A MoonShot for OUr age


Reconciling mining with the effort to make the 21st century more sustainable is necessary yet difficult, but mining faculty member Pratt Rogers is focused on the challenge.

“The magnitude is equivalent to going to the moon,” Rogers says of this reconciliation. “We’re going to have to find ways to come together and compromise.”

The main difficulties lie in the societal challenges: onboarding new mines, determining the number of mines and the safety of mining, and securing locations with the smallest environmental footprint. These are the logistical issues with being able to ethically and sustainably extract the critical minerals needed to maintain our modern-day lifestyle.

“We have to overcome the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality with the ‘I want to have electric cars.’ It’s a balance we have to strike,” says Rogers. “We need to pull people from different disciplines to address this and we need to be willing to come to the table and find solutions.”

A substantial number of mines are needed in order to meet technological and economic demands. Getting permits for large, industrial projects is difficult—for wind and solar farms, or even mines.

“In the United States, we have strong institutions with great environmental and human protections,” Rogers says. “And that’s phenomenal; it’s a mark of progress. But with institutions that strong, when trying to create industrial projects, the easy path to a “no” is usually taken and the much more difficult path to a conditional “yes” is passed over in litigation.”

This creates a significant problem, according to Rogers. When we’re always saying no to mines in the US, this forces mining to be relocated to areas without the strong institutions that the US has. This means we get our resources from places without environmental protections or human right protections such as workers’ rights.

The Role of Higher Ed

“That’s the role of higher education,” Rogers states. “Addressing the complicated challenges and working through them. We need to be better at hosting debates and not losing focus on the importance of higher education in transforming people’s lives, as well as the directions of nations.” The challenges are clearly daunting, but Rogers is optimistic.

Rogers grew up in a small town in Eastern Arizona. In college, he became interested in a mining engineering program, excited about a career path that meant he’d be spending a lot of time outdoors and which offered a lot of scholarship opportunities. He got his bachelor’s in mining engineering at the University of Arizona and worked in east Texas as a mining engineer for two years.

In graduate school Rogers helped his advisor start a technology company which developed technology platforms for mining companies. Rogers got his PhD in mining engineering from the University of Arizona in 2015 then took a job at the University of Utah in 2016, working on various projects with the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

One of these projects included working with mining companies on managing operator fatigue. Mines have large mining equipment and twelve-hour shifts, so operator fatigue is a risk that must be mitigated.

“We created a FitBit app that helps track reaction time,” Rogers says. “As well as some other modeling to predict fatigue and manage it to create better shift scheduling that’s responsive to the needs of the operator.”

Rogers’ work also focuses on critical minerals necessary for civilization, especially for technology. There’s a large effort to find, geologically, where these minerals occur and then find out how to process them.

“The middle part, between those two steps,” Rogers says, “is the mining part, which tends to be skipped over from funding agencies. Politically, it’s easier to focus on geology and processing rather than the actual mining.”

Rogers states that we need to update our mining approaches in order to reduce environmental impacts but also to focus on the actual process of mining which includes locating sites, extracting the ore, refining the ore and sending it to market. One of the challenges when mines are outsourced overseas is that certain regions or countries have a large market share of a commodity.

“Dictating the price of critical minerals can price people out of the market,” says Rogers. “It’s geopolitics, and we need to be aware of it in mineral economics and be able to respond accordingly.”

“Conflict minerals” is the name given to critical minerals sourced from areas with conflicts, either politically or that don’t follow similar ethical guidelines as the US. Sourcing minerals from these areas could finance terrorism or other crimes such as human trafficking. One of the more well-known examples of this are “blood diamonds” which are mined in a war zone and sold to finance an insurgency, an invading army's war efforts, terrorism, or a warlord's activity.

“The problem is you can track individual pieces of diamonds,” Rogers explains, “but with metals like copper and cobalt, they get blended in smelters and manufacturing pieces.”

Rogers and a student of his, Ishaan Kapoor, looked into the idea of using web technologies like blockchains. Database tracking systems can be used to better trace minerals through the supply chain, thus giving insight as to where minerals are sourced from. This way, consumers can be smarter about where we’re sourcing our materials. (A link to this paper is here.)

Faculty Award

Pratt Rogers received the Outstanding Faculty Teaching Award from the College of Mines and Earth Sciences in 2023. He teaches many classes, including Introduction to Mining.

“With that, I try to get students excited about mining engineering,” Rogers says of the class. “I try to make it interactive, taking the students on field trips.” He also teaches an underground mining methods class, as well as a health and safety class, where he talks about mining hazards as well as engineering controls and approaches to manage risks. His favorite class to teach is an internship class where he mentors students.

“It’s the most rewarding thing to be able to help students navigate and build a network industry,” he states, “getting jobs and helping them decide what path they should take, because there’s a lot of paths to take in the mining industry.”

Within mining engineering, however, there’s a crisis in recruitment. Rogers chalks that up to people not knowing the many different types of jobs within the mining industry.

“You can do traditional coding,” says Rogers. “Along with cutting edge computer science. You can take your degree internationally or locally, you can do anything with technology as well as mechanical engineering. There are so many options, and there’s a lot of opportunities to be able to do something really important for society.”

And if the challenges of sustainable mining and securing critical minerals, especially for the needs of technology, is a moon shot, we’ll need all the help we can get.

by CJ Siebeneck

Dr. Rogers is the featured speaker in the upcoming Science at Breakfast hosted by the College of Science in March. He will be addressing the topic "Material World, Material People: Navigating Human Needs and Mineral Realities."