A Moonshot for Our Age

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."

Coal Miner’s Daughter

Coal miner's Daughter

 

Spotlight on the first woman chair of the Mining Engineering Department’s Industrial Advisory Board — Denee Hayes.

Denee Hayes with her father at the Mining Engineering Department's award ceremony 2023.

“The work I’ve done both within and outside of the mining industry has helped me understand what the outside community thinks about mining,” says Denee Hayes BSME’02. She explains that there is a misunderstanding about how mining contributes to green energy, sustainability and the environment. Through her diverse work experience, she developed the talking points and negotiating skills to be a moderator and mediator between mining and environmental groups. “It really shaped the work that I’m doing today in mining, manufacturing as well as utilities and other sectors.”  

While not on the trajectory of the late Loretta Lynn, whose 1971 Grammy-winning song “Coal Miner’s Daughter (and later, the Academy Award-winning bio-pic starring Sissy Spacek) told the story of the country singer’s upbringing in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky and her elevation into stardom, Hayes’ journey is no less auspicious. In fact, Hayes’ career may end up having a profound impact on the defining issues of our times. Arguably, it already has.  

Hayes was raised in Farmington, NM by parents who owned an oil and gas business. Her father was from Carbon County, Utah and not only worked in oil and gas as well as in mining sales. He also drove a truck for the coal mines in Wyoming. Both of her grandfathers also worked in oil/gas, construction and mining in Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Even before high school graduation, Hayes showed an interest in getting a degree in mining engineering. Poised to swoop in, the University of Utah offered a full-ride scholarship and, critically, the industry offered internships and industry experiences starting the summer before she arrived on campus in 1994.  

 

Thought leader 

Since graduation in 2002 Hayes has become a thought leader in the necessary convergence of mining and the new green economy. This, while working for nine years in-house with Utah’s Kennecott Copper until 2020 when she pivoted to private consulting, which she continues to this day.  On the academic side, she was the first woman chair of the Mining Engineering department’s industrial advisory board. 

 The stakes right now in reimagining the mining sector as it relates to a green economy could not be higher. Regarding the climate challenge at large, we really only have one chance to get it right, according to New York Times David Wallace-Wells. In a recent Tanner Humanities Lecture at the U, the climate journalist reported that half of all carbon emissions have come about in just the last 25 years. Even more startling, the weight of that carbon (yes, there are methods of measuring it), is more than the total mass of everything ever built by humans and still standing on earth.  

 Hayes and her colleagues and collaborators may well be up to the herculean task as they look more closely at the complexity of the mining/environment conundrum, and to find allies. “I like the ability to pull together — the interdisciplinary approach — to solving these problems and issues,” she says.  “Diversity of thought and mining engineering gave me the technical knowledge and the language to work between the parties.” She views her training at the U as forging her into a “jack of all trades,” earning a degree that crosses various kinds of engineering — mechanical, civil, electrical — with the pure sciences of physics, chemistry and high-level mathematics. This interdisciplinary approach has threaded through her training and work experience via software development, utilities, manufacturing, architecture, mining engineering, integrated operations, and corporate leadership, all while deploying her signature bridge-building skills.  

 The span between mining and the environmental ethic is not a small one, and it is by dint of Hayes’ experience in a variety of sectors that she has forged her current work as a consultant. “The work I think I did [at Kennecott and elsewhere] gave me a view of two sides, really seeing how the industry has a PR problem and that mining [professionals] have really pitted themselves against environmentalists and other industries, and how we really need to show that if you are pro-green energy you have to be pro-mining.”  

At first blush, such a statement seems counterintuitive, but she continues. “If you think about the trajectory society is currently on “there are ebbs and flows in everything for green energy” whether it’s photovoltaic materials to convert sunlight into electric energy or other sources of renewable energy, like wind and hydro power.  

The greening of America 

To keep up with green economy demands, Hayes explains that the world “will need to mine the same amount of copper between now and 2030/40 as we have in all of humanity,” And that is an example of just one metal. “Because there’s that much copper that goes into those things [i.e., green technologies, coupled] with population growth, even power transmission — from coal or a green energy source —  you still utilize copper and a whole host of other critical minerals within that energy transmission and distribution.”   

Do you rely on a mobile phone? Hayes is quick to remind us that more than half of the periodical table goes into producing and running your cell phone. Furthermore, “anything in the periodic table needs to be mined.” 

The challenge of greening America is not just about extraction of critical metals from new as well as historical mines (known as brownfield sites) which are being re-opened and are using new technologies to re-mine, for example, tailings. It’s also about water use, of particular concern to those of us in the West. Part of building a consensus between two opposing sides is to hold a space for both without papering over reality, on either side.  

