Mining for education

March 31, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – To introduce first-year engineering students to the importance of designing in the most cost-effective and environmentally conscious manner, GE Transportation has challenged students enrolled in spring 2017 sections of EDSGN 100 – Introduction to Engineering Design to develop a strategy on how to best extract Rare Earth Elements (REEs) from a fictitious ore deposit located in the Pocono Mountain region of northeast Pennsylvania.

Once a largely self-sufficient country in REEs, the United States has become increasingly dependent on rare earth deposits located in China — with more than 90 percent of its required REEs coming from Chinese REE mines. In 2011, China closed three of its eight major mines, greatly reducing REE production. Rare Earth Elements are used in hundreds of industrial applications. Their specificity and versatility across many industries make REEs highly sought after materials with technological, environmental and economic importance.

Frank Dolski, global engineering operations manager and Edison Engineering Development Program business program manager at GE Transportation, said although the project uses a fictional mine in Pennsylvania, it is based on what is happening in the underground mining industry today.

“Hard rock minerals like gold, copper, tin and nickel are becoming more difficult to recover as surface and shallow underground mining reserves are being depleted. To exploit other known reserves, mining companies are being forced to mine deeper, which creates challenges to control the environment for the workforce,” he said.

Dolski specifically points out the ventilation control of heat, gasses, diesel emissions and various other contaminants as a very important step in the mining process. At greater depths, like those needed to mine REEs, the cost and feasibility of cooling and ventilating mines with diesel equipment become very costly.

“Mining companies and equipment providers must come up with alternative solutions to ensure the safety of their workers, as well as a more cost-efficient way to extract hard rock ore. This project examines those exact problems and challenges the students to develop creative solutions to overcome these technical issues,” he said.

In the EDSGN 100 project scenario, the Pocono Mountain region REE ore body is located approximately 3,000 meters beneath the surface. Because of the United State’s need for REEs, a mine development infrastructure has been installed to allow for ore extraction. Because the mine’s depths continue to increase, workers are exposed to higher temperatures and humidity, as well as more naturally occurring gas emission. To ensure healthy and safe working conditions, extensive and effective engineering controls must be used to appropriately ventilate and cool the mine. Students must develop a strategy that addresses, but is not limited to: airborne contamination, stewardship, environmental management, occupational health and workplace safety, operating costs and productivity, waste management and disposal, mine closure and rehabilitation and local community engagement.

Dolski said GE chose to sponsor this semester’s EDSGN 100 project to expose students to real-world applications of engineering.

“EDSGN 100 is attractive to GE because it is foundational in that it provides students with an opportunity to learn about the design process, concept development, tradeoffs and systems thinking. GE is excited to be part of their first experience apply what they are learning,” he said.

As a technology company with more than 40,000 engineers and scientists developing everything from trains to jet engines, Dolski said it is important for GE Transportation to be involved and invested in engineering education.

“Our company relies on a strong pipeline of talent coming out of our university system to sustain the innovation and growth required to solve the world’s toughest problems. GE sees value in providing college students with real-world problems to reinforce the fundamentals they are learning in the core classes,” he said. “We want to play our part in ensuring that tomorrow's engineering leaders are well-prepared to develop disruptive technologies and make an impact on the world.”

Final projects will be on display at the College of Engineering Design Showcase, set for April 27 at the Bryce Jordan Center on the University Park campus.

GE Transportation, a unit of GE, solves the world’s toughest transportation challenges. GE Transportation builds equipment that moves the rail, mining and marine industries.

For more information on EDSGN 100 projects, visit

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Last Updated March 31, 2017