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MinCup: Elevating humble minerals to new heights

MinCup: Elevating humble minerals to new heights

Throughout October and November, the world of (Earth science) Twitter was taken by storm: Day after day, Eddie Dempsey (a lecturer at the University of Hull, and @Tectonictweets for those of you more familair with his Twitter handle) pitted minerals against each other, in a knock out style popular contest. The aim? To see which mineral would eventually be crowned the best of 2017.

Who knew fiery (but good natured) rows could explode among colleagues who felt, strongly, that magnetite is far superior to quartz or plagioclase? The Mineral Cup hashtag (#MinCup) was trending, it was in everyone’s mouth. Who would you vote for today?

What started as a little fun, became a true example of great science communication and how to bring a community of researchers, scattered across the globe, together.

And then Hazel Gibson (former EGU Press Assistant, @iamhazelgibson) came along. She was an active participant in the competition, but also contributed beautiful sketches of every mineral featured, and shared them for all to see by tagging them with the #MinCup hashtag. We all know that a picture is worth more than a thousand words, so when Hazel’s hand drawn sketches where paired with an already rocking contest, it’s impact and reach was truly cemented.

Between them, Eddie and Hazel had managed to elevate the humble mineral to new heights.

Why do minerals matter?

Minerals are hugely underrated. They are often upstaged by the heavy-weights of the geosciences: volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, fossils and melting glaciers (to name but a few).

But they shouldn’t be.

Minerals are the building blocks of all rocks, which in turn, are the foundation of all geology.

Whether you study the processes which govern how rivers form, or ancient magnetic fields, or fossils, chances are your work will, at some stage, involve looking at, studying, or at the very least understanding (some) minerals. Mineralogy 101 (or whatever it’s precise name was at your university) is a rite of passage for any aspiring Earth scientist. I still remember hours spent painstakingly looking down a microscope, drawing and annotating sketches trying to decipher the secrets of the Earth’s ancient past, locked in minerals.

And that’s just the beginning.

Minerals are of huge economic and, therefore societal importance, too. Many minerals are vital ingredients in house-hold products and contribute to the manufacturing processes of many others. Yet, they fail to make headlines and their true significance, often, goes unnoticed.

So, in hopes to further highlight the relevance and importance of minerals, I’ve picked a few of the #MinCup minerals and explained why they (should) matter (to you).

Gypsum

Gypsum will form in lagoons, where ocean waters are high in calcium and sulfate content, and where the water evaporates slowly overtime. In rocks, it is associated with sedimentary beds which can be mined to extract the mineral, but it can also be produced by evaporating water with the right chemical composition.

Gypsum has been used in construction and decoration (in the form of alabaster) since 9000 B.C.  Today, it has a wide variety of common uses. Did you know that many fruit juice companies use gypsum to aid the extraction of the liquid? It is also used in bread and dough mixes as a raising agent. And it’s uses aren’t limited to just the food and drink industry. It is also commonly used as a modelling material for tooth restorations and helps keeps us safe when added to plastic products where it acts as a fire retardant.

Magnetite

Geologically speaking, magnetite holds the clues to understand the Earth’s ancient magnetic field. Credit: Hazel Gibson

Typically, greyish black or black, magnetite is an important iron ore mineral. It occurs in many igneous and volcanic rocks and is the most magnetic of all minerals. For it to form, magma has to cool, slowly, so that the minerals can form and settle out of the magma.

Due to its magnetic nature, it has fascinated human-kind for centuries: it paved the way for the invention of the modern compass.  The iron content in magnetite is higher than its more common cousin haematite, making it very sought after. Iron ore is the source of steel, which is used universally throughout modern infrastructure.

Geologically speaking, magnetite holds the clues to understand the Earth’s ancient magnetic field. As magnetite-bearing rocks form, the magnetite within them aligns with the Earth’s magnetic field. Since this rock magnetism does not change after the rock forms, it provides a record of what the Earth’s magnetic field was like at the time the rock formed.

Diamond

Arguably, one of the most well-known of the minerals, diamond is unique, not only for its beauty and the high prices it reaches, but also for its properties. Not only is it the hardest known mineral, it is also a great conductor of heat and has the highest refractive index of any mineral.

Though mostly sought after by the jewellery industry, only 20% of all diamonds are suitable for use as a gem. Due to it’s hardness, diamond is mined for use in industrial processes, to be used as an abrasive and in diamond tipped saws and drills. Its optical properties mean it is used in electronics and optics; while it’s conductive properties mean it is often used as an insulator too.

Diamond: perhaps the most sought after mineral of them all? Credit: Hazel Gibson

Olivine

Last, but absolutely not least, let’s talk about Olivine – the winner of #MinCup 2017.

Olivine is a pretty, commonly green mineral. Because it forms at very high temperatures, it is one of the first minerals to take shape as magma cools, and given enough time, can form specimens which are easily seen with the naked eye. Changes in the behaviour of seismic waves as they traverse the Earth indicate that Olivine is an important component of the Earth’s inner layer – the Mantle.

It’s a relatively hard mineral, but overall hasn’t got highly sought-after properties and, as result, has been used rather sparingly in industrial processes. In the past it has been used in blast furnaces to remove impurities from steel and to form a slag, as well as a refractory material, but both those uses are in decline as cheaper materials come to the market.

Perhaps better known is its gemstone counterpart: peridot, a magnesium rich form of Olivine. It has been coveted for centuries, with some arguing that Cleopatra’s famous ‘emeralds’, where in fact peridote. Until the mid-90s the US was the major exporter of the gem stones, but deposits in Pakistan and China now challenge the claim.

