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Missouri S&T plans to help Missouri capitalize on its mineral deposits

Catherine Johnson, professor of mining and explosives engineering, leads a tour of the experimental mine at Missouri University of Science and Technology as U.S. Senator Eric Schmitt (right) looks on.
Jonathan Ahl
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Catherine Johnson, professor of mining and explosives engineering, leads a tour of the experimental mine at Missouri University of Science and Technology as U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, right, looks on.

Missouri is home to 25 of the 50 elements critical for high-tech manufacturing, and Missouri University of Science and Technology wants to make the state a focus for the mining and processing of those materials.

The U.S. Department of Commerce designated the campus a Tech Hub last fall, and now the school is applying for $63 million in additional federal funding to build a facility that can test new mineral processing and train the workforce for those jobs in Missouri.

“This is an enormous asset, not just for the state, but for the country,” said U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt during a tour of Missouri S&T’s experimental mine on Tuesday. “It's a priority, and I do think there's a bipartisan realization that we can't be as dependent as we are on China right now for a lot of the critical minerals.”

The U.S. Geological survey released a list of minerals in 2022 that are “critical to the economy and national security.” Missouri has large deposits of half of them, including cobalt, nickel, zinc, manganese and barite.

Those minerals are used in products including electronics, computers, medical applications, green energy and defense applications.

Over the past 30 years, the U.S. has not expanded its mining capacity and saw its processing capacity decrease dramatically.

“When I started my career there were 14 copper smelters in the U.S. Now there are only two,” said Michael Moats, chair of materials science and engineering at S&T.

Environmental regulations led many companies to abandon their U.S. operations and instead look to facilities overseas.

“I think the environmental concerns are real, but we’ve got to make sure that we actually have the production capability here in the United States,” Schmitt said. “We have to find a better balance.”

The Missouri Republican said the school’s application is strong and could mean big things for the state.

“A lot of rural counties are represented in this tech hub. So I think it's a way forward, not just for the country, not just for Missouri, but in parts of Missouri where sometimes have been left behind by economic growth and opportunity,” Schmitt said.

Missouri S&T also is banking on the project helping its students, faculty and the surrounding community.

S&T Chancellor Mo Dehghani said higher education has to strengthen its partnership with private businesses.

“Industry has the domain knowledge, and we have the deep knowledge, and we need to bring both of them together in order to be heading in the right direction to grow the future," Dehghani said. “We need to help the industry, and they need to help us calibrate our path forward.”

Jonathan Ahl is the Newscast Editor and Rolla correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.