Current Exploratory Research Projects

CESM supports an Exploratory Research Program for University of Arizona investigators interested in developing new research and education initiatives that address technological and cultural innovations critical to mining sustainability or mine work force development. The goal of this research program is to catalyze opportunities for UArizona investigators to address environmental and social issues associated with the impacts of mine development, operation, and closure, either in partnership with the mining industry or other stakeholders impacted by mine operations. CESM aims to engage in cutting-edge research, which is informed by close, consistent engagement with industries, regulators, and communities impacted by mining. Preliminary data generated from this funding is intended to support future industry-academic cooperatives or federally/state-funded grants focused on mining sustainability. Industry-academic cooperatives are research programs funded by the mining and rock products industries.

CESM has supported pilot research and community development projects since 2011. Examples of projects supported by CESM include mine waste reclamation, control and monitoring of fugitive dust emissions from mine sites, remote monitoring of tailings storage facilities, and mining and education modules for the Tohono O’odham Community College. Scroll down to view our current exploratory research projects, and click here to browse our past exploratory research projects.

If you are interested in exploratory research opportunities, please contact the CESM Director at Successful pilot projects have been developed in close collaboration with the CESM Executive Committee.

Visualizing Environmental Regulations and State Permitting Processes to Increase Public Participation in Environmental Decision-making


In efforts to reduce the knowledge gap and “unveil” environmental regulations, the goal of this project is to make selected environmental legislation and permitting processes that are applied to resource extraction activities accessible in plain language and in multiple media formats. Dr. Ramírez-Andreotta will work with CESM industry partners and select three major resource extraction policies and their associated state permitting processes and generate translational products in English and Spanish.

The Role of Early Successional Plant Species in Hard Rock Mine Revegetation


Mine revegetation efforts in the Southwest are frequently challenged by the rapid encroachment of early successional plant species such as desert broom (Baccharis sarothroides). These species, although native, can impede the establishment of more desirable plant species. The effects of desert broom on the surrounding above- and belowground communities will be quantified to determine the benefits or hazards of desert broom in ecosystem regeneration during mine waste reclamation. Specifically, abiotic sensors are installed to measure soil moisture, soil temperature, and humidity underneath desert broom canopies and outside of the canopy. Additional other factors to be monitored both inside and outside the plant canopy include seedling density and identification, soil chemistry and microbial community composition. Soil biotic and abiotic properties will be compared to undisturbed native soils from surrounding ecosystems. Using these data, the effects of desert broom on the abiotic and biotic components of the local environment can be assessed and used to inform future management and reclamation efforts on hard rock mines.

Number of students trained through this project: 1 (graduate student)

Surface Modified Foams and Hydrophilic Gels Tailored to Remove Toxic Heavy Metals from Contaminated Soils and Water


Heavy metal contaminated soils and water are widespread in the US resulting from mining and other industrial activities. This project envisions these contaminated waste materials as an economic resource. The project is designed to demonstrate that foams and hydrogels chemically modified with ligand groups will i) bind zinc cations and improve the efficiency of their removal and separation from contaminated soils and water, and ii) support plant growth and increase zinc phytoextraction from metal-contaminated substrate by hyperaccumulating plants. Dr. Loy’s research group is chemically modifying foams and hydrogels to create gel-foam composites with high capacity for metal binding with enhanced structural integrity relative to hydrogels by themselves. These foams and gels will then be tested with plants in green house studies to evaluate their ability to enhance the capacity of plants to extract and concentrate contaminant metals of economic significance.

Number of students trained through this project: 17 (7 undergraduates, 9 graduate students, 1 post-doctoral student)

Strategies to Monitor Fugitive Dust Emissions from Industry Operations: Foliar Surfaces as Dust and Aerosol Pollution Monitors


Dust emissions are a constant problem in arid and semi-arid regions, especially for mines and cement, rock and rock products, and aggregate companies. For such industries, in dust-rich regions, a dust event characterized by significant particulate matter emissions and reduced visibility can lead to a significant fine from regulatory agencies.

Building on previous successes (Gardenroots and peer-reviewed research in the journal Science of the Total Environment), we will analyze archived samples and continue to determine the efficacy of foliar surfaces as a method to sample aerosol pollutants in ambient air as it relates to dust in mining communities. Important knowledge gaps include how effective different plants and their associated leaves are in terms of aerosol collection and what parameters can be optimized for a specific type of plant.

Number of students trained through this project: 1 (graduate student)

Uranium mining in the U.S. Southwest has left thousands of legacy mining sites with uranium-contaminated soils. These soils are polluting adjacent water and land resources that, in turn, pose serious threats to human and environmental health. Uranium is also a challenge for modern mining operations as it is often present as a contaminant in mineral processing activities targeting other metals. In addition to uranium, rare earth elements (REE) are also often found as contaminants in coal and some hard-rock mining operations. There is interest in developing alternative REE sources domestically due to the importance of REE to consumer electronics, renewable energy technologies, and national defense.

Through Phase I Small Business Innovation Research grants, UArizona in collaboration with industry partner, GlycoSurf, has demonstrated two technologies capable of the selective removal of uranium and REE from complex mining solutions using rhamnolipid and other bioinspired surfactants: ion flotation and adsorbent materials. Matching funding from CESM is supporting this Phase II project wherein UArizona’s objective is to demonstrate the commercial potential of these technologies for reclaiming mining-impacted waters by:

  1. Up-scaling reactor size,
  2. Developing treatment processes for continuous flow operations and testing, and
  3. Testing novel glycolipid surfactants.

This project aims to provide CESM mining partners with environmentally-friendly technologies suitable for generating new metal resource streams while concurrently reclaiming waters and reducing the environmental impacts of mining operations.

Number of students trained through this project: 4