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Q&A Session 3 - Technology Metals for a Green Future: Camborne School of Mines

We need critical 'technology metals' to transition to a low carbon economy and combat climate change. But negative perceptions of mining often prevail, and connections aren't being made between metals extraction and our everyday technologies.

To raise awareness of these issues, educators from Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter - Frances Wall, Kate Smith, Ed Loye, Peter Frost have developed a short, free, 16-hour course to provide an overview of the geology, engineering, societal and environmental processes needed to obtain 'technology metals' and fuel our modern economies. They address how mining has improved environmentally/ socially - as well as areas which continue to need improvement.

Our Q&A with Frances Wall, Professor at Camborne School of Mines and Kate Smith, HiTech Alk Carb Project Manager covers more about the course and its timely relevance.

The course starts again on Monday 4th May and is free to join:

Spread the word - this is an opportunity to bring individuals from all walks of life into the conversation on sustainable mining and technology metals!

1) CMA: Tell us more about the Technology Metals for a Green Future MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

Kate/ Frances: Moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy and low carbon technology means moving to an ‘age of metals’. We will need to mine more than ever before to build wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles. However, critical raw materials aren’t well known outside of geology and mining, which is why we want more people to relate their everyday technology (smartphones, computers, and low-carbon technologies) with the geological resources they come from.

We developed the Technology Metals for a Green Future FutureLearn course as part of the EU Horizons 2020 HiTech AlkCarb research project ( coordinated by Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter. The course uses examples from the research project, but it also has a much broader scope, and aims to introduce technology metals to a wider audience.

This course looks at the specialist ‘Technology metals’ required to fuel a low carbon, technologically advanced economy. We cover rare earths, tantalum, niobium, tin, tungsten, lithium etc.specialist metals essential in low carbon technologies and digital technologies such as smartphones, data centres and medical equipment. We are not confined to any particular definition of ‘critical’ metals and include all the specialist metals mined in relatively small quantities, which are essential to our technologies.

The course structure is:

Week 1: Subject background and definitions

Week 2: Overview of geology

Week 3: Mining and processing

Week 4: Responsible sourcing and circular economy

2) CMA: Who is the course designed for and why should people sign up?

Kate/ Frances: The course is designed to be accessible to non-specialists so it is nice and easy going. There are a few quizzes but no exams! It runs for 4 weeks, and can take about 4 hours a week to do all the activities, but it is also easy to dip into when you like and watch some of the videos.

We think people should do it because there is so much to explore that is not commonly known with technology metals. The challenges and issues raised relate to all our futures, and it’s fascinating to learn where our stuff comes from. Phone components were formed in strange volcanoes millions of years ago!

3) CMA: Who are the main external contributors to the course content?

Kate/ Frances: The course has been developed with help from the HiTech AlkCarb research team, and many contributions from colleagues in industry, geological surveys and other universities.

  • We filmed a number of videos on location with Klaus Brauch from terratec Geophysical services in southwest Germany covering geophysical exploration techniques and combining geological and geophysical data into 3d models, using cutting edge examples from the Kaiserstuhl extinct volcano.

  • We also filmed in Ellesmere Port with Dr Ian Higgins from Less Common Metals looking at rare earth metal alloy production and security of supply – it was a real treat to see into this factory.

  • Mkango Resources provided us with video from their Songwe Hill active exploration project in Malawi looking at corporate social responsibility.

  • Plymouth University gave us permission to use their fun video showing what elements make up a smartphone – by blending it, and the University of Birmingham, where research focusses on recycling best practices, also shared videos of the latest recycling processes.

We are very grateful for all the valuable content from our external contributors, allowing us to cover an even broader range of material from geology to exploration, mining, manufacturing and environmentally and socially responsible mining, providing a rich resource for learners to explore.

4) CMA: What are the key messages that you want people to come away with having done the course?

Kate/ Frances: Some of the key messages that we hope learners come away from the MOOC are:

  • We need a wide range of metal resources for our modern lives, and in ever increasing quantities. Recycling is important, but at the moment we still need to mine to meet the demand for these resources.

  • Low carbon technologies which will help us fight climate change require many of these technology metals.

  • Many of these metals are considered ‘critical’ in part because of their importance for our modern world, but also because of concerns about security of supply.

  • These resources come from rocks that form in a variety of different and interesting ways in the Earth.

  • Geologists and geophysicists work to improve our understanding of these formation processes, which means we can explore for resources more efficiently than in the past, with more care for the environment and local communities.

  • Modern exploration and mining practices are far more careful of the environment and communities than historic practices.

  • As consumers we can make choices that encourage companies to source their raw materials in responsible ways.

  • These issues are of importance to all of us – whether our interest is in geology, engineering, environment, climate change, health, society or politics.

We hope that participants learn about something they had not thought of before, or that they see new dimensions to the issues raised through interaction with the course materials and from discussions with their fellow learners.

5) CMA: Since the course’s launch in January 2020, what feedback have you received?

Kate/ Frances: We are delighted that the first run of our course (January to March 2020) was taken by over 1300 learners from all around the world, of all ages, and from a wide range of backgrounds and prior experiences.

Feedback on the course has been really positive, with participants learning about the origins of their devices, the importance and challenges associated with critical raw materials, security of supply and responsible sourcing. The course led many participants to explore where materials come from in greater depth and think about how we will address responsible resourcing in the future.

Many learners associated mining with environmentally damaging practices of the past, or poor working conditions, so it was eye-opening for them to learn about modern mining best practices and how things have advanced, as well as where scope still exists for improvement.

For us it is clear that the modern mining industry needs to work on better communication with the public about what mining looks like today, how important it is to our lives and the care taken by companies and governments to look after people and the environment.

6) CMA: What are your future plans for the MOOC?

Kate/ Frances: We plan to run the MOOC several times a year, probably for the next couple of years. The next scheduled course run starts on 4th May (you can sign up and start any time in the 6 weeks from then) and we plan to run it again in August and December 2020.

In the future, we’d like to develop follow-on MOOCs to explore technology metal uses and responsible sourcing in greater depth. There are lots of exciting collaborative research, science and industry developments that are happening now in this quickly evolving field, and we want to raise awareness of these important topics. Watch this space!

7) CMA: How can the Critical Minerals Association help us move forward on some of the issues outlined in the MOOC?

Kate/ Frances: The MOOC was created because many members of the public, policy makers and people throughout the value chain could benefit from a better understanding of critical raw materials, where they come from, and their importance for industry in our modern, low-carbon, globally connected future.

The Critical Minerals Association has an important role to play in helping to raise awareness, particularly in government and with policy makers but also within society as a whole, of the importance of security of supply and critical minerals industries for the future of the UK. The Critical Minerals Association can also help with improving societal perception of exploration and mining industries, helping to bring public understanding of these fields up-to-date with the best practices now in common use around the world.

Thanks Kate and Frances!

“Brilliant course and supporting material, pdf's, diagrams and videos. I have completed over 60 courses in the last ten years and this course is easily one of very best. Thank you”

-Richard, FutureLearn Learner, March 2020.

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