South Dakota Mines Ph.D. aligns mining with renewable energy Metal Tech News - August 9, 2023
Seeking ways to mitigate and reduce carbon emissions, a doctoral postgraduate of mining engineering and management from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology has taken it upon herself to explore a next-generation clean energy strategy at what may seem to many as an unlikely place – a Wyoming coal mine.
Recently completing her doctorate at South Dakota Mines, Amy McBrayer held a background in natural resources and management before pursuing the much-esteemed degree.
McBrayer's work is focused on building mathematical models to help surface mining companies strategize and plan operations in a way that maximizes the use of energy generated from renewable sources to power a mine during peak energy production times and slowing down production when fewer renewables are available.
McBrayer says many mining companies have plans to reduce carbon emissions at their operations in the coming years, and this challenge is compounded by the accelerating demand for raw materials in the global economy.
"If we're not constantly working to improve efficiencies, we won't meet this increasing demand while continuing to reduce carbon intensity and energy use at these operations," she said.
Part of her work is to show that aligning power consumption with renewable power availability reduces the environmental impact of power generation and also improves the bottom line for mining companies.
"We are really trying to help mining companies make decisions on what technology to employ to increase efficiencies and meet demand," she added.
She goes on to say that surface mines, such as the coal mining operations in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, can actually help lead technology development in renewable energy and in other areas.
"There have been a lot of renewables sited on reclaimed mine lands," McBrayer said. "In Wyoming, we have a wind farm on the former part of the Dave Johnston site. Other mines in the US are looking at solar development on reclaimed mine lands as well."
McBrayer completed her doctorate under Andrea Brickey, an award-winning professor of mining engineering and management at South Dakota Mines that also has an extensive background in the mining industry and is part of a growing movement to transition old-world methods into sustainable practices.
"Some mining companies have built their own renewable systems on site that not only benefit them but also the local utilities and their customers," said Brickey.
Brickey also notes that there is no "one size fits all" approach to the application of renewable energy in the mining industry.
"The discussion is site specific; one mine may have excellent prospects for solar and wind, another may have access to geothermal. Hydrogen is also being looked at for some mines as a fuel for machinery and vehicles," she said.
"New mines coming online are looking at the latest technology to meet production needs in a safer and more environmentally friendly manner. Companies are also looking at technology to help increase efficiency - especially in a challenging hiring environment," McBrayer added.
McBrayer and Brickey both point out that mining is necessary for the materials needed in everyday life, from the critical minerals that enable your smartphone to the high-carbon steel in a surgeon's scalpel. They add that today, coal is essential for baseload power and grid reliability.
"The use of thermal coal for power generation is likely to continue for decades, even with current carbon emissions targets, and updating production scheduling practices for this region to maximize renewable power usage at mine sites benefits both the producer and the consumer," said McBrayer.
Spending several years herself in the industry as an engineer, McBrayer returned to academia for her Ph.D. and to explore the possibilities to help coal operations continue to provide energy throughout the transition to renewables.
"It's been really fulfilling to look at things in the broader view than I could as an engineer working on the front-line," she said.
Her professor added that the mining industry will face a major workforce deficit in the coming years, but newer opportunities are arising as mines become more modern, including a huge focus on environmental protection.
"We need engineers who are focused on sustainability. It's something that is integrated into everyone's role on a mine site. What can we do to be more efficient in a continually changing environment," said Brickey.
In the next phase of her career, McBrayer will join the faculty at West Virginia University, where she will continue her research and work to inspire the next generation of mining engineers, much like her professor before her.