Innovation in Mining: Interview with Dr. John Steen, Director of the Bradshaw Research Institute in Minerals and Mining

Mining Microbiome, Ore-Body Knowledge, Sustainable Mine Energy Systems, Water Stewardship,

Electric vehicles and renewable energy offer the promise of a cleaner future, but this is not possible without mining. So, how does the mining industry provide the metals needed without adding to the problem? The world needs innovation in mining.

Dr. John Steen is the Director of the Bradshaw Research Institute for Minerals and Mining (BRIMM) at the University of British Columbia, who is working to create an innovation ecosystem in the mining industry to deliver sustainable mining solutions.

In a recent conversation, I asked Dr. Steen to explain the origin story of BRIMM and his partnership with the founder of BRIMM, Dr. Peter Bradshaw. A major part of this story is how he came from Brisbane, Australia as head of the department of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Queensland, to Vancouver.

Vancouver is an international destination for many mining professionals, so how did you end up at the University of British Columbia?

I came to Vancouver for a conference in 2015, and I liked the place. My late grandfather had travelled widely and had told me that Vancouver was his favourite city in the world. It was late summer and I made contact with many Canadian companies and researchers about future collaborations. 

In 2017, I was due for my sabbatical from the University of Queensland and I chose UBC as the place to spend my 6-month study leave. My family came with me and became seriously obsessed with mountain biking. I saw enormous possibilities for collaborative R&D with Canadian mining and technology companies and I found myself intellectually invigorated by the industry environment.

The Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering was receptive to hosting me at UBC but the first challenge was to find funding for a 5-year position. I was collaborating on research with Ernst & Young (EY) since 2007 and I asked the Global Mining and Metals leader, Paul Mitchell, if EY would be open to partly supporting a term-chair at UBC.

EY generously came up with half the money and I was then introduced to Dr. Peter Bradshaw, the philanthropist and visionary behind BRIMM. Peter saw my skills and experience in Australia as a good fit with BRIMM and so he provided the remaining funds needed for a contract position at UBC.

How did BRIMM come to be? What is its origin story?

BRIMM existed before my arrival, in fact, its beginning goes back 31 years. Many people know the Mineral Deposit Research Unit (MDRU), the oldest industry-funded research institute in Canada, which Peter Bradshaw also founded. Before BRIMM, Peter was already aware of the value of bringing industry and academics together into applied research.

Bradshaw had made his name as a famous explorer with the discovery of the massive Porgera gold mine in Papua New Guinea. However, he understands that exploration is not the end of a deposit, it is just the beginning. He recognized the need to connect different people throughout the mineral life cycle for mining innovations to be successful. 

His vision was to establish a university institute that could cross boundaries within and between universities, governments, and industry. In the very beginning, no one wanted to touch this idea because working in this way was against the status quo of research at universities. The concept of working across these barriers was just too challenging. 

That is when Bradshaw found Professor Greg Dipple as the first director of BRIMM with its founding in 2017, who would later become famous for his carbon capture in mine-waste technology that won Elon Musk’s X Prize in 2021. But between Greg’s groundbreaking research at UBC, and fostering BRIMM, there was little time to grow BRIMM as an institute. That is where I came in as strategy advisor to BRIMM in 2019, and then director in 2020.

Many people view innovation and new technology as a product of industry. What is the purpose of a university in helping the mining industry and fostering innovation? 

Universities have talented academics but the reward system and organisation structure favours those that work individually in isolation. Individual creative freedom is important but the cost of this culture is a reticence to work collaboratively on major industrial and societal challenges. Especially those that the mining industry currently faces with environmental impact and social licence to operate.

Back in the 1960s, a president of Stanford University described universities as a loose confederation of academics united by a common parking problem. BRIMM hopes to change this entrenched culture and bring together academics and industry to solve real world problems. Innovation does not happen in isolated labs, it happens when connections are made between people and ideas that don’t normally come in contact with each other.

Innovation walks on two feet.

It is easy to say we are addressing mining’s problems but what are the specific avenues BRIMM is working on?

