Friday, September 26, 2014

Can Mining Change In The 21st Century?

As traditional energy sources are being reevaluated more and more under the context of overall costs versus benefits, ideas that had previously never been able to get out of R&D labs are now being closely analyzed.  Innovation has clearly been regarded as key for businesses moving forward into the century, but with environmental issues becoming more and more relevant to the discussion, there's an even greater incentive not only to discover, but to refine new ways of doing old things.

On this point, there's no better place to start than mining.  Traditional methods of mineral extraction are simply not going to be sustainable on long-term scales, and risk permanent damage to natural landscapes.  But with so much of the US depending on fossil fuel infrastructures, cleaning up mining methods may be a far more efficient choice than eliminating them.  Damien Palin's 2012 TED talk on this subject highlights the potential for combining bacterial manipulation and reverse osmosis desalination to harvest minerals out of sea brine.  While he freely admitted how expensive the process is, there is definitely room to refine it:

Looking at on-the-ground developments, the US Department of Energy just awarded $1.5 million to a start-up company founded by University of Alabama researchers that is developing a clean way of harvesting uranium from the oceans.  The company, 525 Solutions, plans to build bio-degradable nets made of chitin; a material derived from shrimp shells.  The tiny chitin fibers are excellent at amassing uranium on the microscopic level.  While the nets are being developed for nuclear plant clean-ups, UA Chemistry Chair Dr. Robin Rogers points out the logical next step will be the floors of the sea.  From Fish Information & Services:

 "The oceans are estimated to contain more than a thousand times the amount of uranium found in total in any known land deposit,” Rogers said. “Fortunately, the concentration of uranium in the ocean is very, very low, but the volume of the oceans is, of course, very, very high. Assuming we could recover only half of this resource, this much uranium could support 6,500 years of nuclear capacity.”      

Clean, sustainable methods like 525 Solutions' are the major solution for transforming industries like mining to stay safe, relevant, and enduring.

Donal Thoms-Cappello is a freelance writer for Rotor Clip Company.

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