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Op-ed: Drs. Michael Babechuk and Steven Denyszyn

Present moment 'crucial' to advance critical minerals training and research at Memorial

By Dr. Michael Babechuk and Dr. Steven Denyszyn

The recent provincial Critical Mineral Plan announcement, a strong echo to the Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy, highlights that the present moment is crucial for enhancing Newfoundland and Labrador’s capabilities in exploring for resources that will enable a low-carbon future.

The province is recognizing the critical mineral resources under our feet — iron, cobalt, copper, zinc and lithium to name a few — and the leadership role that Newfoundland and Labrador is poised to play in the imminent global resource economy.

Two key goals of our provincial plan are to “be competitive, innovative and technologically advanced” and “promote a highly skilled, educated, equitable and diverse workforce.”

The Department of Earth Sciences at Memorial University has a long history of critical mineral-aligned student education programs, fosters numerous geoscience research programs that directly and indirectly aid mineral exploration and development, and houses world-renowned faculty and analytical infrastructure that support critical mineral research.

Preparing the workforce

At Memorial’s Earth Sciences department, we need to continue preparing the next generation of geoscientists to rise to the challenge of the rapidly expanding demands of the mining and mineral sectors, and to meet the demands of society as a whole for a sustainable future that maintains a modern standard of living.

This means seizing this moment, and taking advantage of an opportunity to plant our flag as a world leader in advanced geological research and mineral discovery.

“Every step of the march towards a green energy transition involves a geoscientist.”

Memorial is the only provincial institution preparing graduates with degrees compatible with certification by the Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Newfoundland and Labrador (PEGNL).

As of January 2023, more than 90 per cent of the province’s registered geoscientists-in-training have an earth sciences Memorial degree.

Memorial’s earth sciences undergraduate and graduate programs prepare alumni for a breadth of careers in the mining, minerals,  energy and environmental sciences sectors.

In terms of critical mineral exploration, every step of the march towards a green energy transition involves a geoscientist.

From the bedrock mappers to the economic geologists who develop commodity-specific exploration models to project geologists managing the discovered resources to environmental geoscientists carrying out environmental assessments and remediation of exploration and mine sites — all these careers require a degree in earth sciences.

And if it’s happening in Newfoundland and Labrador, odds are that the degree will be from Memorial.

Earth Sciences’ proactive approach

Newfoundland and Labrador government departments and industry recognize the essential role of Memorial’s Department of Earth Sciences by consistently supporting student-led conferences and associated field trips, and hiring in-program students as early as second year for summer industry-specific jobs.

It is a rare feat that students of a department are almost invariably able to find careers in their chosen discipline immediately upon graduation, as earth sciences’ students carry forward the hands-on skills developed during the course of their program into their own work.

Earth Sciences’ faculty and students have been undertaking cutting-edge research aligned with critical minerals well before the recent initiatives established by government and industry bodies.

“This infrastructure is aging and needs to be rejuvenated to develop and enhance critical mineral research that is in the top tier worldwide.”

This work ranges from understanding exploration geochemistry footprints, reconstructing critical ore-forming processes at the deposit scale to regional and global scales, and establishing metal budgets for various geological settings found in Newfoundland and Labrador and around the world.

To contribute to this research, the Earth Sciences department maintains a collaborative network with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Geological Survey, the Geological Survey of Canada, other Canadian and international universities, and several mining and metals companies with active operations or exploration programs throughout the province.

As one example, the department’s Dr. Stephen Piercey is nationally recognized as an expert in economic geology, a vocal international presence in critical mineral-focused associations and journals, and a contributor of expertise in Canadian and Newfoundland and Labrador critical mineral needs and policies, as well as a technical advisor.

Resources for the future

The next generation of research requires new investment in infrastructure and instrumentation needed to address research problems and provide technical training and data-handling expertise for students.

The Department of Earth Sciences hosts key infrastructure used by faculty and student researchers to carry out fundamental geophysical and geochemical research into how Earth processes work.

“These analytical instruments are essential to . . . make other key discoveries that will guide the future of critical mineral development in the province.”

This infrastructure is aging, however, and needs to be rejuvenated to develop and enhance critical mineral research that is in the top tier worldwide.

Currently, we are leading the efforts of a diverse group of Memorial researchers to modernize Memorial’s research facilities and instrumentation.

These analytical instruments are essential to determine the timing and tempo of critical mineral deposit formation, to understand the processes and dispersal patterns of elements in critical mineral-prospective areas, and to make other key discoveries that will guide the future of critical mineral development in the province.

The faculty and students of Memorial’s Department of Earth Sciences represent an important resource of our own with a decades-long history of defining our place, both within the physical landscape of the province and in the global landscape of critical resources for the future.

The current opportunity to build on this history to advance the science of critical minerals research in Newfoundland and Labrador is now upon us.


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