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Coal Mine

Virginia Tech hopes new consortium makes mining efforts faster, smarter

Virginia Tech researchers are teaming with faculty from the Colorado School of Mines to use earth science and mining expertise to create data sets and 3-D software models that better locate, categorize, and visualize mineral resources to improve exploration success rates.

Combining the knowledge of mathematicians, computer scientists, geologists, and mining engineers with industrial and government partners, the proposed consortium would provide mining and minerals companies with new 3-D subsurface geological models that will result in more exact drilling.

The need is great: Mining companies spend billions of dollars each year exploring for metals, minerals, and oil. Often, however, mining companies come up empty.

The Center for Advanced Subsurface Earth Resource Models has early support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF already has granted the joint group an initial $30,000 to form an initial planning committee and recruit potential industry supporters.

“Our team will work with the mining industry and their support industries to develop novel technologies for minimizing risk in minerals exploration and expansion, reducing the cost of exploration and expansion,” said Matthias Chung, assistant professor of mathematics and an affiliate of the Computational Modeling and Data Analytics (CMDA) program within the Academy of Integrated Science.

Matthias Chung. Headshots for the Virginia Tech College of Science.

Matthias Chung
Matthias Chung is heading up Virginia Tech's part of the Center for Advanced Subsurface Earth Resource Models.

Virginia Tech’s group includes faculty from CMDA and the departments ofGeosciences, Mathematics, and Statistics along with the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering in the College of Engineering.

Chung is leading the Virginia Tech group, with John Hole, a professor in geosciences, and Erik Westman, head of the mining and minerals engineering department, serving as co-principle investigators.

Geosciences faculty will use expertise in geophysics to support mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists to create high-performance computing and data sets to build accurate images of the earth’s subsurface in order to help mining engineers who design mine exploration development methods. The consortium represents an ideal cross-disciplinary research effort at Virginia Tech, touching on global systems sciences, environmental sustainability, and data analytics and decision sciences.

“Exploration for mineral deposits today requires data from diverse sources, and these data represent highly variable spatial and temporal scales depending on the environment in which we are drilling,” said Bob Bodnar, University Distinguished Professor and the C.C. Garvin Professor of Geochemistry.

For now, companies rely on intensive drilling programs that have various degrees of success, with many years spent on a project from initial exploration to production through mine closure and reclamation. This results in lost money and time, plus unwanted environmental damage on mines that prove unsuccessful.

The consortium will work closely with industry from mining, geophysics, big data, and software development, plus federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Geological Survey. Industry support is vital for the group to receive full NSF support and become self-sustaining.