Mining companies spend billions of dollars each year exploring for the metals, minerals, and energy resources that are central to our industrialized world.

Not every exploration activity is successful, often leaving mining companies coming up empty.

Now, Virginia Tech researchers are teaming with the Colorado School of Mines to use earth science and mining expertise to create data sets and 3-D software models that better locate, categorize, and visualize mineral resources to improve exploration success rates. The effort combines the knowledge of mathematicians, computer scientists, geologists, and mining engineers with industrial and government partnerships.

The two universities ultimately hope to form the national cross-disciplinary Center for Advanced Subsurface Earth Resource Models, a consortium that would provide mining and minerals companies worldwide with 3-D subsurface geological models that result in more exact drilling.

“Our team will work with the mining industry and their support industries to develop novel technologies for minimizing risk in minerals exploration and expansion, reducing the cost of exploration and expansion,” said Matthias “Tia” Chung, assistant professor of mathematics and an affiliate of the computational modeling and data analytics program within the Virginia Tech College of Science.

The Virginia Tech group involves faculty from the departments of GeosciencesStatistics, and Mathematics, and the Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program, all in Science, along with the Department Mining and Minerals Engineering in the College of Engineering.

Chung is serving as leader for Virginia Tech, with John Hole of geosciences and Erik Westman of mining and minerals engineering as co-primary investigators. Ric Wendlandt will head Colorado School of Mines research efforts.

The effort has early support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which has awarded each univeristy with an initial $15,000 grant to form planning committees, recruit potential industry supporters, and create the consortium under the NSF’s Industry/University Cooperate Research Center.

In short, geosciences faculty will use expertise in geophysics to support mathematicians, statisticians, and computer scientists to create high-performance computing and big data sets to build accurate images of the earth’s subsurface in order to help mining engineers who design mine exploration development methods.

The consortium represents an ideal cross-disciplinary research effort at Virginia Tech, touching on global systems sciences, environmental sustainability, and data analytics and decision sciences.

“Exploration for mineral deposits today requires data from diverse sources, and these data represent highly variable spatial and temporal scales depending on the environment in which we are drilling,” said Bob Bodnar, University Distinguished Professor and the C. C. Garvin Professor of Geochemistry. “We will develop plans to integrate these diverse data in a manner that is not yet achievable to provide a better understanding of the subsurface and improve exploration success rates.”

For now, companies rely on intensive drilling programs with various degrees of success, with many years spent on a project from initial exploration to production through mine closure and reclamation. This results in lost money, time, and unwanted environmental damage on mines that prove unsuccessful.

Other factors persist, too: “Our proposed technologies can also have a positive impact on human health and safety,” said Westman, head of Mining and Minerals Engineering, adding that every drill operation carries risk.

The consortium would work closely with industry peers from mining, geophysics, big data, and software development, plus federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Geological Survey on specific projects.

“The industry advisory board will drive our research agenda,” said Chung.

Industry support is vital for the group to receive full funding from the National Science Foundation. During this early phase, Virginia Tech and Colorado School of Mines will seek $150,000 from interested companies to join the consortium. Future NSF funding would be used to transition the center into self-sustainability.

The group also would fund graduate student researchers for the colleges of Science and Engineering.

“Collecting data and using mathematical models as tools to make informed decisions to minimize risk while maximizing return on investment during excavations has been a long-term goal of the mining industry,” said Sally C. Morton, dean of the College of Science. “Having our faculty in mathematics and statistics who specialize in computational modeling and data analytics working with geoscientists and mining engineers at Virginia Tech is another of the ways we at the College of Science are dedicated to building new business models dedicated to obtaining and using data to make smart business decisions.”

“Being a land-grant university, we are committed to serving our community, but also strive to reach beyond to improve the human condition on a larger scale,” said G. Don Taylor, the Charles O. Gordon Professor of Engineering and interim dean of the College of Engineering. “By partnering with colleagues in the College of Science, the Colorado School of Mines, and industry, together we can positively impact the mining industry by using progressive technology to enhance health and safety of miners.”

The NSF’s Industry/University Cooperate Research Center Program supports research and workforce development in various industry sectors by establishing and fostering university-industry partnerships.

The Virginia Tech/Mines Center, if approved, would be the first geoscience-based program started under the 44-year-old NSF program. If successful, the consortium would expand internationally, said Chung.