy Evans and Dr. Brian Tattitch involves experiments on the origin of calcium sulfate (anhydrite) in hydrous dacite and andesite magmas related to mineral deposits. Meetings with mining companies in Perth and discussions with Jindalee Resources about a potential research project on their lithium claystone deposit in the McDermitt caldera, Oregon, were also part of my professional endeavors. Our Oregon State University research group has secured funds from the Department of Energy to initiate this study.

Academically, I co-organized and taught a one-day short course on the origin of porphyry copper and other mineral deposits, delivered to 80 students and professionals at the University of Western Australia. I presented two research talks at Curtin University and one to a private mining company that had previously funded my research. Additionally, my wife and I assisted in teaching a week-long field geology course near Albany, WA, led by Dr. Katy Evans and attended by 80 second-year geology majors. During my time in Perth, I dedicated considerable effort to completing and editing a manuscript by Tom Benson, Matt Coble, and myself, published on August 30, 2023, in Science Advances. The paper, titled “Hydrothermal enrichment of lithium in intracaldera illite-bearing claystones,” describes the potential origin of lithium, a mineral crucial to the world’s energy future, from a giant claystone deposit in the McDermitt caldera, Nevada—the first such claystone deposit to be mined in the USA or the world.

The Fulbright staff and Curtin University, our host, played a crucial role in ensuring my Scholarship visit was satisfying and productive. The kick-off orientation meeting and Gala dinner facilitated interactions among Fulbright Scholars, allowing discussions on the program’s goals and the expected activities of each scholar. I wholeheartedly endorse the Fulbright program and encourage anyone interested to seriously consider applying. Thank you to the Fulbright Commission of both the USA and Australia.