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Open mining crater filled with blue-green water.

The Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana

This copper mine was formerly referred to as the ‘Richest Hill on Earth’ but is now a superfund site and environmental hazard. Yet, copper is in high demand for electrification and the green economy and will be increasingly required to combat climate change. This course will explore the issues around sustainably mining the critical minerals and metals required for the green economy. (Photo Credit: Kayla Lappin and Berkeley Pit Public Education Committee)

Mining and the Green Economy

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The average person in the United States uses ~25 tons (the weight of approximately 20 mid-size cars) of raw materials every year to maintain our modern lifestyle. These materials, especially metals, are mined from the rare and unique places where geological forces have concentrated such elements. Most people are well aware of the destruction that has been wrought by past and present mines to obtain these metals, and from an environmental standpoint are actively against many or all mining projects. Such an environmental stance may be difficult to maintain in the future, however, given the urgent need to combat the climate crisis. Put simply, the most likely path to eliminating fossil fuel use is the electrification of the world, or the ‘green economy.’ This new infrastructure (including energy generation, such as wind farms; energy storage, such as batteries; energy transport, such as electrical wires; and electrified everything, including cars, planes, tractors, lawn mowers, etc.) will require massive quantities of mineral resources in order to achieve at the necessary scale. It is estimated that the world will require annual production increases of ~450% for battery metals such as lithium or cobalt. We also require mining twice as much copper in the next 30 years as humanity has mined over its entire history to move from a power grid where material flows through pipelines to one where electricity flows through wires. Further, once used in infrastructure these metals cannot be recycled, meaning that the path to our green future most likely involves more mining of these critical metals. The question then becomes how we can sustainably produce these mineral resources at the least societal and environmental cost.

This Sophomore College course will explore these issues through introductory lectures, a field trip to Montana, and a research project investigating alternatives to controversial mines worldwide. You will:

  • Learn how geological forces create mineral deposits
  • Learn the basic geological history of Montana
  • Visit past an environmental Superfund site at a historical mine, and learn what is being done to remediate it
  • Visit existing mines to learn about the mine production process, environmental problems, and modern remediation techniques
  • Meet with mining, civic, and environmental stakeholders at a controversial mining project

This course will involve several days on Stanford campus learning about the scale of mineral resources predicted to be necessary for the green economy as well as basic ore geology. We will then travel to the Judson Mead Field Station in the Tobacco Root Mountains of southwestern Montana. This will be our home for a six-day fieldtrip exploring Montana geological history and mining issues. We will then return back to Stanford to complete a short research project on a controversial mine project, and investigate possible alternatives. These projects will be presented to the class and the broader SoCo community. While we may not reach conclusions to the multi-faceted question about how best to produce these resources, you will know the issues, problems, and possibilities associated with sustainably producing the metals needed for the green revolution.

Important Logistics

Students should be comfortable walking 1-2 miles each day on dirt and gravel surfaces.

Students will arrive on campus on Monday, September 4 (Labor Day) and will be housed at Stanford before departing for the travel portion of the course. Do not bring everything you need for the year to SoCo! Storage while traveling will be VERY LIMITED and will NOT accommodate your fall belongings. Plan to have your fall belongings shipped or delivered to you after the class returns, when you will be in your autumn quarter housing (specific date: TBD).  

Meet the Instructor(s)

Erik Sperling

Assistant Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, by courtesy, of Oceans and Center Fellow, by courtesy, at the Woods Institute for the Environment

Erik Sperling

Erik Sperling is a professor in Earth and Planetary Science. He attended Stanford for his undergraduate and masters, and is thrilled to be back as a professor since 2015. His research primarily focuses on Earth history and how environmental change has affected animal evolution in deep time. Much of his research takes place in remote areas in Yukon and Northwest Territories, Canada. This research has involved flying in and out of mining camps, and led to an interest in the thorny issues associated with mineral development for the green economy. Dr. Sperling is excited to teach this SoCo class and lead a field trip to the fantastic geology and mining scene in Montana!

Mining and the Green Economy 2023 Video