“I think that we now have an opportunity to right some of the wrongs of mining in the past and some of the ways that we didn’t understand how we were harming the Earth,” she says, not only referencing Environmental Protection Agency-designated superfund sites of mines but seeing the sector from the view of digital optimization of the entire value chain. These involve standards, both enforced by governmental regulations as well as industry best practices that don’t exist outside the U.S. which is why Americans have relied on questionable extraction services outside the country, something that Hayes finds unacceptable. “If we want to continue leading the lives we are leading, we have to do our own extraction operations of critical materials ethically.” 

Ethical practices extend as well to current mining employees and can only add to efficiencies that stakeholders demand. Hayes values “helping connect the executive level strategy to the front line, figuring out how to get the front line activated to enact that strategy.” In other words, it's not just about getting employee “buy-in” but demonstrating the “how,” to all of them — operators, maintainers, samplers and surveyors on site — of deploying lofty executive team decisions. “You’re leading people and focused on their safety and well-being and not just managing the tasks at hand,” she says.  

It's all part of Hayes’ “holistic” approach to the issues, of thinking outside the blast hole, as it were, and through the “muck” (a general term in the industry of blasted rock that is ready to be loaded). A thoughtful intervention characterized by the belief that the parts of something are interconnected and can be explained only by reference to the whole is how “defining problems” of our age get solved . . . or at least managed.   

Moving the needle 

In the field.

And clearly for Hayes, it’s not just about operations, safety and profit — or even of financial stakeholders for that matter. It’s about moving the needle in the industry towards not only a greener way of doing things, but a more just and equitable way of doing those things as well.  

 The systemic reimagining of mining is a daunting proposition, and it requires bringing in diverse voices to inform, what Hayes calls, the “broader topics of that broader conversation.” She well remembers being an undergraduate — one of only three or four women in the department. That hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years with most mining organizations reporting only 7-10 percent of a work force made up of women.  

 “The real work needs to be for everyone to understand that a career in mining is a career for the environment, for green energy, and having that will be an attraction for people to come in. [We need to] make it psychologically safe to work in this industry, which it hasn’t always been. It’s work that we all have to do . . . .When you’re trying to tackle these large problems in industry you really need the diversity of thought that comes out of these different mining programs.”  

 The U’s program is no different. As with other institutions of higher education, its metrics of success are research, funding, student enrollment, and student success. “Industry needs to do its part to help create a pipeline of students to the U as well as look to the university to do some of their important research.” “The same holds true in reverse, universities need to be asking industry what will be most impactful for mining of the future.” If things don’t change, mining engineering departments across the country like the U’s will dwindle and die. “We’ve seen that in West Virginia,” she says, referencing beleaguered West Virginia University. In August the flagship Morgantown campus proposed eliminating nine percent of the majors and seven percent of its full-time faculty members.  

Critical materials, critical thought 

Fewer and fewer programs in all academic fields means less and less diversity of thought, which is critically needed. Hayes intends to advocate for better associations between industry and the university for this very reason. It’s a personally held mission that might have not only a macro difference but a micro one as well in these challenging times. She and her husband are the proud parents of another proverbial “miner’s daughter,” and her daughter is likely to be better positioned to consider a degree and a career in mining engineering because of her mother’s continuing hard work in the sector.  

When Denee Hayes recently won an honorary alumna award at the department’s most recent awards ceremony, the coal miner’s daughter had her dad in the room. “He was ecstatic to come and see me.” she says with a smile.  

by David Pace

Underground Hazards & Safety in Mining

Underground Hazards & Safety in Mining

 

An educational collaboration between the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (RMCOEH) and the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of Utah will bring new perspectives to tackle tough problems in mining safety.

W. Pratt Rogers

Mining technology in the United States has advanced immeasurably from minecarts and “jack-legs” (very large jackhammers), but working in or around mines still presents unique and serious hazards, says W. Pratt Rogers, PhD, associate professor in mining engineering. He describes the dangers of mining labor in terms of “high-energy zones”: regions where large and powerful machinery or heavy objects have the potential to exert massive amounts of force. “If you make one snap decision wrong in a high-energy zone, you can lose a leg, or your life,” he says. “We’ve made a lot of progress, but there are still fatalities. There are still massive injuries.”

DISRUPTING TUNNEL VISION

Addressing these hazards will take the best minds from across a wide variety of disciplines. One of the biggest strengths of the program, Rogers says, is that it will tap into that variety. Classes in the Mining Safety program will be taught by faculty members from the Department of Mining Engineering. But unlike standard engineering courses, these will be geared toward a broad spectrum of students within RMCOEH, with backgrounds ranging from industrial hygiene and emergency management to psychology and public health.

