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Evolutionary and Revolutionary Technologies for Mining
and mineral production. Agriculture research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others has contributed greatly to the productivity of farms, the quality of food, and the safety of agricultural products. Energy research and development by DOE and its predecessors has provided better ways to produce and use scarce, clean fuels and has improved our energy security.
The USBM was the focal point for federal research in mineral technology from its inception in 1910 to its demise in 1996. Its accomplishments and contributions to the U.S. economy were significant. For example, the bureau developed fundamental technology for extracting refractory gold, which helped to establish Nevada’s modern gold industry. Early work in taconite extraction and processing was very helpful to Minnesota’s iron industry. The USBM was also the developer and publisher of thermodynamic data on important mineral-processing systems.
During World War II the USBM developed zirconium and titanium metallurgy. Bureau experts were world leaders in mine health and safety technology. Technology developed by the bureau and its funded research clients in explosives, combustion, and ventilation not only improved mine health and safety but is also widely used in other industrial, civil, and military applications. In addition, the federal government’s research and development programs have traditionally funded work in mining schools and other centers of excellence, thereby contributing to the education of engineers and technologists needed by industry and federal and state government agencies.
In the 1980s most facets of the mining industry suffered a major recession. Almost every major mining industry research and development facility was closed, and most companies curtailed their formal research and development programs. In the 1980s and 1990s the equipment companies picked up some of the slack, and the USBM continued to provide a modest funding base for mining schools.
The federal government’s current efforts in mineral technology are very small and unfocused. The mining industry continues to progress technologically, but many universities are finding it difficult to obtain funding for mining-specific research. Unless more federally funded research and development programs, such as the IOF Program, are forthcoming, the technological progress of the industry may slow down and eventually affect the education of trained technical people for industry and government. Technology transfer to mining from other industries (e.g., medical, manufacturing, chemical, telecommunications) must also be improved.
DOE’s stated objective of energy conservation is achievable in the mining industry, which is a major energy user. Increases in productivity in mining, a reduction in the number and complexity of process steps, and improvements in comminution are all examples of advances that could reduce energy consumption. Improvements in efficiency could further optimize by-product and emission management and supplement the ongoing health and safety research and development done by NIOSH. In addition, more federal participation in mining technology research would meet one of the criteria for government support of research and development: “development of new enabling, or broadly applicable, technologies for which government is the only funder available” (NRC, 1995c).