Current Activities in Federal Agencies
Since the demise of the USBM in 1996, the level of federal research to assist the mining industry in the United States has fallen and has not been well coordinated. One exception is research on occupational health and safety in the mining industry, which is being overseen by NIOSH. As awareness of environmental concerns has increased, numerous research programs have been initiated throughout the federal government to develop new and improved methods of remediating historic metal-mine and coal-mine wastes. Information on mineral production in the United States and outside the country is available from the Bureau of Census in the U.S. Department of Commerce, the USGS (often in cooperation with state geological surveys), and the DOE Energy Information Administration, although data collection is not well coordinated among these agencies.
One area that is no longer overseen by a federal agency is research to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of mining technologies. However, many other federal research and development programs dealing with transportation, excavation, basic chemical processes, and novel materials could ultimately be of help to the mining industry and the nation. The only active federal program dealing solely with the development of more efficient and more environmentally benign mining technologies is the Mining Industries of the Future Program, a component of the IOF Program of the DOE’s OIT. A number of federal agencies are also involved in science, engineering, and technology development that could be useful for the mining sector (Appendix C).
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for the national forests, which contain a number of coal, metallic, and industrial-mineral mining districts. The U.S. Forest Service assists in mineral exploration by maintaining a minerals and geology inventory for national forest lands. The minerals and geology management group within the agency oversees the restoration and reclamation of the land and watersheds affected by historic mining practices. The Forest Service is part of the federal Interdepartmental Abandoned Mine Lands Watershed Cleanup Initiative, which also involves the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, USGS, and Environmental Protection Agency. Together these agencies are developing a coordinated strategy for the cleanup of environmental contamination from abandoned hardrock mine sites on federal lands. Although the initiative does not directly support research on remediation technologies, various agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have individual programs that support in-house and grant-supported research.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducts the Advanced Technology Program, which supports a wide variety of cost-shared projects involving the government and the private sector. The majority of projects are focused on information technology, biotechnology, and materials research. Current projects that could have immediate spin-off applications for the mining industry include intelligent control, membrane and other separation technologies, microsystem and nanosystem technologies, and catalysis and biocatalysis technologies. No NIST programs are directly focused on the mining industry, although the agency recently conducted a study of mine fires.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY
Currently, most of the federal engineering and technology development that is focused on or could be useful to the mining industry is being conducted by DOE. Programs in many parts of the department, but especially in the national laboratories (Table 6-1), have yielded advances relevant to the mining industry. The OIT Mining Industries of the Future Program is currently the only agency program focused solely on improving the energy efficiency, resource utiliza-
TABLE 6-1 Estimates of Mining Research and Development Capabilities of the National Laboratories.
tion, and competitiveness of the mining industry. The purpose of the program, a collaborative partnership with the NMA, is to demonstrate, evaluate, and accelerate the development of new technologies and provide scientific insights into the needs of the mining industry. DOE has a cost-shared cooperative agreement program in place to support innovative, precompetitive projects that demonstrate potential energy, environmental, and economic benefits for coal, metal, and industrial-minerals mining. Projects are 50 percent cost shared with the government and must have at least a 10 percent contribution from industry. The program has already awarded a second round of industry partnerships and is soliciting proposals for a third round in the area of mineral processing.
The DOE Office of Transportation Technologies supports research into technologies to reduce emissions from heavy vehicles and develop advanced automotive materials, advanced batteries, and alternative fuels. Although none of these programs is focused specifically on the mining industry, research on new technologies for heavy vehicles could have broad implications for future mining methods. Alternative vehicle technologies for mining are also being explored by the Hydrogen Program in the DOE Office of Power Technologies, which is funding the development of a fuel-cell-powered mining vehicle. Drilling technologies are also being explored by the Office of Power Technologies through grant awards to universities and the private sector. Research supervised by the Geothermal Drilling Organization focused on the development of new and improved drilling technologies for geothermal fields, such as slimhole drilling and improved instrumentation, is also of interest to the mining industry. Research on drilling is also being funded by the DOE Office of Fossil Energy. This research is primarily focused on oil and gas drilling but has a large overlap with excavation drilling applications. The Office of Coal and Power in the DOE Office of Fossil Energy also supports research on coal processing for various applications.
Engineering development on many fronts is being conducted in DOE national laboratories. Work at the Albany Research Center, a former USBM laboratory, is focused on mineral processing and metallurgy. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory is investigating coal processing as part of its mission to investigate alternative technologies for processing by-products. Mining technologies, particularly transportation, robotics, sensors, and instrumentation, are a focus of research at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, which also has a fractured-rock science team whose task is to integrate interdisciplinary research activities at other national laboratories, federal agencies, and universities. Research and technology development at the national laboratories could have important implications for the development of new mining technologies. For example, focused research is being done at Argonne National Laboratory on the development of analytic tools and sensor technology, which would be especially useful for resource recovery. The Los Alamos National Laboratory has a long-standing interest in drilling technologies through its support of geothermal power-generation technologies. Sandia National Laboratory has focused research on fuel-cell technologies for transportation that could impact mine transportation; this laboratory is also investigating various means of underground imaging.
