Clayton Deutsch, globally recognized geostatistician and mining engineer, uses geostatistical tools to ‘see’ what’s below the ground

Geostatistical modeling provides a cost-effective and better understanding of geological sites that may be of interest to the mining and petroleum industry, lessening the impact to the environment

Donna McKinnon - 02 August 2022

Clayton Deutsch was pulled in two different directions as an undergraduate student in engineering at the University of Alberta. Fascinated by geology and earth sciences, he was also a numbers guy who loved complex problem solving. It wasn’t until a friend suggested a graduate course in geostatistics that Deutsch found an area of study that captured both disciplines in a meaningful way, sparking a life-long passion and a distinguished career as a globally recognized geostatistician and mining engineer.

Geostatistics, explains Deutsch, uses computer models to predict what's going on in an un-sampled geological location to provide a probability of how much oil, ore or waste lies between sampled locations.

Traditional methods of understanding and characterization of geological sites that may be of interest to the mining and petroleum industry, such as core and seismic sampling, is limited to that specific, localized sample. In some situations, significant deposits may be as close as a few metres to the left or right. Geostatistics fills in this gap.

“Companies are looking at economics and sustainability, all kinds of site specific environmental, water and other considerations.” says Deutsch. “Knowing what's there and knowing if it’s worth it or not to open a mine is a big deal. You can’t see what is under the ground and you can only drill so much given the expense, so you end up sampling less than one trillionth of the mass of the deposit.”  

Deutsch goes to different sites from time to time to see the rocks and understand the data, he says, but the bulk of the real research is computational in nature.

Over his career, he has developed general geostatistical tools that are flexible enough to adapt to many different situations and can be applied anywhere — providing the most efficient framework to build accurate models of deposits and reservoirs. One of his earliest innovations was a piece of geostatistical software whose fingerprint can be found in virtually all commercial software tools around the world.

“I probably only have two or three good ideas a year,” jokes Deutsch. “But when you realize, hey this is a really good idea and you see it develop and mature and put into practice, and then become industry standard, that’s just cool. That’s what keeps me going, a really good idea, or a really good student.” 

The problem facing the petroleum and mining industry, Deutsch explains, is not the scarcity of resources, but the expense of extracting them. Even with advances in electrification and decarbonization, these processes still require copper, zinc, cobalt and other rare metals. Electric vehicles, for example, use more than double the copper of an internal combustion engine. The demand is high, and growing. 

“What a lot of people don't realize is there are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of deposits around the world, but you can't start a mine with less than approximately 10 billion dollars,” says Deutsch. “It’s a question of prioritizing them and choosing which ones to advance.” 

The accuracy and reliability of geostatistical modeling means more efficient means of producing natural resources, with potentially less impact on the environment.

“Even as we move away from hydrocarbons, we still want freedom of mobility for work and recreation,” says Deutsch. “We want consumer, industrial and electronic products. We want to be able to get fresh groceries. We need air conditioning for quality of life and work. All this requires a tremendous amount of energy. You name it — it all comes from a mine.” 

Deutsch, who grew up in Preeceville, Saskatchewan, was named a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Natural Resources Uncertainty Management in 2010, and again in 2017. In his role as director and professor in the School of Mining and Petroleum Engineering, Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Deutsch has supervised more than 60 graduate students, mentored over 500 postgraduate students and taught hundreds of industry short courses all over the world. He is keen to welcome the next generation of mining engineers, a field he says is in high demand around the world.  

“Mining has historically been male-dominated, but that is changing quickly,” he says. “The industry is being reinvented, and there is tremendous demand.” One of his students, became the first female professor of mining engineering in Canada.  

In spite of his many industry and research accomplishments, Deutsch says his greatest legacy is about the people.

“Honestly, what else is there?,” he says. “I've written nine books, but other people will write newer books and technology changes and they'll be in the dustbin. It’s really about the people, the students. I enjoy their success, and many have become academic and industry leaders. They're working around the world and in our universities, educating other people. That's the impact that we as professors can have.” 

Learn more about the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s mining engineering program here