Undergraduates Mine Their Research at National Conference

Posted: March 19, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Last week, four undergraduates majoring in environmental science and policy spent most of spring break presenting their research to a national audience.

Under the guidance of assistant professor Mark Krekeler, junior Jillian Lepp and seniors Julie Morton, Misha Samsonov and Cindy Tselepis presented at the Northeastern Geological Society of America in Durham, N.H., in the regular sessions — a distinguished honor for undergraduate students.

The students’ work centers on the waste produced from phosphate mining, a process that’s been going on for more than a century.

“Although phosphate mining is essential to the economy, it produces lots of waste,” says Krekeler. “Our job is to conduct a detailed mineralogical investigation of this waste to see if it can be used in other ways or mined further for phosphate.”

The research is funded by Clear Springs, a company that owns hundreds of acres of mine waste in Florida. The company contracted Krekeler and the team to investigate the material, with an eventual goal of using the waste to make a lightweight aggregate building product.

Morton, who presented a talk at the conference on the environmental impacts of phosphate mining in Florida, has been working with Krekeler on the project since the beginning of the fall semester. “I was very enthusiastic because the research position would grant me additional experience in my field of study, and unlike a lot of other research positions, it paid well,” she said.

Phosphate is mainly used for fertilizer, and at a price of about $1,000 to $1,600 per ton, it is a major industry in north and central Florida. “However, the processing of the ore results in thousands of acres of clay slimes that never fully dry,” says Morton. “The clay settling areas are difficult to traverse and so are not ideal for agriculture and are impossible to build on.”

The students worked to describe the characteristics of the waste. Using techniques such as x-ray diffraction and transmission electron microscopy, they looked at the mineralogy, water content, organic content, and bulk chemical composition of the phosphate-rich minerals in the clay waste.

“In many of these towns, the economy collapses when the mining leaves,” says Krekeler. “If the waste is able to be processed again, then there is a possibility that this can bring jobs back to the community. We are hopeful our research can help with that.”

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