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Natural History Museum – Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists - Prof Richard Herrington

“Even for understanding what crops to grow, being a geologist is important” – Prof Richard Herrington

Chairs of the CMA’s public perception of mining group Dr Rebecca Paisley & Ben Lepley interviewed Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences Department, Natural History Museum (NHM). Watch the interview below! Richard’s favourite mineral is kunzite, a type of pink to violet spodumene. To find out more about kunzite, click here!

Prior to joining the NHM, Richard worked as an exploration geologist. He wanted to understand where all the minerals used to build our economy came from. After all, if it cannot be grown, it has to be mined.

Richard explains how mining is the solution to our climate crisis and stresses just how essential it is that young people realise that mining is crucial to building a better tomorrow. Metals and minerals underpin our infrastructure. They are in our phones, laptops, cars and are the building blocks of renewable energy technologies.

The general perception amongst young people is based on stereotypical images of coal miners emerging from their shifts with blackened and sunken faces, holding onto pick axes. The reality of modern mining, in well-regulated jurisdictions, is far removed from the negative stereotypes of pollution, tailing dams failures, exploitation and corruption.

Modern, state-of-the-art mine sites aim to minimise their carbon footprint, treat workers fairly and leave behind a positive legacy. However, this is not the case across the globe. Natural resources are dictated by geology hence we cannot move them until they are extracted from the ground. As a result, a lot of the minerals and metals found in our chargers, fridges, washing machines and other everyday items come from conflict areas (such as cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo) where worker exploitation and corruption are still happening in parts of the country.

We simply cannot allow our greener world to be built at a huge cost to communities and the environment. To successfully transition to a green economy we need to identify issues across the entire value chain, from the moment a mineral comes out of the ground to when it ends up in the latest iPhone. To do this, we need more people interested in the extraction, processing and science behind what really makes up electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels.

In the coming years, we face a shortage of young people pursuing careers in mining-related disciplines. The current driving force of the industry is retiring and less and less students are choosing to study Earth Sciences which in the past focused primarily on oil and gas. Most universities now focus on how they can provide their young Earth Scientists the skills and expertise to help make a positive impact in our battle with climate change.

Why do we need to care where metals and minerals are coming from?

We are so used to the conveniences of modern life that we rarely pay any attention to what the simplest things such as the metal buttons in our clothes are made of. Where do they come from? What are their carbon footprints? Did the miners get paid a fair wage?

If you really take a look around your house, you will find metals everywhere: the hinges of your doors; the copper wiring delivering electricity; kitchen essentials including your oven, microwave, kettle, toaster; radiators and central heating systems; and of course we all have that ‘drawer’ full of old chargers and adapters that have not seen daylight since 2010.

There is a lot of metal in our homes, in our schools and workplaces, supermarkets and shopping centres. We even move around in metal cars, metal public transport, or ride metal bikes. So it all has to be mined from somewhere. We cannot stop mining if we want to continue living our lives in comfort. We cannot stop mining if we want a greener world either. What we can do, is make sure that future mining is responsible through actively caring where the metals we use are coming from.

We have seen the revolution with food. As a society, we shifted from not caring about where food comes from, to choosing locally sourced produce and checking where exactly our fruit and vegetables are coming from. The same is not happening as far as phones or laptops are concerned.

We now need to see the same revolution within our gadgets, electric vehicles and renewable energy. The UK has an opportunity to produce some critical minerals, such as lithium, copper, tin and tungsten domestically. Majority of critical mineral deposits are concentrated in SW England which has a rich mining heritage. By choosing to mine domestically, we can ensure that mining companies operate responsibly and ethically. Not only does this shorten the supply chain and reduce CO2 emissions but also uplifts communities through creation of employment and opportunities to gain new skills.

Why Do We Need More Earth Scientists?

To make the world a better, greener and cleaner place, we need more people interested in Earth Sciences. A new generation of geologists, miners, engineers, environmentalists, biologists and chemists is needed to drive the green evolution and really care about where metals and minerals are coming from.

We cannot achieve the green energy transition without mining. It is simply impossible. To minimise our impact on the planet we have to produce renewable and sustainable technologies, but to make them, we first need to extract the metals out of the ground. How we mine or extract those metals will have a huge impact on whether the green energy transition is built sustainably or on exploitation and environmental damage. This is why it is crucial for young people to really care about where their smartphones, laptops and renewable energy are really coming from.

The green transition brings an opportunity for young people to be advocates for our planet and ensure all mining activity is done efficiently, responsibly and with as little impact on the planet as possible. The only way to do this, is to actively engage in the mining industry and drive change from within.

Why Pursue a Career in Earth Sciences?

A more environmentally friendly economy requires drastic changes. The move away from fossil fuels is hugely mineral intensive. We will need more Earth Scientists than ever to:

  • oversee the extraction of metals and minerals;

  • undertake studies for best possible sites for solar and wind farms;

  • monitor environment, social & governance (ESG) compliance;

  • research recycling and reuse technologies;

  • investigate ground conditions for cutting-edge facilities;

  • work alongside industry to rehabilitate mine sites;

  • study climate change impacts;

  • carry out research and innovation projects.

These are just the few things Earth Scientists are needed for. Understanding where the metals and minerals in everyday items are coming from will enable a young generation of leaders to learn from past mistakes and be part of the solution to climate change.

The Natural History Museum and ICRAG (Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences) have produced this excellent resource on 'How can we mine a sustainable future?' with lots of geoscience careers information:

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