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BHP Billiton Exploration Manager Wins National Science and Technology Award

12 March 2002

BHP Billiton Manager Exploration Technologies Edwin van Leeuwen was announced as the winner of the Clunies Ross National Science and Technology Award on Thursday 7 March 2002.

Dr van Leeuwen won the award for his pioneering work developing the FALCON™ airborne gravity gradiometer - widely regarded as the most significant development in mineral exploration technology in the past 50 years.

The Clunies Ross National Science and Technology Award recognises exceptional people who have shown outstanding personal commitment over an extended period of time and successful innovation involving the application of science and technology for the benefit of Australia.

As leader of the FALCON™ team, Edwin co-ordinated researchers based in the US, Europe and Australia and delivered the groundbreaking airborne gravity gradiometer system, which performed 300 per cent better than specification.

Dr van Leeuwen said he was thrilled to be a recipient of the award and paid tribute to his entire team.  

"The award recognises six years of very technically challenging work, developing the world's first airborne gravity gradiometer system," he said.

"The success of this project is due to the exceptional team of mathematicians, physicists, system engineers and geophysicists who worked under difficult and trying conditions to develop this unique technology.  

"In addition, the support of BHP Billiton senior management and excellent cooperation between the Minerals Technology and Exploration groups during the system build was integral to FALCON's™ success."

Dr van Leeuwen was presented with a unique 10-ounce silver medal at a ceremony in Melbourne. The medal features Sir Ian Clunies Ross on one side and a brolga on the other. (The brolga was Sir Ian’s favourite bird.)

Traditionally exploration requires months of complex ground work in remote locations. However measuring changes in rock density in remote or underwater areas from the air provides the ability to survey more quickly and easily - and subsequently slash exploration times.

FALCON™ is a practical airborne gravity system for mapping mineral and hydrocarbon deposits. The system is flown in a Cessna 'Grand Caravan', single-engined aircraft and generates maps of gravity fields showing geological detail as small as 100 metres.

Dr van Leeuwen said: "We seldom think of the fact that we all exert an extremely small gravitational force on the people around us. It is about a millionth millionth of the earth's gravitational force.

"There are very few instruments in the world that can measure this force. However, FALCON™ is one. It is so sensitive that it can measure the gravitational force from a three-year-old child standing several metres away."

The FALCON™ project was conceived in 1990 and is based on technology developed for use in Trident submarines.

After five years of development work, which included negotiating the release of the technology with the US Navy and State Department, the FALCON™ project was launched in November 1999 and has already flown over 300,000 line kilometres in North and South America, Australia and South Africa looking for iron ore, diamonds, copper, gold and other base metals.

FALCON™ provides BHP Billiton with a key competitive advantage in exploring for mineral and hydrocarbon resources. In fact, deploying the technology forms the basis for a significant number of the Group's ventures with other parties around the globe. (About 25 specific projects at present.)

There are currently three FALCON™-equipped planes in service. Development of the technology is also continuing with a fully digital, helicopter-mounted system currently under construction.