Research into technologies for the remediation of waste materials is being undertaken at a number of the national laboratories, as well as through the DOE Office of Environmental Management. Many of the techniques being developed may have applications in the mining industry. The Mine Waste Technology Program operated jointly by the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory and the Environmental Protection Agency is focused on metallic mining wastes. The Office of Basic Energy Sciences supports research on basic chemical processes.
Although the predecessors of DOE, along with the U.S. Department of the Interior, at one time conducted research related to the exploration and development of nuclear fuel resources (uranium and thorium), almost no research is being conducted by federal agencies in these areas today.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
Although no DOD research is focused directly on the mining industry, a number of research projects could have spin-off benefits for the industry. The geotechnical laboratory at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station specializes in soil and rock mechanics, slope stability, seepage analysis, engineering geology, geophysics, dust control, and vehicle mobility. Although this research is focused on military applications, much of the data produced would also be applicable to the mining industry.
The Army Excavation Logistics Center and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency both support research into excavation and penetration that could be of direct benefit to the mining industry. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funds innovative concept research in a wide variety of fields that may be applicable for national defense. Although, few existing projects appear to be directly applicable to the mining industry, investigations of novel vehicle designs by both individual DARPA investigators and the Office of Naval Research may provide interesting new concepts for mining. The Army Research Laboratory conducts research on robotics, excavation technologies, sensors, and materials, all of which could have direct mining applications. The Office of Naval Research, the Naval Research Laboratory, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Air Force Research Laboratory are developing sophisticated communications technologies and means of underground imaging. The Air Force Space Systems Command is evaluating hyperspectral equipment (SEBASS), which could be useful for mineral exploration. This system
is a midwave, long-range imaging spectrometer for remote sensing that operates from an airborne platform.
Like many other agencies, DOD is conducting research into environmental remediation at its own laboratories and through grants and fellowships that may impact mine cleanup technologies.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
NIOSH conducts research on reducing miners’ occupational injuries and illnesses, primarily at its Pittsburgh and Spokane research centers. Although most of this research is conducted in house, NIOSH also works with the coal- and metal-mining industries to develop test beds and new technologies and provides grants to universities for applied research. Areas of active research include the design of equipment to prevent injuries; control of diesel emissions and emissions of toxic substances; control of dust and silica; monitoring of dust; development of emerging technologies; prevention of fires and explosions; improved ventilation; ground control of coal; ground control of metals and non-metals; hazard detection; prevention of hearing loss; understanding of human factors; surveillance and statistical activities; and training and education.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR
As part of its mandate to manage and protect large portions of the federal land system, the U.S. Department of the Interior is involved in mining issues. The Bureau of Land Management and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement provide regulatory control for existing mining operations. The Office of Surface Mining is particularly active in the transfer of information technologies applicable to regulating the mining industry to local, state, and federal governments. The agency provides technical assistance to coal-mining programs.
A number of groups are working on the remediation and reclamation of abandoned mine sites. These groups include the Bureau of Land Management, the Office of Surface Mining, the National Park Service, the USGS, and the Bureau of Reclamation. The USGS is particularly active in the study of acid mine drainage and the development of technologies to remediate historic sites. The Office of Surface Mining supports the Abandoned Mine Land Program, which repairs, reclaims, and restores as much land and water as possible through a fund supported by fees collected from active coal-mining operations. As part of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, the federal government has collected more than $5.5 billion in taxes on coal production. Congress has allocated a large portion of these funds to states and tribes, which have leveraged the monies by forming partnerships with federal and private interests and have reclaimed more than 5,500 problem areas and more than 180,000 acres, using both traditional and innovative technologies.
The USGS supports mineral-exploration research for the coal, industrial-minerals, and metal-mining industries. The basic level of support is the development of geological maps by the Geologic Division, which identifies potential areas with mineral resources. The Minerals Resources Program focuses on land stewardship, national and international commodity studies, mineral conservation, and materials flow. In addition, the program develops geological ore-deposit models through detailed investigations of specific ore deposits and ore districts, which can be helpful in mineral exploration. Geophysicists in the program are working on the development and application of new geophysical technologies to the search for mineral deposits. Remote-sensing technologies and applications are also being developed by the USGS. These technologies are applicable to the exploration for and identification of wastes from the mining industry.
The Division of Energy and Mineral Resources at the Bureau of Indian Affairs helps tribes identify and promote the development of mineral resources on their reservations. As part of this program the Bureau has developed the National Indian Energy and Mineral Resources Data Base to collect and archive all data and information nationwide. The program also conducts limited mineral exploration and has worked on the development of exploration models.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR
The MSHA enforces laws on mine health and safety and provides technical support to its enforcement arm and the mining industry. The technical support team at MSHA, primarily at the Pittsburgh Safety and Health Technology Center, conducts field investigations, laboratory studies, and analyses to resolve specific problems related to dust and other physical and toxic agents, mine electrical systems, mine emergency operations, mine waste, geotechnical engineering, roof control, and ventilation. MSHA also evaluates equipment and materials used in mines, primarily through the Approval and Certification Center. MSHA’s National Mine Health and Safety Academy develops resources and offers training programs for miners and mine supervisors.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION
Although the U.S. Department of Transportation is not directly involved in research focused on the mining industry, research supported by the Federal Railway Administration on new railroad vehicle and safety technologies and research by the Federal Transit Administration on vehicular design and propulsion technologies could have important spin-offs for the mining industry. The Department of Transportation also funds research on the use of aggregate and sand in roadways through the Federal Highway Program.
