Named in honor of former University of Arizona alumni J. David Lowell, the University of Arizona Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources can be said to mirror the ambition and accomplishments of its namesake. Lowell worked for 110 companies throughout 26 countries, found the million-ounce San Cristobal gold mine, and personally financed an exploration program in Peru, among many additional achievements in mining.
Today, The Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources is instrumental in preparing a skilled and knowledgeable mining workforce. Students are exposed to a multidisciplinary education experience, with the inclusion of an underground mining lab combined with real-time introspection into today’s mining challenges — more efficient mineral acquisitions and resource recovery, environmental and biodiversity issues and how to mitigate social license issues (to name a few).
Az Business sat down with Mary M. Poulton, PhD, co-director of the Lowell Institute, to learn more about the institute’s mission to advance responsible mining practices, educate students and stakeholders on the importance of mineral resources, and encourage a steady pipeline of mining employees who are educated and prepared to navigate the latest in mining industry challenges.
Az Business: How does the Lowell Institute help advance responsible mining and use of minerals?
Mary M. Poulton: Demand for minerals and mineral resources expertise is on the rise. A population expected to grow to 9.7 billion people by 2050 will demand more efficient and sustainable use of all our resources. By 2050, we could see as much as a 350 percent increase in the demand for copper, driven largely by electric vehicles. Thirty-three minerals are critical to U.S. national and economic security, and that number will continue to grow.
AB: What are some of the challenges that come with that?
MP: Just as the demand for mineral resources is ever-growing, the challenges of supplying those resources are also mounting. The easy-to-find mineral deposits are largely discovered and new resources are in more challenging environments – deeper, closer to urban areas or in environmentally sensitive areas. The Industrial Revolution 4.0 has increased the demand for more minerals for technology, renewable energy, server farms, and new forms of transportation. Society expects zero harm to people and the planet, but with maximum benefit to communities; and societal expectations and pressures constantly shift. The workforce to meet these challenges also faces disruption from mass retirements to new requirements for continuous learning and different skill sets to solve critical problems.
AB: How is the workforce impacted?
MP: Change is not happening fast enough in education, knowledge creation and innovation. We have been experiencing a decline in university programs related to mineral resources for more than a generation. In U.S. universities, the number of accredited mining engineering programs has declined from 25 to 13, with a similar decline in the number of economic geology programs (the geology of mineral deposits). In Canada, more than one-third of the mining workforce can retire in the next few years. In Australia, the number of university degrees in mining engineering dropped from 171 in 2012 to 47 in 2020.
The University of Arizona Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources works on the full spectrum of mineral resources issues from fundamental science through the economic, social, and policy implications of wise use of resources and post-consumer recycling and re-use. Our interdisciplinary approach brings unique expertise to all these issues. We believe that only through an integrated approach that links all aspects of the resource value chain can we derive optimal solutions to the problem of supplying materials to a growing world population in a more sustainable manner.
AB: Why is it important to understand the value of locally mined mineral resources and innovations in mining?
MP: All of the advances that will drive Arizona and the region’s economies require more and more materials that are responsibly produced and managed – and those materials have only one source – the rocks and minerals on this planet. This beautiful planet is made up of 92 naturally occurring elements. Our bodies are made of 11 key elements; 99 percent of the rocks in the earth’s crust are made of eight elements. But your cell phone needs about 62 elements. Everything we are, everything we grow, and everything we make is sourced from the elements that exist on the planet. We aren’t running out of anything, but with a growing population and growing affluence, how we responsibly source and use these materials is one of our greatest challenges.
AB: How does that impact us in Arizona?
MP: We have to extract mineral resources where nature has placed them rather than where it is convenient for us to mine. Arizona happens to be one of the few places on the planet where nature has concentrated great amounts of copper near the earth’s surface. The size of the copper deposits in Arizona dwarfs many of the other copper deposits around the world. Arizona produces over 60 percent of the U.S. copper supply. We have been mining many of these deposits for a century but have barely tapped their full potential. And our latest knowledge of the formation of these deposits has led to new discoveries. Copper is one of the most important metals for technology, renewable energy, and electric vehicles. Server farms for our cloud-based applications use huge amounts of copper. Electric vehicles contain more copper than conventional cars. And wind energy requires more copper per unit of electricity generated than coal. In addition, the copper deposits in Arizona also contain critical minerals like molybdenum, rhenium, yttrium and many more. And that is just copper – we are leaders in the production of many mineral products.
AB: How can Arizona maintain its leadership in the mining industry?
MP: Because of the large number of world-class mines in Arizona, and the long presence of strong mineral resources programs at the University of Arizona, we have become a global technology hub for the minerals industry. Arizona has become the Silicon Valley of mineral resources. We have the necessary components of a world-class innovation ecosystem with the university, technology transfer, industry, government, and civil society.
Arizona also encapsulates many of the challenges facing mineral resources. Water is a precious resource and we must continue to find ways to use less water and have less impact on watersheds. More energy must come from renewable sources and Arizona is a perfect location to perfect solar technologies for mineral extraction and processing. Our semi-arid environment and our sky islands are precious ecosystems and new mining methods must be developed to lower the footprint of mining and ensure restoration of these ecosystems. Once remote mining camps are now in suburbs of expanding metropolitan areas. Mining must become compatible with communities rather than isolated from them. Ensuring workers go home safe and healthy from work every day is a top priority. How to ensure a fair distribution of the economic benefits of resource development requires innovative thinking about law, policy, and taxation.
AB: How does the Lowell Institute help foster a new generation of skilled workers?
MP: The Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources has helped sustain core strengths in geoscience, mining engineering, and extractive metallurgy as well as integrating those disciplines with many others that are important to the wise use of resources from law to environmental science to health and safety. We integrate education and research, so we have knowledge transfer at all levels from K12 through professional development. Over the past 10 years, we have developed new technologies to revolutionize the way workers are trained, we have created professional development courses that attract top geologists from nearly 80 companies in 30 countries to come to Arizona, and we have prepared our students to understand not only the fundamentals of science and engineering but also the latest technologies. The challenges we face in supplying the world with resources requires a more diverse and systems-oriented education which is hard to do in traditional academic departments that are designed to be very narrow and insular.
AB: What makes the Lowell Institute different?
MP: No other university fully integrates the breadth of academic disciplines and organizations needed to provide innovative solutions to today’s risks and prepare the next generation of diverse professionals for tomorrow’s challenges. The Lowell Institute leads this collaboration, bringing together the best the UA and industry have to offer. We truly are a one-stop-shop for mineral resources issues and we are focused on solutions. The Lowell Institute is an umbrella organization that brings people and ideas together across boundaries, catalyzes innovation, and increases the visibility and impact of the work being done. By capitalizing on the resources in the surrounding area, engaging and collaborating with the diverse and well-established college programs, and working with successful and innovative companies and industry leaders, the Lowell Institute has the potential to lead and support this revolution in the mining industry.