Walking into a Minefield:

mining-industryIn the past couple of years, mining has featured very prominently in the news. In politics it’s become a hot-button issue (“Drill, baby, drill!”). It’s been central to some international rescue efforts as well as international disasters.

Mining is an ancient practice that has evolved alongside humankind. We’ve gone from clawing flint from the ground with our bare hands to using massive machines to haul away excess dirt and debris from our excavation efforts. Our primitive digging tools of the past, usually crafted from bone or ceramic or rock, have given way to advanced polycrystalline diamond produced by bearing manufacturers.

I’ve known people who mine: specialists in their field, engineers, and electricians. I’ve shaken the hands of friends with missing fingers and visited others with limbs lost to the heavy machinery required to literally move mountains. Mining is a dangerous profession and requires working in some of the harshest landscapes on the planet.

Mining is also integral to our infrastructure. Without the oil, coal, shale, and other energy-rich products, our civilization would grind to a halt and billions would starve to death. Yet many hold mining responsible for the pollution of our planet and encourage governments to regulate an already heavily restricted industry.

It’s for my friends, and because of the ambiguous role of mining, that I thought I’d collect a few of my thoughts on mining here and share them.

Mining through the Ages:

Mining has evolved along with mankind. We’ve always needed tools and weapons, and as we’ve refined those implements, we’ve also refined our civilizations. The oldest flint mines in the world can be found in Europe. The Egyptians mined for decorations as well as weapons, excavating for turquoise and malachite as well as gold. The ancient city-state of Athens was sustained by the wealth of nearby silver mines, and the Romans utilized hydraulic mining.
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Mining is risky, and so humankind usually only mines for that which is worth the risk. That sense of value has also changed through the ages, from mineral wealth to energy wealth. We still drill for metals, but now we’ve turned to uranium mining, as well as for oil and natural gas. It makes me wonder what we might be mining for in the coming centuries, as our technology continues to spring forward. Or if mining will even be necessary.

“Drill, Baby, Drill!”

This became one of the Republican rallying cries during the 2008 U.S. presidential election. It was coined by the former Maryland Lt. Governor Michael Steele. The skyrocketing gas prices of the later Bush years had led to some contentious partisan exchanges over the need to allow more domestic drilling.

Democrats countered that increased drilling now wouldn’t affect gas prices until years in the future, and that offsetting gas prices wasn’t worth the potential environmental damage.

The slogan’s popularity reached new heights when it was also quoted by the Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin at the vice presidential debate. Many Republicans, however, distanced themselves from the issue after the BP disaster in the Gulf.

Mining Challenges:

YanacochaMost of the easy to reach ores and resources have been tapped out. We have to dig deeper and travel to some of the harshest environments on the planet to continue fueling our infrastructure. Many countries have begun zeroing in on the Arctic for petroleum drilling. But mining in the Arctic presents challenges such as extreme temperatures and drilling through frozen ground as well as handling the freezing water.

The challenges faced by miners, particularly when it comes to drilling, have led to astounding advances in mining technology. Abrasion, heat, and friction often wear at drilling equipment, causing them to fail at critical moments and lead to the accidents and disasters I mentioned above. But human ingenuity reaches for new solutions. In history, whenever we’ve faced a challenge, people have always sought new technology or methods to overcome the problem.

One such solution has been the creation of synthetic diamonds by bearing manufacturers. Polycrystalline diamond bearings are more resilient than metal ones, conduct heat more efficiently, produce minimal friction, and they last longer even in the most demanding of drilling environments.

Heroic Miners:

In 1998, world-destroying asteroids were the craze and mining was brought front and center. In both Deep Impact and Armageddon, massive asteroids threatened the planet and had to be destroyed by a crack team of heroes.

In Armageddon, it was an asteroid the size of Texas, and the crack team was an oil rig crew. Both films had the heroes drilling down into the asteroid and planting nuclear weapons that would, hopefully, shatter the space rock into smaller pieces that would easily burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Both movies involved heroic sacrifices by the teams sent to stop the asteroid.

Looking to the Future:

As you can see, mining has paralleled human development. As we’ve risen to greater heights, our needs have increased, as have our demands on the planet. But we’re constantly refining our technology, and perhaps the need for mining will fade as green technologies take over.

Currently, that doesn’t appear to be the case, at least not for another few years, which is just as well, in my opinion, because mining still provides vital energy to the world as well as vital jobs to the economy. But perhaps as our technology advances, like the polycrystalline diamonds created by bearings manufacturers, and our processes improve, the impact on our planet will become negligible.

If you take anything from this article, I hope it’s that as humans, we’re driven to solve problems and seek solutions, and that we never lose hope that this drive is common in all of us.