In an effort to improve mining safety and to help train the next generation of professionals in this field, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has awarded a five-year $1.25 million grant to Virginia Tech’s Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering, one of the largest minerals-related programs in North America.

The grant from NIOSH is aimed at reversing the declining number of professionals with expertise in the control of ground movements in mining operations and to positively impact mine safety by the increased use of some of the latest technologies available to industry.  

Statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration show that 16 percent of fatalities and lost time in the underground mining industry “are due to unexpected rock mass failure,” Erik Westman explained. Westman, an associate professor of mining and minerals engineering at Virginia Tech, is the principal investigator for this project.

The problem in administering new mine safety technology is the “shortage of researchers and personnel trained in rock mechanics and ground control,” Westman added.

Westman’s Virginia Tech colleagues on the project are Mario Karfakis, also an associate professor, and Michael Karmis, who holds the Stonie Barker Professorship.

Westman explained the project focuses on using the latest technologies in mining, including: wireless data transmission, laser scanning for ground deformation, and microseismic tomography for improved understanding and quantification of rock mass response. These laboratory advances need to be moved to the actual mining locations to ultimately achieve improved pillar design and roof support in mines.

“We need efficient production combined with greater safety. Although great strides have been made in the safety of mining, the goal remains that no worker suffers an injury," Westman said.

Westman, Karfakis, and Karmis will direct the training of graduate students from the department at the field sites. Much of the research will be conducted at underground mines operated by Alpha Natural Resources, one of America’s leading producers of coal. The mines are within a three-hour radius of the Virginia Tech campus.  

Virginia Tech’s mining engineering graduate program “has doubled in the past three years and as a result of this grant, it is likely to grow even further,” said Greg Adel, department head.

He pointed to the difficulty in obtaining a clear understanding of the redistribution of the stresses in rock mechanics when the ground is subjected to human activity such as mining. As the earth is moved by the excavation process, “stress redistribution can result in failure along new and/or previously-existing faults or joints,” Westman said. “These relatively small failures produce seismic energy, and typically have a localized magnitude and can be recorded by a monitoring system.”

Using this grant, four Virginia Tech mining engineering graduate students will quantitatively measure the ground response in four different geological settings where mines are being excavated.  The mines to be studied will have a control site that is a shallow mine with a good roof, a deep mine with a good roof, a shallow mine with a poor roof, and a deep mine with a poor roof.  Each mine will be equipped with rock mechanics instrumentation, use laser scanning for entry convergence and stress-feature mapping, house an underground microseismic system, and create an integrated online system to display measured data in real-time.

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