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funds in-house and grant-supported research by academic and industry groups on remediation and reclamation technologies. Programs dealing with abandoned mine lands are of primary interest to the mining industry. These programs include treatment technologies (“end-of-the-pipe”), source-control technologies, and to a lesser extent resource-recovery technologies. Active research areas in source-control technologies include sulfate-reducing bacteria technologies; biological destruction of cyanide for heap-leaching operations; transportation-control and pathwayinterruption techniques, including infiltration controls, sealing, grouting, and plugging by microbiological systems; and acid mine-drainage production and prediction techniques. Because mine wastes are volumetrically large at Superfund sites, remediation is the focus of many projects in the Superfund Innovative Technology Evaluation (SITE) Program. Results of these research programs could significantly advance the design of more environmentally benign mining operations, especially solution mining. Data from scoping studies of proposed mining operations, such as the Copper Range Company Solution Mining Project (White Pine, Michigan), or remedial actions could also provide the mining industry with important information for the development of innovative technologies.
The Mine Waste Technology Program, operated by the Environmental Protection Agency with industry and university partners and support from the DOE Environmental Management Program, supports the development and testing of technologies for long-term and short-term solutions to mine waste remediation and resource recovery.
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
Research at NASA impacts the mining industry primarily through the development of tools and technologies that would be useful for mineral exploration. Remote sensing technologies developed by NASA have transformed mineral exploration, and the development of increasingly sophisticated sensors, such as the AVIRIS and the AIRSAR, promise further advances in the direct detection of mineral resources. Research into planetary geology and basic Earth sciences by the agency and in cooperation with universities also provides important information for mineral exploration. New drilling technologies being developed to support the exploration of Mars will also have significant implications for the mining industry. The results of drilling research being supported by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be of special interest to the mining industry.
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
The NSF (National Science Foundation) supports university research in engineering and Earth-science disciplines with direct benefits for the mining industry. The Directorate for Engineering supports research in civil and mechanical engineering, as well as in design and industrial innovation. The Division of Civil Engineering within the Engineering Directorate focuses on tunneling and excavation research. The NSF-supported Engineering Research Center for Particle Size and Technology at the University of Florida is engaged in research of direct interest to the mining industry, particularly the industrial-minerals sector. Research areas at the center include advanced separation processes and technologies, dispersion, agglomeration and consolidation of particles, and engineered particulates. The industry may soon be able to participate directly in other NSF engineering programs that will impact mining technologies through a program for establishing academic liaisons with industry. The NSF Division of Earth Sciences supports fundamental mineralogical, physical, and chemical research on the nature, origin, and temporal evolution of the Earth’s crust and research into basic chemical processes. Specific research projects focus on the genesis of mineral deposits, as well as geochemistry and biogeochemistry for mineral exploration, extraction, and remediation.
Several states have research programs in mining-related technologies. Colorado, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, and West Virginia support research on mine-waste remediation technologies. In Minnesota the Iron Ore Cooperative Research Program uses industry and state monies to fund research and development projects of interest to the iron-ore industry. The Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development provides Taconite Mining Grants to assist in the implementation of technology improvements. In Colorado, research by the Colorado Geological Survey is funded jointly by the state and industry through a levy on mineral producers. In Florida, severance taxes paid by the phosphate industry are used to fund research and development at the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research. The focus of the Materials Research Laboratory, located at North Carolina State University, is on the beneficiation of industrial minerals.
The National Aggregate Association, in conjunction with the National Stone Association, supports aggregate research at the International Center for Aggregates Research, a joint project at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M. The National Ready-Mixed Concrete Association funds the Cement and Aggregate Research Laboratory at the University of Maryland, College Park. The mining industry supports research on exploration, mining, and minerals processing through individual grants to a number of universities throughout the United States.
Federal activities that could directly benefit the mining industries include the engineering research groups at DOE
national laboratories. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station Laboratory also focuses on research applicable to needs of the industry. The problem is not the lack of skilled researchers in federal agencies but the lack of projects focused directly on the problems of most interest to the industry.
The federal government has an appropriate role to play in supporting research that directly or indirectly can promote the development of technologies for the mining industry. The committee recommends that the federal government support research and development on mining technology for all stages of the mining process from exploration through mining to mineral processing. The government should have a particularly strong interest in long-term, “blue sky” research that is currently not being undertaken by the industry itself. Although some research applicable to several aspects of mining is currently being conducted by various federal programs, the DOE national laboratories appear to represent one of the most promising venues for undertaking such research.