Stefanie Tompkins

Transcript

John Bradford: 

Hopefully over the last 150 years, we’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to do resource extraction safely and to do it with minimal impact on the environment. As we’re making these big changes very quickly, let’s take those lessons, apply them to what we’re trying to do in the future and do it as well as we possibly can. I’m John Bradford, vice president of global initiatives at Colorado School of Mines. 

The Conveyor: 

You’re listening to The Conveyor, the podcast that brings you the latest research, new discoveries and world changing ideas from Colorado School of Mines. To begin, what is the Global Energy Future Initiative at Mines? 

John Bradford: 

The Global Energy Future Initiative is really about eliminating CO2 emissions from our energy economy. So it’s meeting the net-zero challenge, which is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that our society has faced ever in history possibly. So it’s an enormous challenge. The key elements that we bring to this discussion are expertise in oil and gas, critical minerals and metals, clean water, carbon capture utilization and sequestration, advanced energy systems, which is includes renewable energy and supply chain transparency, which links all of these different elements together in an integrative sort of way. Also since we’re a institution of higher education, I think that we can be trusted objective voice in the conversation to help with some of the surrounding issues. Of course, many of the issues that we’re talking about here are politically sensitive and controversial in some cases. So it’s a challenge for us, I think to try and navigate those, but I think it’s important for us to do it in a responsible and effective way. 

The Conveyor: 

Yeah, it is important when tackling so many challenges, especially through so many channels. It seems like then there’s a need for more public awareness on these various issues and viewpoints. 

John Bradford: 

I think that’s true. Awareness and acceptance, right? So it’s a change that’s happening. It’s something that we need to accept and my hope is that at some point in the near future, we’ll get to a point where the political discussion doesn’t revolve around whether it’s actually happening or whether we need to deal with it, but how we go about dealing with it, right? So there are going to be policy differences, there’ll be different ways to manage the situation and we can have political discussions about that. But the reality is that it’s a change that’s going to have a big impact on us as a society. 

The Conveyor: 

Well, politics is often key. So how has something like the Biden administration’s climate plan addressed issues towards future energy change? 

John Bradford: 

So one of the key components of the Biden plan is that we can drive economic growth with the energy transition. So there’s a perception out there that if we transition our energy system to where there’s a higher proportion of renewables, we drive changes in our construction that leads to better efficiency. But they were continuing to use oil and gas, but with this other element, which is carbon capture utilization and sequestration, there’s a huge amount of economic input that’s required to build up these other things. So if we’re going to build the infrastructure for CCUS and build the technologies that are required to make that happen, that will employ a lot of people. If we start building more solar farms and wind farms, that’s going to employ a lot of people. If we transition more coal-fired power plants to gas-fired power plants, that’s going to drive a lot of jobs. 

John Bradford: 

There’s some other components of the infrastructure that have to change too. So carbon, if we can figure out how to capture it at sources, if we can figure out how to capture it from the atmosphere, then we have to push it around, right? We have to mobilize that carbon to places where we’re storing it, and storing it can be in geologic reservoirs or storing it might be in producing other commodity products, like other types of plastics that use CO2 as a feed stock, or storing it in concrete is another possibility. We have to get the carbon from the source to where we’re going to store it somehow, and that requires construction of pipelines and things like that. 

The Conveyor: 

So it sounds like there’s some big economic promises with the plan, but what might be overlooked? 

John Bradford: 

There’s something and this really isn’t in the public conversation yet, although it’s recognized by people that are working on the issues, which is the an enormous growth in the raw supply of minerals and metals that are needed to create renewable energy technology such as solar and wind. So if we transition a significant part of our energy supply to renewables, we’re going to have to grow the supply of critical metals and minerals. That includes base metals like copper and aluminum and things like that, but also rare earth elements that are needed for advanced battery systems and that sort of thing. 

The Conveyor: 

How much of an increase? 

John Bradford: 

Some of those elements we’re going to have to increase the supply by something like 1000 percent by 2050, which is just an enormous challenge. So we have to be able to find the reserves of those elements, develop them, mine them, extract them, and be able to do that quickly, sort of on a few decades timescale to produce all the materials that we need for the energy transition. And that’s just an enormous challenge. And in some sense, this isn’t so much part of the conversation yet, but it needs to be, and it’s something that we have to accept as a society. 

John Bradford: 

So as we transition away from oil and gas to renewables, in some sense, we’re trading one non-renewable resource for another. So the supply of those metals and minerals that are needed for this are also limited and a finite resource. So we have to manage that carefully, we have to accept that, that’s something that we do, as we make the energy transition. And we have to make probably some regulatory and policy changes to make it possible to do that on the timeframe that will help us meet our net-zero goal, sort of at the 2050 goal that many governments and companies are setting for themselves. 

The Conveyor: 

So then the real challenge is to efficiently develop these renewable resources, which actually must be made from non-renewable resources all in a very quick amount of time. 

John Bradford: 

Yeah, exactly. There’s another point that I wanted to make about the regulation. So this is in the mining sector. My understanding is that it takes from identification of a resource to having a mine that’s fully up and running and producing the raw ore largely because of regulatory processes involved. That can be 10, 20, maybe even more years to get that up and running. So we’re talking to get a brand new mine up and running, we’re talking about something that’s on the same scale as we want to get to net-zero. 

John Bradford: 

And so for certain types of resources, if we need to increase the supply by 100, 200, 500 percent of certain kinds of resources, how is that going to be possible if it takes 10, 20 years to even get a new mine up and running. So something has to change there, right? So if we want to do all these things, we have to be willing to change in multiple areas in the way that we’re operating. I’ll use this as an opportunity to expand on another facet of this that we haven’t talked about yet. 

The Conveyor: 

Go for it. 

John Bradford: 

The area of national security. So our national security is improved by international partners, other countries recognizing us as a stable and reliable partner. So if we’re rapidly shifting policies that create some challenges in that regard. Right now, the U.S. doesn’t control the rare earth market, for example. That’s controlled primarily by China. So for national security purposes, that puts us in a vulnerable position. We have to figure out how to address that and address our own production capabilities and address our own role in that supply chain for those critical elements that are so important for this transition. As you mentioned, the global politics are key, so having cooperation between countries that are both producing their resources and then utilizing them. And having sort of global policies that everyone agrees on, they can address these environmental and social concerns that we have. I think, that’s going to be really critical to doing this well. 

The Conveyor: 

To wrap up, what does Mines and the Initiative hope to gain from the research and collaboration around the world to solve in these climate change problems? 

John Bradford: 

I think that the problem is so big that it would be misleading probably to say that we’re going to solve all those problems ourselves at Mines, right? That’s not the reality of the situation, but we do partner with other universities in the U.S., we partner with universities and governments and companies working worldwide. And it’s through those sorts of partnerships that the globe is really going to be able to address the bigger problem. But I think that our sort of unique sets of expertise make it possible for us to sort of be a central focus for that sort of activity and bring the right people together to solve the problems. A lot of investment is going to be made in developing these technologies, and that’s an opportunity for us to have a role in that and to pull in the research dollars that we need to support the university and support all the activities that we do. 

John Bradford: 

Thanks for listening to The Conveyor. To learn more about how Colorado School of Mines is solving some of the world’s biggest engineering and scientific challenges, visit mines.edu, and then join us back here for our next episode. 

This episode of The Conveyor was produced by Ashley Spurgeon and was hosted and edited by Dannon Cox. 

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About the Podcast

The Conveyor brings listeners insights into the latest research, new discoveries and world-changing ideas from Colorado School of Mines.

The viewpoints and opinions expressed by featured guests do not necessarily represent those of Colorado School of Mines.