How a Rogue Geologist Discovered a Diamond Trove in the Canadian Arctic [Chuck Fipke] – by Carl Hoffman (Wired Magazine – November 28, 2008)

(Please note this profile was originally published in November 2008)

Behind an unmarked door in a faded business park outside Kelowna, British Columbia, in a maze of rooms crowded with desks, computers, and floor-to-ceiling shelves, Chuck Fipke sifts through 20-pound bags of dirt.

“We take samples, hey, from gravel and streambeds all over the world,” Fipke says. He sieves the earth, runs it through magnetic drums and centrifuges and electromagnetic separators. Then his technicians, working with scanning electron microscopes, separate out grains and mount them on postage-stamp-sized squares of epoxy. It’s painstaking work but worth the trouble. Fipke has learned to understand those grains of dirt, and that understanding has led him to diamonds.

Eighteen years ago, there was no such thing as a Canadian diamond — as far as anyone knew. Diamonds came mostly from Australia, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, and Russia. De Beers mined 75 percent of the world’s output, much of it tainted by controversial “blood diamonds,” sold to fund African wars.

Today, Canada is the world’s third-largest producer, by value, of rough stones. In the Northwest Territories, BHP Billiton’s Ekati mine has been producing since 1998 and Rio Tinto’s Diavik mine since 2003. De Beers opened its first Canadian mine, at Snap Lake, in July — a confirmation that Canada is the new center of the world.

The story behind the addition of Canada to the ranks of diamond-producing nations leads back to one man: a short, absentminded Canadian geologist named Chuck Fipke. When he discovered diamonds in Lac de Gras, Northwest Territories, in 1991, he started the largest staking rush in North America since George Carmack found gold in the Klondike a century earlier. And he’s not finished: He’s prospecting around the world, toting gravel samples back to his lab in British Columbia to figure out where to look for his next big strike.

In 1970, fresh out of the University of British Columbia with a degree in geology, Chuck Fipke signed on with mining company Kennecott Copper to look for gold and copper in Papua New Guinea. A helicopter would drop him off alone in the middle of a jungle, and pick him up at the end of the day. The terrain was so rough that the chopper often couldn’t land — Fipke would just leap out as it hovered close to the ground. One day he turned around to face 20 locals, arrows strung. He raised his arms, slowly removed his vest, and offered it to “the one who looked like the chief.” By the time the helo returned for him, Fipke was in his underpants clutching a fine array of tribal shields, bows and arrows, and fetishes. “I’ve got an amazing collection of stuff!” he says.

Fipke is a small man with a shaved head, a burnished tan, piercing blue eyes, and forearms like Popeye’s. As a kid, his frantic start-stop mind made people think he was stupid. After getting his high school girlfriend pregnant, he agreed to marry her … and then failed to show up for the wedding. (The couple eventually married after the baby was born.) He stutters and says “hey” in almost every sentence. He frequently loses his glasses and his keys, shows up late to appointments, and has a history of spending prodigious amounts of money in strip joints. His nicknames have included Captain Chaos and Stumpy.

After stints in the Amazon, Australia, and South Africa, Fipke opened a mineral separation laboratory in British Columbia in 1977. A year later, Superior Oil hired him to go back into the field — to look not for metals but gems.

The company already had a search method. A couple of years prior, a geologist named John Gurney, working with Superior’s money at the University of Cape Town, hypothesized that certain common minerals might reliably form alongside diamonds. He used an electron microprobe to analyze geological structures called kimberlite pipes — the places you occasionally (but not often) find diamonds — and discovered that the presence of chromite, ilmenite, and high-chrome, low-calcium garnet did indeed predict a rich strike. He examined a host of pipes in South Africa that had these so-called indicator minerals and published a paper explaining his results.

Fipke heard about Gurney’s work on a tour of De Beers’ Finsch Mine in South Africa and quickly turned himself into an expert on indicator minerals — combining what he understood of Gurney’s work with results coming out of Russian labs and his own skills with field sampling. Superior had worked with Fipke before, back in his gold mining days, so by the time the company wanted someone to go look for kimberlite pipes northwest of Fort Collins, Colorado, Fipke was the best choice. He found half a dozen, but like 98 percent of the kimberlite formations in the world, they didn’t contain diamonds in commercially viable quantities.

But Fipke knew that, 100 miles under those pipes, was a craton, a thick, old chunk of continental plate where diamonds form. Kimberlite pipes are created when magma bubbles up through a craton, expanding and cooling on its way up. If the craton has diamonds in it, the result is either a carrot-shaped, diamond-studded pipe reaching up to the surface or a wide, flat underground structure called a dike.

For the rest of this article, click here: