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How sustainable tech is creating next-gen mining careers

How do you make mining less damaging to the environment? By using clean technologies and recycling every scrap of waste you can

Mining is Australia’s biggest sector, making up more than one-tenth of the entire economy. It is also a focus for the public’s growing environmental and climate change concerns. 

People recognise that mining is essential, but they also see that it can pollute the air and drinking water, reduce wildlife habitats and permanently scar natural landscapes. 

“I believe mining can be made more environmentally sustainable,” says Sara Couperthwaite, of Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Sara’s world-leading research focuses on the waste produced by mining, designing new technologies that reduce this waste or transform it into something useful.

Make use of waste clays

One of Sara’s biggest projects sees her teaming up with mining company Lava Blue. Lava Blue had been mining for sapphires on the North Queensland clay beds in 2017 when they noticed that the clay, which has no commercial value, contained aluminium oxide. 

They came to Sara to see if the aluminium oxide could be extracted from the clay to produce high-purity alumina (HPA). HPA is used to make LEDs and the lithium-ion batteries powering smartphones and electric cars. 

Sara used advanced technologies and machine learning to prove it could be done, and sustainably. “We are just about to start construction of a mini-plant research facility,” she says. “And we are aiming to translate this into a commercial plant that will provide up to 40 jobs.” 

Q&A with Sara Couperthwaite

Why have you stayed at QUT throughout your career?

“My passion really lies with undertaking research and teaching that has impact and generates tangible outcomes. 

Sara’s world-leading research focuses on the waste produced by mining.

“Translating research into commercial outcomes that benefit the community requires fundamental knowledge to be demonstrated at a number of scales. QUT provides a platform to do this.”  

What makes QUT a great place for students to learn?

“QUT is continuing to increase the authenticity of its courses to provide graduates with the knowledge and skills to be competitive in finding jobs. 

“We strive to ensure students leave having an appreciation of the professions they will enter, and provide hands-on experience that puts theory into practice. 

“For example, for my Minerals and Mineral Processing unit I have worked with Adroit Programing to integrate a virtual simulation of a mineral processing plant into my teaching, so that students can experience scenarios of what they may encounter on a mine site from the safety of their home.” 

Do you have any advice for young aspiring innovators in sustainable technologies? 

“My career plan since high school was to become a teacher. It was during my second year of undergrad at QUT that a professor tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would like to do some research with him. This opened a whole new perspective on where my science degree could take me.

“If you are presented with an opportunity to expand your knowledge and skills, take it, irrespective of whether it was part of your original plan.” 

Sara’s study and career pathway

  • Bachelor of Applied Science (Chemistry), QUT
  • PhD in Industrial Chemistry, QUT
  • Research Fellow, QUT
  • Senior Lecturer, QUT

This article is brought to you in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and originally appears in Careers with STEM: Engineering 2021.


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