The award-winning NSF CAREER Geometallurgist breaks down barriers

University of Arizona Associate Professor Isabel Barton brings together people and ideas from multiple industry disciplines, academic disciplines, and demographics to improve mining sustainability and mineral resource education.

Anyone who has seen a cartoon or an old movie about mining knows a picture of a comic man making his way through a dark tunnel. When his lantern shines on a bright diamond or a large piece of gold, it pierces the rock until the precious metal is liberated.

In today’s world, of course, it’s much more complicated than that. Minerals containing important minerals such as cobalt, copper, uranium and vanadium are fully incorporated into less valuable rocks, and mineral extraction requires knowledge of the properties of the surrounding minerals and rocks, as well as a long list of tools and processes. As the world is moving towards sustainable technologies that range from solar panels and windmills to electric vehicles, mining the materials needed to build these technologies is more important than ever.

“If you look at the green energy pathway, every time you get rid of fossil fuels, it means you need more minerals,” said Isabel Barton, assistant professor of mining and geological engineering. But minerals are complex. Minerals are messy. So, extractive processes that should function well in theory sometimes fall into real life. ”

Parton is the recipient of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award 2021, the Foundation’s most prestigious award for supporting faculty members early in their careers. This estimate comes with a grant of $ 500,000 to support her research and outreach. They are on a mission to make mining operations more efficient by breaking silos among geologists, ore deposit experts, and mineral scientists, who know how to extract minerals from rocks. Parton’s background in engineering science, which links the two fields, makes her an ideal candidate for the position.

Extraction assay

Mining teams conduct tests to learn more about the properties of the ore before developing an extraction plan. However, there is a wide range of mineral properties that are not examined in standard practice. For example, when copper is extracted from common copper sulfide minerals in a process called filtration, the extraction rates can change a lot based on subtle differences in the mineral’s crystal structure and chemical composition. However, detection of small structural features and impurities requires relatively sophisticated testing that is not part of the usual assortment of tests performed on ore. Thus, scientists only check the level of these impurities if something unexpected happens during extraction.

“Let’s say you’ve moved to a different area, and all of a sudden, your recovery – or the percentage of the precious metal successfully extracted from the ore – is falling like a rock, so to speak,” Barton said. “In such cases, a lot of companies embark on an intense profiling campaign to find out what caused the change that caused this decline in the recovery.”

Barton looks beyond the narrow range of mineral properties that are usually examined to establish a more proactive approach to extraction. It plans to apply detailed characterization methods to determine all relevant crude properties, and then link them to the leaching results in a series of experiments.

“If the results indicate that things like crystallization are important in determining extraction behavior, we can add them to the routine analyzes suite and steer the industry in a more efficient direction,” she said.

Although Parton’s research will focus on the Colorado Plateau, she hopes that the methods she develops will be used around the world to improve mining operations.

“I am confident that Dr. Barton’s research will make a quantum leap in the production of critical minerals needed for a green economy,” said Mo Momaez, Head of Mining and Geological Engineering and Interim Division Head for David and Edith Lowell.

Make resource science “less terrifying and weird”

People rely heavily on mining in their daily lives, but they are often unaware of the many ways in which they depend on mineral resources. Barton intends to change that.

You teach an undergraduate course included in Mining and Anthropology that explores non-renewable resources through a historical lens. The discussion ranges from the role of bronze in building an ancient empire, and the coking of coal in medieval China, to the minerals that could power green energy today and the future of space mining.

A political science student said the course showed her that the technical concepts were “much less terrifying and weird” than she thought. Ethnic minority students especially appreciated learning about ancient mineral technology in African, Asian, and South American cultures.

“A large part of human history and the blueprints of modern society have been determined by access to or lack of access to mineral resources,” Barton said. “The compilation of this training course was an opportunity to highlight the extent to which mineral resources are related to civilization as we know it.”

As part of her work at the National Science Foundation, Parton creates a series of short public-accessible videos on the same topics. In doing so, she hopes to make the area – in which women and ethnic minorities have historically been underrepresented – more welcoming and more interesting to all.

“Mining engineering has a persistent problem of diversity,” she said. “Although my own experience has been largely positive thanks to my supportive colleagues, I understand how it can sometimes feel like a foreign or unfriendly environment. This motivates me to really make sure that students from all different backgrounds have the opportunity to pursue careers in the field of Mineral resources. ”


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