A new software program that minimizes the environmental impact of mining uranium is underway, with almost $1.5 million being invested by the federal and provincial governments.
Since February 2011, scientists and professionals from various fields have been working on the software, known as MAVEN, which will simulate impacts of mining in various locations in Saskatchewan. The software is to use genome sciences, bioinformatics, microbiology and integrative sciences to find the safest ways of mining uranium, for its impact on surrounding communities and the environment at large.
The goal of MAVEN is to reduce the impact to surface and ground water caused by mining — that is, to decrease the amounts of selenium, cobalt, nickel and other elements released into the environment.
As promising as the whole project sounds, the MAVEN software only scratches the surface of the physical process of uranium mining. According to Chary Rangacharyulu, head of the engineering and physics department at the University of Saskatchewan, the project is still in a “conceptual stage.”
“They are trying to develop a software program and analyze [the circumstances] to see if it’s feasible or not” he said regarding the microbiological approach. “This will be a study centred on using a special technique, something that could improve the process of mining in some ways.”
The relationship between the microbes and the particles they absorb is much like the way worms and compost work together. The microbes consume “chemical components put into the atmosphere.” These “chemical components,” or gases and minerals, are ever-present in Saskatchewan, but are less stable when exposed as a result of being mined.
“Saskatchewan has so much uranium that is naturally radioactive, and as you dig it, you are making it a loose particle, which migrates to other particles,” said Rangacharyulu.
Despite its environmental risks, uranium mining has proven economically beneficial for both the province and country. Canada is the leading producer of uranium, exporting 80 percent of what is mined. Since 1980, the uranium industry has invested $5 billion into the province and continues to sustain many northern communities. More than half of all uranium jobs are in the north of the province.
If developed, the software has potential applications beyond the uranium industry. Not only would MAVEN foster major economic benefits, but the research findings will also apply to the oil, gas, power generation and agriculture sectors. This simulation of cause-and-effect could be a formula for microbe-based interactions other than radioactivity.
“Basically, you set up principles that could be used for other problems, like purification of air,” said Rangacharyulu about MAVEN’s other potential uses. Currently, the project is only in the initial stages, and according to the professor, there’s a lot of work yet to be done.
“They have to make a study, run the program in different scenarios and predict the outcome. Then they will consider making a prototype for big mining operations…. It’s a very necessary computer program and very complicated.”
The MAVEN project has involved several companies in the commercialization and development, including Cameco, Contango Strategies Limited and the non-profit Genome Prairie, as well as researchers from the U of S and the National Research Council of Canada.