Environmental News

Seeking the philosopher?s stone

In 1936, Karl Terzaghi, the father of soil mechanics, wrote:

I came to the United States and hoped to discover the philosopher’s stone by accumulating and co-ordinating geological information … It took me two years of strenuous work to discover that geological information must be supplemented by numerical data which can only be obtained by physical tests carried out in a laboratory.

I emphasised the text in bold. I did so because 35 years later (1971), when I started my career as a geologist with the US Geological Survey (USGS), engineering data did not supplement geological data, it supplanted it.

I learnt this the hard way. I started my USGS career as part of a project that had two main goals: (1) to figure out how to apply geology to real life situations and (2) to communicate those results to the appropriate users. My work involved the geologic mapping and classification of the surficial materials (primarily sand, gravel, silt and clay), which required me to apply geologic logic to what I observed in the field.

I quickly learnt that applying geology to real life situations also required me to consider the engineering properties of the materials. I carried the goals and methodologies of that project with me throughout my 41 year career with the USGS.

During the late 1980s I began to focus my work on construction materials — primarily aggregate. I knew that geology had much to offer and, like Terzaghi, I sought the philosopher’s stone “by accumulating and co-ordinating geological information” on how the aggregate industry benefits from the use of geology.

But seeking the philosopher’s stone was a long, hard process. Success stories from the industry are few and far between. This is not because there are not many success stories; there are. I suspect it is because many producers are reluctant to share their successes. After all, shining a light on an operation, even if it is a good light, has its risks.

Nevertheless, there are some producers who have been willing to open their doors to geologic research and publish accounts of their success stories. The works of those people, combined with research from organisations such as the US Bureau of Reclamation and US Bureau of Mines (which is no longer a funded agency), have added to the knowledge base.

I have been fortunate to work for an agency that appreciated the value of aggregates and supported my research on geology as it relates to the aggregate industry. I have concluded that the results of sound, unbiased scientific studies culminate with the release of vital data that can be used throughout the life of an aggregate operation, including:

•    The permitting processes to facilitate informed land use and resource management decisions.
•    The identification and characterisation of potential sources of aggregate resources to meet society’s demand for consumer products and a durable infrastructure.
•    The selection of mining and processing methods to maximise production efficiency and minimise environmental impacts.
•    Planning and implementing the reclamation of mined-out areas.

Over the next few months I will share some of what I have learnt while seeking the philosopher’s stone. And if you have stories about turning cheap metal into gold (ie how you use geology in your aggregate operations), I would be delighted to hear them.

Bill Langer is a retired geologist, formerly of the US Geological Survey. Email: bill_langer@hotmail.com

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