February 2010

From knowledge to know-how

Setbacks and challenges are merely stepping stones to success at MIRARCO

By R. Bergen

Innovation and agricultural know-how brought the barren tailings near Sudbury to life.

It is easy to assume that because the academic ivory towers are so distant from mine shafts, lessons learned in clean, tightly controlled laboratories do not really apply to the working face. It is this easy assumption that the Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation (MIRARCO) at Laurentian University is set on proving false.

A not-for-profit applied research firm, MIRARCO is funded by the provincial government and private industry. It deploys advanced human and technical resources to meet the myriad challenges of mining, from planning to reclamation. With each challenge met, the people at MIRARCO hope to bridge the gap between academia and field application.

The organization has a proven track record. Currently, Vale Inco is using MIRARCO’s virtual reality (VR) technology — one of a suite of MIRARCO-developed software technologies — to study the seismic profile of its Creighton Mine. Using the VR facility, researchers and engineers turn data into images projected on a three-dimensional, high-resolution wrap-around screen. This helps them visualize in great detail the mine’s geology, infrastructure and potential hazards. A similar MIRARCO-designed VR facility was recently commissioned in China.

Beyond developing marketable projects, MIRARCO’s president, Steve Hall, would like to see the organization help nurture respect for scientific practice among its students. “They should go into industry with an appreciation of the research process, its potential value, and also the facts that its timelines are not short and that the probability of success is not 100 per cent. Sometimes, after several years, you have to admit you failed. But if the answers were all known, it wouldn’t be research.”

Working the field

Over the last two years, Alan Lock, a senior environmental scientist, has been leading a tailings rehabilitation project at MIRARCO’s Centre for Environmental Monitoring. He is testing the potential of growing biofuel crops on beds of organic waste, such as compost or pulp mill sludge, laid atop gold or nickel tailings at Vale Inco, Xstrata and Goldcorp operations. The plant cover prevents the sulphur-rich tailings from being carried away by winds and, by restricting its exposure to oxygen, inhibits its acidification.  As an added benefit, growing on tailings sidesteps the ethical problem of using arable land fit for food production to generate fuel crops.

Despite early setbacks, neither Lock and his students, nor the mining companies aiding his research, have thrown up their hands. Lock recalls that he quite literally sank into some of the initial practical challenges. Dump trucks and conventional tractors got bogged down in the spongy mix of tailings and organic waste. The team learned enough to begin trucking in material during the winter, when the ground was cold and hard. The floundering tractor was replaced by a tracked machine that moves easily over the material. Two half-hectare plots laid with a metre-deep cover of biosolids, then plowed, cultivated and seeded with corn, canola and switchgrass in 2008, showed good results. “Last year, maybe it was a lucky year,” says Lock. “All sites looked amazing. Final crop yields were better than those on control areas using conventional agricultural land.”

Boasting such results, Lock had no trouble convincing other mines to offer their tailings for study. The costs of transporting biosolids to the four test plots are covered by the mines. The special tractor that can work the soft ground is on loan as a demonstration model. This year, Lock’s team added another two plots and got mixed results. “One of the challenges this winter will be to find out why this happened. We’ll conduct pot experiments in greenhouses to examine why they are not doing as well. Is it a nutrient deficiency? Maybe there was too much moisture.” In finding the answers, Lock’s team draws upon a broad knowledge base. “We bring quite the group of students together — from environmental studies, earth sciences, biology, chemistry and geology programs. They work on niche projects that fit their discipline, but we have them work together. They end up cross-training each other and sharing and spreading their knowledge. It gives them a rounded and diverse learning experience.”

Past results do not promise future returns

MIRARCO’s private sector funding is matched by the province. This means that its fortunes can fluctuate with those of the industry. President Hall, who stewards the MIRARCO-industry relationship, says that it is being tested. “I hear in meetings that this is something the industry would like to maintain. But the reality, of course, is you have to look at the bottom line. There are many demands on the limited amount of cash, and research, without any obvious connection to people, tends to get cut early in the discussion. Research, sometimes seen as old academics doing more of the same in university laboratories, is deemed to be easy to cut. But people forget that graduate students, final-year students and much else goes with it, all connected with vital skill development.”

While some cuts may be temporary, others are harder to recover from, explains Hall. Research capacity and the continuity of knowledge through the life cycle of a project defy being put on care and maintenance. He cites the example of the Schedule Optimization Tool, a mine planning software program that MIRARCO developed and recently commercialized. “That project took seven or eight years to put a commercially available piece of software out into the industry. Very few people who were there at the start of the journey are still part of the team. That is what MIRARCO offers — the sustained capacity to turn a research idea into something that industry can actually use.”

Capacity is one challenge that the biosolids project has met for now. This year, Natural Resources Canada has helped to expand the initiative across the country. Similar reclamation projects will be tested at mine sites in British Columbia and Nova Scotia. The benefits of such collaboration are obvious to Lock and capture the value of the MIRARCO ethic: “We’ll all share our success and failures, and grow and learn together."

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