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If you don't catch it or grow it...

... you must dig it from the ground. The ‘Minerals For Life’ meeting in Edinburgh promises to be a major event.  Mark Tyrer and Kevin Murphy discuss closing the gap between industry and academia in minerals R&D

Our resources come from surprisingly few primary sources and the majority of the manufactured materials we use, begin their journey as minerals. Metallic ores, hydrocarbons and industrial minerals dominate the supply of – well, almost everything!

The British Isles have a very long history of mineral mining, indeed Palaeolithic flint working in Kent date our ancestor’s early tenancy of these islands to around 800,000 years, long before the land bridge to mainland Europe was lost or even the evolution of modern humans! Though some classical scholars would have us believe that the Roman invasion saw the first written records of Britain (e.g. Tacitus Agricola Book 1) , tantalising glimpses of our mineral wealth were recorded centuries earlier by the Phoenicians, who describe the Cassiter’ides: the Atlantic “Tin Isles”, widely thought to be the Scilly Isles, or nearby Cornwall. By around 1600 BC, the Southwest of Britain was experiencing a trade boom as British tin was exported across Europe.

Although the mining magnate Cecil Rhodes famously said that “ are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life” his bronze age ancestors may have felt much the same about Celtic Britain, but for quite different reasons. Whilst tin was exported from the southwest, it was also combined with another precious resource at home – Welsh copper. Evidence of bronze age mine workings in North Wales are impressive in their scale: on the Great Orme near Llandudno and at Copa Hill in the valley of the River Ystwyth in Ceredigion, we see the enormity of these ancient workings. Later copper mining at Sygun, near Beddgelert in Snowdonia, was worked from around the Roman conquest to the early years of the 20th century. Practically, the British Isles had already enjoyed our first industrial revolution long before the arrival of the Romans.

Mineral science and engineering evolved from these ancient times initially as a pragmatic necessity, concerned with mining and quarrying the earth’s resources. The blossoming of the subjects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave us the formalisms we use today: a quantitative understanding of the field, leading to many predictive capabilities and a systematic way of thinking about minerals; from classification and production, to economics and recycling.

One consequence of this activity is that the industrial and research communities are no longer as closely linked as they once were. The minerals industry in the UK alone employs around 38,000 people and accounted for £4719M of trade in mineral imports and £4556M in exports over the six years to 2010 (BGS, 2011). We produce around 22Mt/year of high quality industrial minerals and 200Mt/year of aggregates is won, along with ~1Mt/year of building stone and ~10Mt/year of brick and fire clay. The commercial value of the minerals sector is around 2% of the entire industrial output of the United Kingdom. In financial terms, the most relevant material groups account for trade values (2010) as follows- Sand and gravel: £630M, Limestone: £709M, Silica sand £57M, Igneous rock: £320M, Sandstone: £116M, Chalk: £56M, Potash £63M, Salt £530M, Gypsum and Anhydrite: £19M. Overall, mining and quarrying generated £31,645M in 2010. Although our primary metals production is now very small, interests in certain strategic minerals (amongst them are the rare earths, fluorite and tungsten) is growing quickly.

The research community spans many large and small consulting practices, in-house R&D in other companies and our major laboratories such as BGS, BRE and NPL. It is within the universities however, that a large fraction of minerals research occurs, spanning many departments. Of principal importance are the 27 Geology/Earth Science departments and 52 Chemistry, 49 Civil Engineering, 18 Materials and 23 Chemical Engineering schools. Together they provide almost all the research training for the UK minerals industries and it is surprising that links between the two are not stronger.

Despite the high value of this turnover and the vast quantities of minerals worked, the minerals industries operate conservatively and on very small margins. The engagement of the major minerals companies with minerals research in this country is pitifully small and with a few notable exceptions, many people in the minerals industries seem detached from developments in research. Similarly, many researchers are dependent on government grants and are themselves, far removed from the industrial sector. This situation is not in the nation’s interest and certainly not helping either the research or industrial sectors of the minerals community.

This has been discussed informally at several meetings of the professional bodies and learned societies, who have asked how best this gap might be closed. Together, we have convened the Minerals For Life conference in Edinburgh, which will be held on the 17-19th June 2013. The objective is to showcase the best of mineral science and engineering, showing how our lives are so greatly dependent on it and how advances in minerals research benefit us all. The meeting is co-ordinated by the Mineralogical Society, but organized jointly with the Geological Society, Institute of Materials Minerals and Mining and the British Zeolite Association. Jointly, we span a wide sector of the minerals community in this country and overseas.

There will be four subject themes for Minerals for Life, spanning key areas of development:

Strategically important mineral resources

(1) Critical metals and other commodities (including REE, phosphates, fluorite, Co, etc.)
(2) Security of supply of base and precious metals
(3) Ethical Sourcing
(4) Minerals processing/recycling

Functional materials and minerals

(5) Engineering mineral functionality
(6) Focus on Function - Emerging Directions in Structural Materials
(7) Focus on Function - Hi-tech non-structural and Biomaterials

Minerals for Environmental Protection

(8) Radioactive Waste Management - Engineered Barrier Systems
(9) Radioactive Waste Management - Natural Analogue Systems
(10) Carbon Capture and Storage

Biological Processes in Mineral Science and Technology

(11) Biomining and bioremediation
(12) Biomineralization: fundamental and applied research (e.g. climate proxy)

Additionally, two cross-cutting themes will be of wide interest:

(13) Use of large-scale facilities in mineral sciences and industry.

The UK has excellent facilities for ‘Big Science’ and recently has commissioned a world-class synchrotron facility, the Diamond Light Source. It is important that this is used in support of industrial research, in addition to academic work and we seek to encourage applications from all parts of the minerals community.

(14) What does industry need from academia? What can academics provide?

This is in many ways, a key function of this meeting. How can we better understand each other’s needs, capabilities and aspirations in a world where resources are increasingly scarce and research funding is in short supply? Throughout the meeting there will be opportunity to raise questions and meet new people, so we hope that new ideas and activity will evolve from this.

In conclusion, we hope that delegates will stay for the whole event and participate in session other than their own comfort zone. Contributions from anyone involved in minerals is welcome and inquiries by e-mail should be sent to: [email protected].