|Updated: Oct 27, 2004|
Since the demise of the US Bureau of Mines in 1996, there has been a large void in mining research and development. The USBM had many outstanding achievements during their tenure, health and safety, new production methods, new process techniques, running one of the largest mining related information depositories in the world, and many projects devoted to mining and processing ores while minimizing the detrimental effects to the planet are but a few of their accomplishments.
As a measure of their success, the USBM was awarded 34 R & D 100 Awards, from the Research & Development journal for the 100 most important research innovations of the year. One of the most visible testaments to the USBM's success is the gold industry in the US. There would currently be no gold industry in the US, if it were not for the USBM. In the early 1970's, the USBM researchers developed a method of processing very low grade ores called "heap leaching". This allowed the economical recovery of gold from ores that contained only a few grams of gold per ton of ore. Nevada is the 3d largest gold producing region in the world, and virtually all of its production is from heap leaching. Had the USBM not been funded in the 1970's we would have no gold mining in the US, other than a few small producers, digging out a few thousand ounces here and there. In 1972, Nevada produced 400,000 ounces of gold. In 2003, using heap leaching, Nevada produced 7,313,000 ounces of gold (over $2.5 billion worth of gold), and had some peak years of 8,500,000 ounces of gold production.
Now, excluding the large casino industry in Nevada, gold mining provides the second largest source of revenue and a lot of good income jobs in the state, year after year. I think that most of the Nevada politicians would agree (especially in an election year), that this is quite a good return on the investment (funding the USBM). However, without this source of R & D to take mining and mining technology into the next century, will the USA be a major player or a spectator in the future of mining?
Universities with mining programs have always developed research projects, but no university in the world has ever developed anything with the scope of the USBM's R&D contribution. The Mine Safety and Health Administration has taken over the health and safety R&D along with NIOSH, some geological duties have been passed on to the US Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management assumed some of the duties of the USBM, along with an assortment of other agencies. But this still leaves a tremendous void in the future of mining R & D. There isn't any, so to speak. This void will be filled on shore or off shore, as economic opportunities dictate, the only question is will the US be a leader in the future of mining or merely a has been, paying astronomical sums of money for the 40,000 pounds of minerals each and every citizen consumes each year in the United States. If you think $55 a barrel oil is expensive, how about a $500 bag of cement? Aggregate selling for $300/ton? The cost of construction would go into the stratosphere, where it could keep the space station company, if there were enough minerals available to finish it. The minerals required to produce television sets and computers could double or triple their prices, if they are mined by "OPEC" minded states. Virtually everything not made of wood, or plants, requires something mined in order to be manufactured.
It is time to bring back the US Bureau of mines, a leaner and meaner version, perhaps, focused on basic R & D in the mining and processing fields, to ensure that this country will meet the demands for minerals in the future, as a leader, not as a beggar, pleading with foreign entities for a few mineral scraps at exorbitant prices. In Japan, individual corporations spend heavily on research and development, about 20%, while in the US it is only around 2%, and the US government has historically provided much of the basic R & D through it's agencies and US universities. Since this trend is not likely to change in the near future, it appears to be the responsibility of the government to fund research and development for mining, which will ensure that the future generations actually have the raw materials necessary to live and perhaps even enjoy a higher quality of life than we currently have. Will government live up to its obligation? That is the question.
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