Guest post: The foundation and future of mining lies in research

Posted on July 30, 2013 by Minerals Make Life

As the world’s population surges past seven billion and millions of people join the middle class in fast-rising economies across the globe, demand for critical raw materials like metals and minerals will only continue to increase while supplies tighten. For this reason, the cutting-edge research underway within the department of mining and engineering at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF) is critical to ensuring access to the raw materials needed to power innovation and development in the years to come.

In an increasingly competitive world, one of the few ways to ensure access to critical minerals is through technological development of more complex geological structures and terrains. For example, my department has been exploring how best to safely and efficiently mine in severe weather conditions — namely in the Arctic region. The Arctic presents unique challenges, such as air inversion on cold days which can force a surface mine to stop production as vehicle emissions and dust do not disperse, causing air quality violations. A team of scientists consisting of mining engineers and atmospheric science faculty are exploring solutions on how to mitigate air inversion problems in cold weather surface mines.

As one of very few universities in the world conducting research on cold climate-related challenges to mining, our work will prove critical in the coming years as new technologies and opportunities arise to pursue mineral extraction in the far north.  

It is clear that future mining operations will face difficult, uphill battles to obtain necessary permits— a serious issue that could be mitigated with research undertook at universities like UAF.  Due to the difficulty in obtaining new permits, the mining industry will be forced to rely more on existing operations, resulting in lower grade mined material as their main reserves deplete. In addition, newer permits will demand lower environmental impacts, all of which will require newer technologies for mining, minerals processing and remediation.  Thus, research will play a key role in shaping our future, from making low grade ore economical to lessening environmental impacts of mineral processing. 

More challenges to mining abound. Currently, the federal government does not fund mining related research at the levels needed for major breakthrough or development. In addition, due to low awareness of the industry very few students elect to study mining engineering.  In turn, universities downgrade or eliminate mining engineering programs citing lack of students and/or funding.

Greater funding for universities will provide benefits beyond research outcomes– more funds will keep undergraduate academic programs alive and help create mining engineers with advanced training in order to ensure an educated and well-trained workforce for the mining industry’s future.  This is a major reason mining companies operating in Alaska have made significant contributions ($3 million to date) to UAF’s research endowment.

Moreover, qualified mining engineers are needed not just to staff mines, but also to run government agencies that handle permits.  A shortage of expertise in government agencies is one cause for permit delays.  Thus, a shortage of engineers has and will continue to hit mining operations both internally and externally. 

Ultimately, the United States could serve as a leader in responsible resource development, if we can continue to encourage innovation and education. Without well-funded and staffed research, we will struggle to secure minerals critical to new technologies and our international competitiveness will drop. Let’s keep our competitive edge and reinforce the importance of minerals, mining and education as a winning combination in our efforts to remain at the forefront of scientific development and technological advancement.

Dr. Rajive Ganguli is the chair of the mining and geological engineering department at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

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