So, do you think Olivine was the rightful winner of #MinCup 2017? With a new edition of the popular contest set to return in 2018, perhaps it’s time to shout about the properties and uses of your favourite mineral from the roof tops? Not only might it ensure it is crowned winner next year, but you’ll also be contributing to making the value of minerals known to the wider public. Heck! If you’d like to tell us all about the mineral you think should be the next champion, why not submit a guest post to GeoLog?

In the meantime, if you haven’t already got your hands on one, Hazel tells me there are a few of her charity #MinCup 2017 calendars up for grabs, so make sure to secure your copy – and contribute to a good cause at the same time.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

The role of exploration geologists in fostering healthy community-industry relationships

The role of exploration geologists in fostering healthy community-industry relationships

In November 2015, the failure of the Fundão tailings dam in Brazil devastated the surrounding landscape and local villages, killing 19 people and leaving the media filled with images of landslides, fallen infrastructure and ruined livelihoods. The limited communication and lack of relationship between joint operators BHP Billiton and Brazilian company Vale with the surrounding communities exacerbated the event, resulting in close to $50 billion still due for compensation.  But how can these relationships and hence the social impacts of such projects improve?

As a geologist now working in environmental consultancy, Alexandra Mitchell, will use a case study from a mining project in Australia to illustrate the importance of community-industry relationships, how geologists can use their scientific background to explain technical aspects of the project, and the resultant positive impacts.

Why are community-industry relationships important?

In 2015, there were close to 2,000 active mine sites around the globe. Many newer mines, as a result of dwindling ore reserves, are increasingly located in remote areas. At the same time, the viability of industrial operations is increasingly reviewed according to environmental and social impacts, meaning mines can no longer solely focus on economic gain but, instead, must incorporate sustainability into their planning.

These changes are driven by a push towards responsible investment by the finance community and a growing interest for projects to develop and maintain a Social Licence to Operate, or SLO. Defined as the ongoing approval and acceptance by a community, the SLO can make or break a company or project. Conversely, the lack of an SLO can have hugely negative economic implications: a poor reputation leads to lower investment and, ultimately, a reduced or cancelled project.

In some cases, local communities have shown such severe angst against a development that billion-dollar operations have been halted. In Chile, for example, the $2.5 billion Dominga copper and iron ore mine and, temporarily, the $4 billion Goldcorp-owned El Morro mine were stopped primarily due to a failure to consult with surrounding communities.

These incidents show that a productive, understanding, transparent, trust-based relationship between company and community is vital. In this context, why do companies continue to fall short in their community relations?

Geologists to the rescue

Community-company relations may be strained by complications relating to the particularly remote location of some projects. For example, increased pressure on potable water supplies, combined with a lack of mining history in newer operational areas, requires effective technical communication with the community.

Exploration geologists have an invaluable opportunity here, as they are often the first people on site and hold a wealth of scientific knowledge that they can share with local people to help them understand issues and voice community concerns.

Another important social challenge faced by mining operators is stakeholder relations; in other words, how the company communicates with not only local communities, but also government officials, NGOs and other relevant organisations.

For example, in rural South Australia, a small zinc mine caused consternation in the community of Strathalbyn, a small town located only 2 km away. The problems began at the project’s inception. At this early stage, the local community knew very little about the industry, and what was known was learnt from media coverage of negative environmental impacts at other mining locations. Although the local people perceived that acid rock drainage, severe noise pollution and other emissions from the mine were a threat to their community, studies confirmed that these concerns were mainly unfounded. Nevertheless, fears and questions remained, and without proper management they could continue to hamper operations at the site.

Today, the main mine operator runs quarterly community meetings with technical experts brought in to answer questions, and hence successfully addresses community concerns. This role is ideal for geologists and mining engineers, especially at the earlier stages of a project, when mitigation measures can be most effective.

Action points

Methods for addressing negative social and environmental impacts in mining will increasingly draw upon interdisciplinary knowledge. Practitioners, such as geologists and mining engineers, have an opportunity to apply their technical knowledge as they engage with local communities, whilst at the same time learning from those they interact with. This evidence-based approach fosters a relationship built upon understanding, lessening the effect of perceived negative environmental and social impacts within communities, which are understood to be as important as real impacts.

In this context, and complemented by best practice guidance, such the Stakeholder Engagement Toolkit provided by the International Council of Metals and Mining (ICMM), geologists and other technical experts could contribute in the following way:

  • Instigate early, informal but productive ‘chats’ with local people to gain an understanding of what they know about the industry and what their concerns are.
  • Engage in respectful conversations, exercised with patience, to build relationships based upon trust.
  • Organise community meetings, with geologists explaining why they are mining there and the significance of the area, as well as addressing commonly perceived negative impacts and how these are planned to be addressed.
  • Share a timeline of events and technical aspects with the community, in a transparent manner.
  • Develop a grievance mechanism for community members to ask questions or relay their concerns with technical persons to answer or explain, where necessary.

Although communities naturally have concerns, there remains a consensus that mining operations can and do bring economic benefits. When practitioners exercise true community development, rather than only showing some simple cultural awareness, a mine will have a higher chance of success. In other words, staff members must invest time in understanding communities and then acting upon the needs of the community. This will ultimately lead to economic gain, whilst bettering the lives of the surrounding people, but geologists must utilise their wealth of knowledge to talk to important stakeholders.

By Alexandra Mitchell, Graduate Environmental and Social Specialist, Wardell Armstrong LLP