April 12, 2007

Mining engineering has bright future at SIUC

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Ads seeking health care workers fill the "help wanted" postings across the Internet. But there's another booming technical field talented students might consider where job prospects are just as good or better than nursing.

That's the field of mine engineering.

Officials in the Department of Mining and Mineral Resources Engineering at Southern Illinois University Carbondale say 100 percent of their graduate and undergraduate students can count on several well-paying job offers upon completion of their studies. Depending on where they want to work, they can also choose to see the world as the demand for their skills is worldwide.

"It's a field that's highly specialized," said E. Bane Kroeger, assistant professor in the Department of Mining and Mineral Resources Engineering at SIUC. "Mining sometimes takes a beating in the press, so students might not think about going into it. But the fact is the U.S. needs about 300 new mining engineers a year and right now we're only producing about 80 or 90.

"Worldwide demand is even bigger," he said.

As markets for coal, aggregate material and hard rock mining such as copper and gold continue to boom, industry officials say the United States will need to triple the number of mining engineering students it graduates for the next 10 years just replace those who are retiring.

Satya Harpalani, chairperson of the department, said there are only 13 mining schools in the country. Started in 1976, SIUC's is the youngest in the country and the smallest department in the SIUC College of Engineering. It has about five faculty members and an average 50 to 60 graduate and undergraduate students at any given time.

But for those who study mining at SIUC, the future is practically unlimited, he said.

"Mining sort of skipped a generation in terms of training new engineers," Harpalani said. "Ours is a very applied field of engineering. Our graduates have job offers before they graduate, and usually they have several."

Harpalani said SIUC's program is attractive for several reasons.

The program offers about $50,000 in annual undergraduate scholarships and students have a 100 percent summer internships placement rate in coal and aggregate fields. The department averages about $1 million a year in research spending, with both graduate students and undergraduates participating and SIUC is home to the Coal Extraction and Utilization Research Center, which looks for new ways to market Illinois coal and make it more environmentally friendly.

Research areas include optimizing mining operations, cleaner burning coal, combustion byproducts management and utilization and carbon reduction technologies.

The department also has strong ties to industry leaders, including American Coal, Peabody, BHP Minerals, Mapco and Zeigler Coal to name a few. The companies support the department, provide internships and hire graduates. The majority of research funds come from the state, U.S. Energy Department, the National Science Foundation, Combustion Byproducts Recycling Consortium and various equipment manufacturers, Harpalani said.

Students can choose from three specific areas of research, Harpalani said. Those include

• Mining and processing, which examines ways to improve coal mine productivity and safety and the development of novel equipment.

• Energy issues, which includes recovery processes for unconventional energy and carbon dioxide management systems.

• Environmental issues, which looks at coal combustion byproducts management and combustion effluent reduction technologies.

The department includes a variety of laboratories, including those specializing in coal analysis, mine subsidence and ground control and rock mechanics, to name a few.

Faculty members have created a variety of new technologies aimed improving safety and efficiency in mines. The products range from roof-support columns that can hold 50 tons and be installed by a single person by hand in less than five minutes to underground dust control measures to methods to lessen mercury content in coal to fine coal cleaning. Researchers also are studying methods for remote underground coal mining

Students use state-of-the-art software to design mining operations. They also travel to multiple mining sites to see the operations up close, Kroeger said. Students also visit foreign countries, such as Australia and China, where the need for mining engineers is high.

Graduates have many choices other than working at a mine, Kroeger said. Equipment manufacturers want to hire them as knowledgeable sales people, while others work with financial services companies, the Internal Revenue Service and federal mine safety agencies, among many others.

"If you're a top-notch student you're going to go on at least three or four paid interviews," Kroeger said. "After that, it depends where you want to work and what you want to do. It's pretty wild all the things you can get into."