Posts Tagged ‘mining’

Photo: Rosa Santomartino/ University of Edinburgh
Sphingomonas desiccabilis, a microbe unfazed by changes in gravity. Research in space suggests it could be used to mine rare elements on Mars.

Today I’m putting the idea of mining on Mars out there not because it’s imminent but because I’d appreciate hearing folks’ views on that sort of thing. I know we use rare minerals such as those on Mars for all our electronics, but on Earth the mining leads to exploitation and pollution in places like Africa and Afghanistan.

Here’s what Kenneth Chang at the New York Times has to say about the potential of Mars and how certain microbes could perform a cleaner kind of mining.

“Microbes may be the friends of future colonists living off the land on the moon, Mars or elsewhere in the solar system and aiming to establish self-sufficient homes.

“Space colonists, like people on Earth, will need what are known as rare earth elements, which are critical to modern technologies. These 17 elements, with daunting names like yttrium, lanthanum, neodymium and gadolinium, are sparsely distributed in the Earth’s crust. Without the rare earths, we wouldn’t have certain lasers, metallic alloys and powerful magnets that are used in cellphones and electric cars.

“But mining them on Earth today is an arduous process. It requires crushing tons of ore and then extracting smidgens of these metals using chemicals that leave behind rivers of toxic waste water.

“Experiments conducted aboard the International Space Station show that a potentially cleaner, more efficient method could work on other worlds: let bacteria do the messy work of separating rare earth elements from rock. …

“On Earth, such biomining techniques are already used to produce 10 to 20 percent of the world’s copper and also at some gold mines; scientists have identified microbes that help leach rare earth elements out of rocks.

“[Charles S. Cockell, a professor of astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh,] and his colleagues wanted to know whether these microbes would still live and function as effectively on Mars, where the pull of gravity on the surface is just 38 percent of Earth’s, or even when there is no gravity at all. So they sent some of them to the International Space Station last year.

“The results, published [Nov. 10] in the journal Nature Communications, show that at least one of those bacteria, a species named Sphingomonas desiccabilis, is unfazed by differing forces of gravity. …

“At the space station, Luca Parmitano, a European Space Agency astronaut, placed some of [Bacteria and basalt samples] in a centrifuge spun at speeds to simulate Mars or Earth gravity. …

“For two of the three types of bacteria, the results were disappointing. But S. desiccabilis increased the amount of rare earth elements extracted from the basalt by roughly a factor of two, even in the zero-gravity environment. … The results were even somewhat better for the lower Mars gravity. …

“ ‘Certainly this isn’t a demonstration of commercial biomining. … [But] I think eventually, you could scale this up to do it on Mars,’ Dr. Cockell said.” More here.

I wonder — by the time countries are capable of doing mining on Mars, will we even be using those minerals?

Photo: ESA & MPS for OSIRIS Team
Planet Mars, the “red planet.”

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Photo: Laura Cluthé
The Christian Science Monitor says the 1,250-foot Superstack in Sudbury, Ontario, is “a symbol of the city’s gritty past” but is being replaced by two smaller, cleaner stacks.

Sometimes the worst offenders against the public good are the first to test a new course. As today’s story shows, it does help if they get a nudge from government regulation.

Sara Miller Llana reports at the Christian Science Monitor about a big polluter in a Canadian mining town that’s decided to cooperate with greening efforts.

“When the Superstack was constructed in 1972, it was the tallest structure in Canada – and the tallest smokestack in the world. At 1,250 feet, it’s visible from every vantage point in the area [and] has long stood as a reminder of the environmental devastation that mining wrought here. But this year the chimney is being fully decommissioned. …

“Whether or not the structure remains a fixture on the skyline when it’s taken out of operation, it tells a powerful tale of renewal. The stack was built as part of an industrial complex that denuded the land here of any kind of vegetation, leaving blackened rocks and lakes without fish. The landscape drew comparisons to moonscapes and barren Martian worlds. At one time the smelters in Sudbury were the largest point source of sulfur dioxide in the world.

“It got so bad that scientists, politicians, industry officials, and the community finally came together to halt the pollution, replant the trees, and restock the lakes. It has been 40 years of toil and triumph, and the story is not over yet. But today Sudbury enjoys some of the cleanest air quality in Ontario. Residents swim and fish in the 330 lakes inside the city’s boundaries.

And those here say the community of 165,000, at the gateway of northern Ontario, offers a lesson in how to break the cycle of conflict that the current climate crisis often creates, pitting industry against the environment. …

“Says David Pearson, an earth scientist and driving force in turning around Sudbury, ‘When one speaks of the Sudbury story, [it] somehow seems local and isolated, and it’s not local and isolated. It’s an example of what we need to modify in order to be able to live alongside a thriving environment.’ …

“Dr. Pearson, who arrived from a coal mining town in northern England, remembers distinctly how bad the air smelled one day in 1969. … ‘I parked in the parking lot, and I had to run in order to be able to hold my breath long enough to get into a building because the smell of the sulfur dioxide was so powerful even in my car. … I had never experienced anything nearly as penetrating a pollution as this.’

