Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations
The Committee on Technologies for the Mining Industries has (1) reviewed information concerning the U.S. mining industry; (2) identified critical research and development needs related to the exploration, mining, and processing of coal, industrial minerals, and metals; and (3) examined the federal contribution to research and development in the mining process. The committee has atttended presentations and received information from representatives of government programs, industry, and academia. The committee also reviewed government documents, pertinent NRC reports, other technical reports, and published literature.
The previous chapters have discussed the importance of the mining industry to consumers and the U.S. economy (Chapter 2), presented technological gaps and research needs in exploration, mining, and processing (Chapter 3), and outlined the technological needs associated with health and safety (Chapter 4) and environmental issues (Chapter 5) in the minerals industry. The report has detailed the involvement of federal agencies in mining (Chapter 6) and the importance of federal involvement in mining research and development (Chapter 7).
IMPORTANCE OF MINING TO THE U.S. ECONOMY
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.
TECHNOLOGIES IN EXPLORATION, MINING, AND PROCESSING
Mining involves a full life cycle, from exploration through production to closure with provisions for potential postmining land use. The development of new technologies has benefits for the mineral industries throughout this full life cycle and for 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 (Table 8-1).
The mining industries are constantly undergoing incremental or evolutionary changes as uses are found for new technologies developed for other applications. Occasionally, revolutionary changes occur when new technologies, developed either inside or outside the industry, take hold. Chapter 3 provides examples of past evolutionary and revolutionary changes. Given the current rapid pace of technological development in broad areas (from information technology to microbiology), the committee envisions that mining industries will be able to take advantage of some of these developments to the benefit of consumers, producers, workers, and the environment. Progress towards these revolutionary changes will produce concrete developments for industry. These revolutionary changes can result from basic research, applied research, or technology development (Sidebar 8-1).
HEALTH AND SAFETY RISKS AND BENEFITS
Finding. Advances in technology have greatly enhanced the health and safety of miners. However, potential health hazards arising from the introduction of new technologies, which may not become evident immediately, must be addressed as soon as they are identified.
TABLE 8-1 Key Research and Development Needs for the Mining Industries
RESEARCH OPPORTUNITIES IN ENVIRONMENTAL TECHNOLOGIES
Finding. The need for a better understanding of the scientific underpinnings of the environmental issues and for more effective technologies to address them cannot be overemphasized.
Recommendation. Technologies that attempt to predict, prevent, mitigate, or treat environmental problems will be increasingly important to the economic viability of the mining industry. Improved environmental technologies related to mine closures present the greatest opportunity for increasing productivity and saving energy. Research is also needed on water-quality issues related to mine closures, which are often challenging and costly to address for all types of mining.
ROLE OF FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
The committee agrees with previous NRC studies (e.g., NRC, 1995c) indicating that the federal government has important roles in nearly all areas of basic and applied research and in fundamental technology development (Sidebar 8-2).
SIDEBAR 8-1 Potential Revolutionary Developments for Mining
Finding. The market will not support an optimal amount of research and development, possibly by a wide margin, without government support. The private sector tends to underfund research and development, particularly high-risk projects and projects with long-term benefits.
Finding. Although research in a broad range of fields may eventually have beneficial effects for the mining industry, the committee identified a number of areas in which new basic scientific data or technology would be particularly beneficial (Table 8-1).
Recommendation. The federal government has an appropriate, clear, and necessary role to play in funding research and development on mining technologies. The government should have a particularly strong interest in what is sometimes referred to as high-risk, “far-out,” “off-the-path,” or “blue-sky” research. A portion of the federal funding for basic research and long-term development should be devoted to achieving revolutionary advances with potential to provide substantial benefits to both the mining industry and the public.
Federal funding may be directed to agencies responsible for basic research, including the DOE, DOD, NSF, and the National Institutes of Health. In addition, the Mining Industries of the Future Program should allow for support of long-range, “frontier,” or “blue sky” projects. A side benefit of funding for basic research and long-term technology development, particularly in cooperation with universities, is the training of scientists and engineers in the mining sector and in other technology-intensive sectors of the economy.
AVAILABLE RESEARCH AND TECHNOLOGY RESOURCES
For more than a century the federal government has been involved in research and development for our basic industries. In addition, a number of federal agencies are involved in science, engineering, and technology development that could be useful to the mining industry.
Finding. The committee recognizes that federal agencies undertake worthwhile research and development for their own purposes. Research and development that could benefit the mining sector of the U.S. economy is being pursued by many federal agencies. The problem is not the lack of skilled
SIDEBAR 8-2 Basic and Applied Research and Development
The Committee on Criteria for Federal Support of Research and Development (NRC, 1995c) developed the following characteristics for federally funded research:
researchers but the lack of direct focus on the problems of most interest to the mining industry. It would be helpful if progress in these programs were systematically communicated to all interested parties, including the mining sector.
Recommendation. Because it may be difficult for a single federal agency to coordinate the transfer of research results and technology to the mining sector, a coordinating body or bodies should be established to facilitate transfer of appropriate federally funded technology to the mining sector. The Office of Industrial Technologies has made some progress in this regard by organizing a meeting of the agencies involved in research that could benefit the mining industry.
Office of Industrial Technology Mining Industries of the Future Program
The OIT is utilizing a consortia approach in its Industries of the Future Program. This model has proved extremely successful (NRC, 1997a). In programs focused on technologies for the mining industries such consortia should include universities, suppliers, national laboratories, and any ad hoc groups deemed to be helpful, as well as government entities and the mining industry.
The Mining Industries of the Future Program is subject to management and oversight by the Department of Energy and receives guidance from the National Mining Association and its Technology Committee. The committee recognizes that the research and technology needs of the mining industries draw upon many disciplines, ranging from basic sciences to applied health, safety, and environmental concerns.
Recommendation: Consortia are a preferred way of leveraging expertise and technical inputs to the mining sector, and the consortia approach should be continued wherever appropriate. Advice from experts in diverse fields would be helpful for directing federal investments in research and development for the mining sector. The Office of Industrial Technologes should institute periodic, independent program reviews of the Mining Industries of the Future Program to assure that industry needs are beinrg addressed appropriately.