Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ecosystems & Mining:
Natural Answer to Oxygen & Air Quality?

Collage by GenesisEcoFund: Could  Ecosystems Be the Answer to Oxygen & Air Quality in Mining?

Mining companies pump countless billions of cubic metres of air every year deep underground, and spend billions of dollars every year on liquid oxygen, oxygen masks, and oxygen extraction and condensing machinery.

When we began looking at the topic of oxygen, air quality and mining, we approached it primarily from the perspective of human health and safety—workers need clean air to breathe. It turns out that oxygen is an essential element in the ore extraction process—especially gold—aiding in the separation of the desired ore from the surrounding material.

So the short answer to the question, could ecosystems have some role to play in producing fresh oxygen and cleaning the air in deep mines is: we’re not sure; it really depends. On what? Many factors.

For starters, we cannot even begin to look at a pilot study with the mining industry without some kind of quantifiable figures: how much O2 is produced per X sq ft. of ecosystem? This is just a reality of trying to apply an ecosystem to an industry which is all about efficiency and exploitation (let’s face it: there is no other way to describe extraction of precious minerals from the earth).

Mining as an activity is fundamentally concerned with outputs. It has no concept of inputs—few resource extraction industries do, with the exception of some leaders in forestry which have learned the economic benefits of sustainable forestry practices (planting trees to replace the ones which were cut down). 

A mining operation will want to know how big an ecosystem they need (or how many individual ecosystem “modules”) for how many cubic feet of mine shaft per person? But here again: the mining industry is going to be about “what’s the maximum oxygen I can get for the minimum amount of ecosystem?” They will look at an ecosystem not as a superorganism, a living thing, something of intrinsic value, but as a cog in their machine—the big mining machine in this case—just as they do not consider the rock and ore they are mining as anything other than a resource to be extracted and profited from.

It’s not an attack. It’s not even a criticism. It’s just an honest and objective look at an industry which may be fundamentally incompatible with the essence of what ecosystems are all about.  Any industry/use which only cares about what the ecosystem outputs are, and not what they themselves need to input, has no grasp of harmony and mutual symbiosis.

So what about air quality? Could all the dust and soot in a mining operation offer an ecosystem a veritable treasure-trove of minerals and nutrients? Surely they could be considered an input.

Sadly, an overabundance of nutrients in a high order rainforest ecosystem results in an abundance of algae growth. In other words, considering how much dust and soot we’re talking about in the typical mining operation, it would take an impossibly large ecosystem to process all the contaminants in the air.  As a matter of fact, it would be very difficult to keep such particulates out of any ecosystem placed in that environment.

It definitely would make for a very interesting pilot study—to see if ecosystem technology could be utilized by the mining industry in a cost-effective way. Such a pilot project would require a significant amount of funding, a mining company to partner with, and participation by an academic institution.

Genesis is certainly not opposed to looking into the matter further. Despite what the initial indications are, we are not mining experts; we may be missing some key piece of the puzzle. We will definitely take some time digging deeper into this matter in the future.

Stay tuned, but don’t hold your breath.

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