“For a child in Sudbury back then, fun didn’t involve climbing trees or playing hide-and-seek in the forest. Young people like Dave Courtemanche, who went on to become mayor, clambered over rocks. There was no greenery to be found in his neighborhood or at his school. …

“On a hillside, he and classmates carved out an acre of land and limed and fertilized it. As tufts of grass began to poke through, he recalls a feeling that might be comparable to children of the tropics seeing their first snowflakes. ‘Looking up and seeing a green patch emerging from the dead earth was nothing short of a miracle,’ he says. … Mr. Courtemanche was unwittingly among the first volunteers in one of the largest regreening efforts in Canadian history. …

“Laurentian University was established in 1960. ‘Nobody was going to say anything against the company, essentially,’ says Peter Beckett, an ecologist at the university and chair of the city’s advisory panel on regreening. ‘And so the university was kind of the first independent thing in the town, and people started asking questions: “Can one do anything about the landscape?” ‘ … 

“Dr. Beckett and Graeme Spiers, another scientist from Laurentian University, … have traveled the world [with a roadshow] called ‘Sudbury, 40+ Years of Healing.’ 

“None of this would have been possible without tough regulations, though. When the Superstack was built, mining’s motto for the era was ‘Dilution is the solution to pollution.’ New technology and evolving processes helped reduce emissions in Greater Sudbury, but the Superstack dispersed them further afield, to neighboring provinces, and as far as the United States and Greenland. …

“The provincial government developed the Countdown Acid Rain program, which forced Inco and other major polluters in 1985 to cut emissions by more than 60% in under a decade. The companies balked at first.”

Read how they eventually not only got on board but decided to do more than required, here.

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Photo: Kacper Pempel/Reuters
In the top photo jeweler Katarzyna Depa, 26, holds a silver ring with coal at her atelier in Katowice, Poland. Below, Grzegorz Chudy, 36, paints at his atelier in Katowice, where affordable rents have drawn artists.

Having recently watched the devastating 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA about a Kentucky mining strike, I’ve become a little more skeptical about longtime miners’ ability to transition to a new kind of life. Although I have blogged about efforts to help miners learn programming skills, for example, or be trained for jobs in the solar industry, such things may attract only younger people.

In this story from Public Radio International (PRI), we learn about recent changes in Poland, where the conservative government still supports the mining despite climate-change issues.

“When the Wieczorek mine, one of the oldest coal mines in Poland, closed [last] March, Grzegorz Chudy noticed for the first time the neighborhood was vibrant with trees in the full bloom of spring. The smell was heady.

” ‘It was incredible. You never knew all those trees were there,’ he told Reuters in his art studio in a housing estate for mining families in the southwestern Polish city of Katowice. ‘The smell wasn’t there while coal was being transported on trucks. The dust covered it up.’

“The Wieczorek mine in Katowice, with its towering brick shaft, is among dozens closing down throughout Poland, home to one of the most polluted coal mining regions in Europe. …

“Poland has had a painful and difficult experience with the economic transition from coal. Even as it counts down to [November 2018 climate talks], it announced plans for a new coal mine in the south of the country.

“Its government drew support in part from those with an emotional attachment to the job security, social fabric and national pride associated with mining that overlooked the downsides for health and the planet. …

“Chudy, 36, whose paintings often depict the life and architecture of Nikiszowiec, is one of hundreds of people who have moved to the area, drawn by its industrial feel and affordable housing.

“Built to house the families of miners at the start of the 20th century, Nikiszowiec was designed as a self-sufficient neighborhood with its own communal bread ovens and pigsties, as well as a bath house for miners and laundry facilities. …

“Those in the artistic community say their work could only exist with the inspiration provided by decades of mining.

” ‘For me using coal in a different way than it used to be, which was energy, shows its completely new face, so we can call it our new, cool black gold,’ said Katarzyna Depa, who makes jewelry from coal.

“But for those with mining in the blood, moving on is harder and the smell of coal dust is as sweet as blossom. Above all, they miss the community spirit even if it meant shared danger and hardship.”

More at PRI — which is, by the way, an amazing window on the world. Check it out if you don’t know it.

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Funny how things work out.

If Suzanne hadn’t spoken to a woman speaking Swedish to her little girl after toddler music class, I probably would never have known about the Australian mining community Tom Price and the Chinese opera written about it by the Swedish woman’s American husband. But there you are.

Ben Collins, Vanessa Mills, and Hilary Smale put together a story about the opera for ABC Australia.

“It’s a contender for the most unlikely arts even of all time,” they write, “the story of a small North West Australian iron ore mining town told in Chinese operatic style.

“It’s the attention grabbing work of an American artist called Daniel Peltz, who says he aims to provoke ruptures in the socio/cultural fabric through which new ways of being may emerge. In this case that means Chinese opera in a remote Australian mining town.

” ‘I look at Chinese opera as something that’s embedded in the landscape of China, just as iron ore is embedded in the Western Australian landscape. And I think of the gesture of the piece as a way of extracting this resource from China, digging it up and bringing it to Tom Price to tell a story of the town,’ Mr Peltz says. …

“The opera follows the story of Thomas Moore Price, who is said to have died at his desk just before the deal was completed that led to the mine which the town serves.

” ‘I did find an out-of-print book on Tom Price that was produced by Kaiser Steel which confirmed that component of the narrative. But my aim is not to write historically accurate narrative, it’s actually quite the opposite… I’m really looking at extracting elements of the story of this place and sending them to China to be transformed into this opera,’ Mr Peltz says.

“In the opera, Thomas Moore Price’s only daughter, Shirley, has an encounter with the ghost of her father at the summit of Mt Nameless. A 30 minute film of the opera being performed in China will be presented at the Tom Price Community Centre.

” ‘I’ve done a lot of work to make sure that it’s well subtitled so that people can access the narrative,’ says Mr Peltz.”

Wish I had known all this when Dan and his wife (the artist Sissi Westerberg) brought their daughter to my grandson’s two-year-old birthday party a few weeks ago.

The missed opportunities of life!

Read more here and listen to a clip of the traditional-style Chinese opera.

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