Charles Kocsis, PhD, chair of the Department of Mining Engineering and director of the Center for Mining Safety and Health Excellence, says that the collaboration will be a new development for the department. “We’re very excited, because it’s the first time that mining engineering steps out of the box.” The program is expected to begin accepting students in March 2024.

Read the full article by Sophia Friesen at U Health.

On Naps, Carbs & Motivation: Annika Edwards, BMG

As I’ve thought back on the past four years and wondered what life lessons I learned, the lesson that stands out the most to me is simple yet profound. I found this quote by an Anonymous source I felt fit perfectly, it goes like this, in life “Sometimes you need motivation, sometimes you just need carbs” and a nap.

By Annika Edwards, Valedictorian
College of Mines & Earth Sciences Convocation
11 April 2022

I added that last part about naps. Over the past four years we’ve all been through typical and atypical experiences. Of course, there’s the typical freshman 15 that we all lost from walking up and down hills motivated to make it to class on time, or the freshman 15 we all gained from a healthy diet of pizza and ramen every week. Now, I don’t have a degree in mathematics nor a degree in health sciences but to me those two seem to cancel each other out. We all experienced the atypical covid years where self-motivation became essential more than anyone could have ever imagined, and the carb intake skyrocketed. We experienced the usual snow days and the unusual earthquakes that cancelled classes and saved us from our lack of motivation to complete homework or study for that day’s tests and provided extra time to sneak in another nap. 

What motivates us

Although naps, carbs, and motivation — not necessarily in that order — are important to achieving goals, more is required to be successful. We’ve just reflected on some of our experiences with motivation, but we didn’t talk about what is motivating us. As freshmen our motivation to get to class on time may have been to get good grades or to try to start off our college careers strong. Motivation to continue to work through school while being forced to stay home and take classes online may have been the money invested in tuition for that semester, to continue to progress in our degree programs or to simply have something to do while stuck at home.

Fortunately for us there are no grades in industry and the tests are the projects we spend our time on. Unfortunately, the grades and the tests were motivators. As we start, or continue our careers, we need to set goals and have dreams both work related and personal to keep us motivated. Reba McEntire stated, “to succeed in life you must have three things, a wishbone, a backbone, and a funny bone.” Discover your motivator a.k.a. wishbone. 

Motivators often lead to action which brings us to our next bone, the backbone. The backbone is often used as a symbol of strong character, which is necessary to be successful, but today I would like to broaden the meaning of having a backbone. As both scientists and engineers, we all took math, chemistry, and physics. Often these were classes that we were the least excited about but somehow took all of our time. The work we put into these classes built the foundation needed to continue our education in each of our degree programs. We have worked hard, countless hours to get where we are today; the same is true to get to where we want to go, to achieve our goals. Today, right now, to have a backbone means to put in the honest work.

Build your backbone. 

Light bulbs

To introduce the final bone to a successful life I would like to share a joke:

How many PhD candidates do you need to change a single light bulb?

You actually only need one, but it may take more than four years.

Some of you find these kinds of jokes funny, and some of you don’t. We all have a different sense of humor, but be sure not to lose your funny bone along the way. Think back on the four plus years it has taken for you to get here. The things I remember the most are the late nights and hard work because they were truly scary, but I also remember the fun times I had laughing and joking with my classmates. I know it’s the same for you. Being able to laugh and have a good time is what makes life enjoyable. Don’t let yourself become the old person in the room who regrets taking life too seriously and spending too much time at work. 

To conclude my speech, I would like to take a minute to say thank you. Thank you to the partners, spouses and significant others who dealt with the countless hours and late nights we spent away from you working on homework and projects in the computer labs. Thank you to the parents and family who have supported us through our journey. Thank you to the advisors, industry professionals, and other supporters of our students’ groups who helped us raise money and gain valuable experiences. Thank you to the professors for passing on your knowledge and wisdom related and unrelated to school. Thank you to the classmates who became lifelong friends.

As we start this new chapter in our lives, let’s not forget that success is what you make it: discover your wishbone, build your backbone and never lose your funny bones.

To the College of Mines and Earth Sciences Class of 2022, ∫ We did it! 

Mining and rare earth mineral extraction

Mining & rare earth mineral extraction

 

The growth in high-tech products, cell phones, computers, and electric vehicles brings with it the necessity for rare earth minerals, which requires more mining and extraction. Although mining can come with a high environmental price tag, consumers are increasing their demand for these products.

What exactly are rare earth minerals, and can their extraction become more efficient and less damaging? Featured on KPCW's COOL SCIENCE RADIO podcast, Pratt Rogers, assistant professor of mining engineering at the University of Utah, answers these questions and many others.

Listen to the podcast at KPCW.