Keith Robert Yates
Unearthing a satisfying career
2019 UNE Distinguished Alumni Award Winner
It was the potential for discovery that enthralled 16-year-old Keith Yates when first exposed to geology during a Bachelor of Science degree at UNE. "I wasn't a rock collector; I didn't know anything whatsoever about geology, but after six months I was hooked," says Keith. "Stimulated by the impressive teaching staff, I soon became fascinated with the history of the Earth and this has captivated me my whole life."
Keith's timing could not have been better. "I graduated in 1960, well before Australia's massive iron ore deposits or many rich coal seams had been developed; it was early days," says Keith, now 80. "Some would say my timing was a stroke of luck."
Joining the Commonwealth Bureau of Mineral Resources (now Geoscience Australia) in his first professional role, Keith mapped isolated parts of the Northern Territory, North Queensland and Papua New Guinea. "We were explorers in every sense of the word - going to places that not a lot of people had ever been to," he says. "It was like playing a game when you knew the odds were stacked against you, but if you used your nous and applied your scientific knowledge, you stood a good chance of winning the prize."
That glittering prize - for Keith - was not merely unearthing profitable mineral deposits, exciting though that was. It was also rewarding the mining companies and their faithful shareholders, even the states and economies in which he worked.
Keith moved to South Australia in 1970 and spent the next decade scouring our continent and South-East Asia as a chief geologist and exploration manager. But it was during a more senior executive stint with the small listed Adelaide mining and exploration company Australian Development Limited, from 1984-1989, that Keith oversaw perhaps his most memorable discovery - a high-grade gold deposit at White Devil near Tennant Creek, in the Northern Territory.
"It was a very rich deposit and the discovery radically changed the fortunes of the company," Keith says. "Not only was it a scientific endeavour that was very successful; it was also a business venture that was rewarding for the shareholders of the company, which went from market capitalisation of less than $10 million to over $100 million. From 1987-1999 White Devil produced more than 750,000 ounces of gold."
The quest to uncover this precious metal consumed Keith for much of his career. In the 1990s he established his own company to consult to the mining industry and government on minerals exploration. He also became founding executive chairman of Adelaide Resources Limited, which made significant gold, iron and mineral sands discoveries in South Australia.
"There's nothing quite like seeing gold bars coming out of the furnace, especially from ore that you yourself have played a part in discovering," Keith says.
But it is for his role in stimulating and accelerating state-wide minerals exploration and development, and for shaping public policy that Keith is well known. As a taskforce member, he was pivotal in preparing a roadmap for the development of SA's mineral resources, and held several key advisory roles, on the Resources Industry Development Board, and as chair of the Minerals and Energy Advisory Council (MEAC).
"The mining industry in SA was dragging the chain compared to other parts of Australia and I knew there was significant potential that was underplayed, even after the discovery of Olympic Dam in 1975, which is now one of the world's biggest copper mines," Keith says. "It needed a push and the SA economy has benefitted greatly from the export income associated with subsequent discoveries."
A mentor to countless scientists throughout his 60-year career, self-effacing Keith is not one to rest on his laurels, even since "retirement" in 2010. Every two years he organises the NewGenGold Conference - the world’s pre-eminent gold exploration conference - which he founded in 1995, he actively supports STEM education and, as a member of the Playford Trust, helps to allocate scholarships to promising students. "I get a great deal of satisfaction seeing young people not just do well academically but go on to become good geologists, mining engineers and metallurgists in the professional world," Keith says.
In May 2019 the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM), the peak industry body in Australia and New Zealand, recognised this highly respected quiet achiever with an Institute Sector Service Award. It acknowledged not only Keith's discoveries and the substantial economic impetus they've brought to regional communities, but also the support he's shown emerging geoscientists.
And as for the future of mining in Australia? "A lot of the easy discoveries were made when the rocks stuck out of the ground," Keith says. "These days we're having to look deeper into the earth's crust, but the discoveries are still happening. Australia is a big place and there are still lots of empty corners to explore.
“As world economies grow, mining plays an ever-increasing role in satisfying the demand for metals and other raw materials that are a dominant component in almost everything we use. New age smartphones, computers, wind generators, solar cells, batteries and electric cars all require a range of metals in their manufacturing, and the mining industry will be required to meet this demand. The future continues to be exciting!”
For more information about the 2019 Alumni Awards