When I first came to UBC, the carbon footprint of mining was a becoming a big issue and I saw that we needed a program of research around this. Especially since the Paris agreement, we are seeing mining getting behind the net-zero push, they are providing the materials for the electric economy, but they also need to not contribute further to the problem. 

There is not one solution to creating a sustainable mine so we focus on four areas of research with multiple projects to address the unique ways a mining operation impacts the environment. Our approach is to work across departments with different experts.

BRIMM works with ICICS researchers and ventures from the ICICS-based HATCH accelerator, within four research themes: (1) Mining Microbiome; (2) Ore Body Knowledge; (3) Sustainable Mining Energy Systems, and (4) Water Stewardship.

The Mining Microbiome theme builds on a Digital Technology Supercluster project with Teck Resources in partnership with UBC and other partners, and focuses on natural resources genomics sequencing. By extracting DNA from soil, water, waste and other substances at 15,000 mine sites in North America, the project identifies microbes that bind to minerals, to enable non-chemical based extraction and remediation strategies.

For example, microbes can bind to selenium to prevent toxic levels in mining waste from leaching into water and compromising human and wildlife health. Remediating slag containing residual mineral content like copper could be made profitable by introducing microbes that bind with the copper.

UBC’s Life Sciences Institute contrubutes to this research, resulting in the world’s largest biobank outside of medicine. HATCH alumni venture Koonkie developed machine learning algorithms to identify genes and metabolic pathways, whose CEO Aria Hahn studied with researcher Steve Hallam (Microbiology and Immunology).

Other UBC researchers involved include Sue Baldwin (ChemBio Engineering), previous BRIMM director Greg Dipple (Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences). The BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, and the Tahltan First Nation help to support this project.

Nadja Kunz leads the research water theme where she employs data analytics to quantify the long-term effects of mining operations on water. Investment companies, for example, want to know the long-term costs of remediating the environmental impact of mining, including the potential effects of a slag dam breaking. Modelling the true cost of mining in this way can help build the economic case for new water management technologies, by predicting what the mine’s water environment will look like in 40 years. This is particularly important when there are competing demands for water from neighbouring communities.

ICICS member Raymond Ng, Director of UBC’s Data Science Institute (DSI), collaborates with BRIMM on this work. The team is building statistical models using massive amounts of mining and satellite data to understand the impact of mining on water, wildfires, and other environmental disruptions.

BRIMM is working with Vicki Lemieux (School of Information) and Harish Krishnan (Sauder School of Business) of the ICICS research cluster Blockchain@UBC to address issues such as data ownership, supply chain carbon footprint in annual reporting, and company motivation to voluntarily be on blockchain.

What is your vision for BRIMM and cultivating innovation in the mining industry?

We want a different future for mining. A world where we do not see tailings dams burst and closed mines leaching toxic metals into the environment. As an industry, the public does not trust us because of our legacy, it is a hard one to dismiss.  

Mines are big operations and if they are not managed properly, negative impacts last for decades. We have to stop that. BRIMM is a vehicle to start finding the big breakthroughs to change this and rebuild trust.

The focus is not on all the damage from the past but how the industry can become a trustworthy and reliable source for metals. It is not just about narratives, we have to produce the game changers.

We know we have succeeded when we see positive headlines and when mining is a preference for students. Right now, we are at the bottom in terms of student’s interest. 

We should think big, we do not just want to be the biggest mining research in British Columbia or Canada. I want us to be one of the biggest and best known and respected institutes, globally.

You mention that BRIMM is meant to cut down barriers in the mining industry, how can people participate? 

There are many ways into mining, if you are in the industry, give us a call, we are willing to work on your problems, we are open to conversations. I will drop anything, to start a conversation, there are lots of productive discussions that need to happen. 

BRIMM works because it is open for business so to speak and as industry professionals ourselves, we recognize the problems each operation faces. We have access to leading thinkers in mining academia. 

If you are interested in connecting with BRIMM, contact us.

Thank you John for your time. I look forward to following

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