When most people think of mining in the United States, they think of the Gold Rush. It took one discovery in 1848 to bring over 300,000 people to California in search of riches. Mining in the US is more than just the stereotypical old man with a long beard, dirty hat, and missing teeth carrying a pick and shouting “Eureka!” And it looks nothing like the seven little men singing “Heigh-Ho” and bringing home wheelbarrows full of gems.
There were 12,567 active mines in the US in 2021, with nearly 50 percent of them sand and gravel mines. Stone mines made up another 34 percent, with coal (7.7 percent), nonmetals (6.8 percent), and metals (2.1 percent) completing the list.1 Every state has mining operations, with sand and gravel, stone, and non-metal mines prevalent across most of the country. Coal mines are located primarily in the mid-Northeast mountain areas, and metal mines can typically be found in the West and Southwest.2
Mining operations in the US generated $90.4 billion in mineral commodities in 2021, a 12 percent increase over 2020.3 Main contributors were crushed stone, cement, construction sand and gravel, and metals such as copper, gold, iron ore, and zinc. With nearly 6,000 mining suppliers and over 230,000 workers in the mining industry4, it’s surprising to find only 17 public four-year universities with graduates in mining and mineral engineering in 2020.5
Despite the limited number of programs, there are some amazing opportunities across the country for students to learn about the mineral and mining industry and work in state-of-the-art underground mining laboratories. Students can major in fields like geochemistry, metallurgy, mineralogy, and ecotoxicology.
University of Arizona’s San Xavier Underground Mining Laboratory
The University of Arizona’s San Xavier Underground Mining Laboratory has the distinct honor of being the only mining lab in the US with a working vertical shaft.6 The San Xavier mine was a private mine, producing silver, lead, zinc, and copper until the mid-1950s when the University of Arizona took ownership. The nearly 90-acre site now includes four levels underground to 250 feet and a training center with classrooms and research space.
The laboratory is a working mine, located about 25 miles southwest of campus, with students holding all positions such as mine manager and foreman, and participating in mine development, operations, maintenance, and safety. The mine is also used by local first responders for search and rescue training, private companies testing robotics and 3D scanning technology, and federal agencies like OSHA.
Montana Technological University’s Underground Mine Education Center
The Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Department at Montana Technological University celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary earlier this year and boasts the only on-campus underground mine in the country7 where students can get hands-on experience, as well as time in the analytical and mineral separation laboratories.
Silver mines, once called the Orphan Boy and Orphan Girl Mines, were gifted as part of a parcel of land to the university, and they now serve as research facilities for students studying mining engineering, geological engineering, metallurgical engineering, and occupational safety and health.
University of Nevada, Reno’s Newmont Ventilation Laboratory
Dr. Pierre Mouseet-Jones spent almost his entire 40-year career at the University of Nevada, Reno developing a ventilation laboratory from the ground up. The Mackay School of Mines completed updates to the lab in 2016 with help from donations from the Newmont Mining Corporation.
Ventilation-on-demand is a system that allows mines to operate more efficiently by delivering airflow to the areas where activity is present. Ventilation-on-demand reduces operating costs, producing lower greenhouse gas emissions, and offers more health and safety precautions for workers in the mines.
Mining is the second largest industry in Nevada, and the state is the fourth largest gold producer in the world.8 The University of Nevada, Reno offers degrees in Metallurgical Engineering and Mining Engineering and a Ph.D. program in Mineral Resource Engineering.
Missouri University of Science and Technology’s Experimental Mine
The Experimental Mine, just a mile and a half from the Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) campus, is an underground mine and dolomite limestone quarry. Missouri S&T was the first to offer a formal program in explosives engineering. In 2016, the University completed the Kennedy Experimental Mine Building, which houses a mine rescue laboratory, mucking stations, a classroom, and a historic center for mining operations.
The mine is for students, faculty, and the public, with guided tours and educational programs throughout the year to encourage young people to pursue careers in the mining industry. Each summer, Missouri S&T offers a summer “Explosives Camp” to eleventh- and twelfth-grade high school students. The program includes working with detonators, high explosives, rock blasting, and fireworks.
No wonder Popular Science named the Experimental Mine one of the most awesome college laboratories.9
Colorado School of Mines’ Edgar Experimental Mine
Originally opened in the 1870s and a producer of high-grade silver, gold, lead, and copper, the Experimental Mine has been a teaching and research mine of the Colorado School of Mines since the 1920s. The mine serves all mining engineering students with hands-on experience in surveying and mapping, rock fragmentation, mine ventilation, rock mechanics instrumentation, mine operations, safety, and more.
A public research university, the Colorado School of Mines completed cooperative research with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the US Army, Mining Network Systems, and many others. Students also conduct tours of the mine, but be prepared to walk a half mile underground and wear a coat, as the mine is a constant 54 degrees Fahrenheit.10
The need for more metal and mining industry workers
The aging workforce, the looming retirement of baby boomers, and the lack of new talent entering the industry will have a huge impact on the global mining workforce. According to the Mining Industry Human Resources Council, roughly 60,000 mining workers will retire by 2030, leaving significant demand for resources across the industry.11 Yet only about 50 mining engineers are graduating each year from programs like the ones spotlighted.
LabLynx wishes all the students enrolled in these programs the best of luck as they pursue their degrees, and we hope to work with many of those who choose a career in a metals and mining lab one day.