government agencies that could be applied to the mining sector (Task 4). Chapter 7 discusses the need for federally sponsored research and development in mining technologies. Chapter 8 summarizes the committee’s conclusions and recommendations (Task 7).
Finding. Mining produces three types of mineral commodities—metals, industrial minerals, and fuels—that all countries find essential for maintaining and improving their standards of living. Mining provides critical needs in times of war or national emergency. The United States is both a major consumer and a major producer of mineral commodities, and the U.S. economy could not function without minerals and the products made from them. In states and regions where mining is concentrated this industry plays an important role in the local economy.
Mining involves a full life cycle from exploration through production to closure with provisions for potential postmining land use. The development of new technologies benefits every major component of the mineral industries: exploration, mining (physical extraction of the material from the Earth), processing, associated health and safety issues, and environmental issues. The committee recommends that research and development be focused on technology areas critical for exploration, mining, in-situ mining, processing, health and safety, and environmental protection. These technology areas are listed in Table ES-1 and are summarized below.
Modern mineral exploration is largely technology driven. Many mineral discoveries since the 1950s can be attributed to geophysical and geochemical technologies developed by both industry and government. Further research in geological sciences, geophysical and geochemical methods, and drilling technologies could increase the effectiveness and productivity of mineral exploration. Because many of these areas overlap, developments in one area will most likely cross-fertilize research and development in other areas. In addition, many existing technologies in other fields could be adapted for use in mineral exploration.
Technological development, primarily miniaturization in drilling technologies and analytical tools, could dramatically improve the efficiency of exploration, as well as aid in the mining process. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, even as the U.S. mining industry is setting impressive records in underground and surface mine production, productivity, and health and safety in all mining sectors (metal, industrial minerals, and coal), major technological needs have still not been met. Continued government support for spaceborne remote sensing, particularly hyperspectral systems, will be necessary to ensure that this technology is developed to a stage that warrants commercialization. In the field of geological sciences, increasing support of basic science, including support for geological mapping and geochemical research, would provide a significant, though gradual, increase in the effectiveness of mineral exploration. Filling the gaps in fundamental knowledge, including thermodynamic-kinetic data and detailed four-dimensional geological frameworks of ore systems, would aid mineral exploration and development, as well as mining and mineral processing. Focused research on the development of exploration models, particularly for “environmentally friendly” ore deposits, could yield important beneficial results in the short term. If attention were focused on the most important problems, as identified by industry, the effectiveness of research would be greatly increased.
In simple terms, mining involves breaking apart in-situ materials and hauling the broken materials out of the mine, while ensuring the health and safety of miners and the economic viability of the operation. A relentless search has been under way since the early 1900s for new and innovative mining technologies that would improve health and safety and increase productivity. In recent decades another driver has been a growing awareness of the adverse environmental and ecological impacts of mining.
Although industry currently supports the development of most new geochemical and geophysical technologies, basic research, such as determining the chemistry, biology, and spectral character of soils, would significantly benefit the minerals industry. For example, uncertainty about rock stability and gas and water conditions that will be encountered during underground mining impedes rapid advances and creates health and safety hazards. As mining progresses to greater depths, increases in rock stress require innovative designs to ensure the short-term and long-term stability of the mine structure. Truly continuous mining will require an accelerated search for innovative fragmentation and material-handling systems. Sensing, analyzing, and communicating data and information will become increasingly important. Mining environments present unique challenges to the design and operation of equipment, which must be extremely reliable. Increasing the productive operating time of equipment and mining systems will require innovative maintenance strategies, supported by modern monitoring technologies.
Substantial research and development opportunities could be investigated in support of both surface and underground mining. The entire mining system—rock fracturing, material handling, ground support, equipment utilization, and maintenance—would benefit from research and development in many sectors. However, focus should be primarily in four