Rock Solid: Celebrating 75 Years of NC Mining Support through the Minerals Research Laboratory

Mining has deep roots in the mineral-rich mountains of Western North Carolina. Before the California Gold Rush of 1849, North Carolina was the leading gold producer and pivotal to the nation’s economy. Today, North Carolina is the only producer of andalusite and pyrophyllite in the United States. North Carolina is also a significant source of common clay, feldspar, mica, phosphate rock, construction and industrial sand/gravel, and crushed stone (mostly granite). With the dominance of the North Carolina mineral industry has emerged the North Carolina Minerals Research Laboratory (MRL).

In the heart of Asheville, the NC State institution has been working diligently for 75 years to support in-state and out-of-state mineral mining. Established in 1946, MRL was a joint venture between North Carolina and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and operated under common control for its first five years. In 1950, TVA discontinued its support of the laboratory, and in 1954 the operation was transferred to the North Carolina State University (NCSU) College of Engineering. In 2004, NC State Industry Expansion Solutions (IES) took over administrative responsibility of the laboratory.

The current director of the Minerals Research Laboratory is Dr. Robert Mensah-Biney. Dr. Mensah-Biney joined MRL in 1994 and became the director in 2012. He has over 30 years of experience in mineral and chemical industry research and development. When asked how MRL had changed since he started, he responded, “Since I’ve started here, there’s been a lot of new technologies coming along. As time has passed, these technologies allow us to provide more efficient solutions for our clients.”

These technologies have allowed MRL to discover abundant ore deposits for the industry and helped expand the laboratory’s catalog of services. Their services now include bench laboratory testing, continuous pilot plant testing, conceptual plant design and preliminary feasibility, plant evaluation, technical assistance, process audits and assessments, industrial services, by-product and waste utilization studies. Their facility combines mineral processing equipment and an analytical support facility for flexible batch and continuous pilot plant research. Their equipment includes a kiln and dryer for continuous pilot plant studies, high intensity dry magnetic (Frantz) separator for mineralogical characterization, bond grind ability unit to determine hardness and grinding characteristics of ores and more.

In 2018, Piedmont Lithium Limited engaged North Carolina State University’s Minerals Research Laboratory to conduct bench-scale test work on samples obtained from the Company’s mineral resources estimates (MRE) within the Core Property for by-products quartz, feldspar, and mica. This was part of the Scoping Study that was undertaken by Piedmont Lithium to determine the potential viability of an open pit mine, spodumene concentrator and lithium hydroxide plant constructed in North Carolina, and to reach a decision to proceed with studies that are more definitive. The results of the study conducted by NC State Minerals Research Lab formed the basis for Piedmont Lithium to move forward with a Pre-Feasibility Study (“PFS”) targeted for completion in 2019. Piedmont’s Carolina lithium project is projected to be one of the world’s largest and lowest-cost producers of lithium hydroxide to supply the rapidly growing electric vehicle supply chain in the United States.

MRL was even able to deliver its solutions to mining organizations during the worst periods of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Mensah-Biney says MRL was able to bounce back quickly, “We follow NCSU protocol so we were out from March to June 2020. We were approved to come back in June 2020. We also have a 30,000 square foot facility with only seven employees, making following COVID-19 safety protocols easy. The North Carolina mining industry didn’t take much time out either. Mining occurs outside so they were able to adapt quicker than others.”

MRL is looking forward to the future, including setting its ambitions beyond the border of the Tar Heel State. MRL is currently working on a project with a client in Virginia. Dr. Mensah-Biney says, “We’re taking waste material from a mine in Virginia and processing the waste to yield a higher value for their product. The mine produces a mineral called kyanite and their waste product is sand. In the past, they gave the sand out to the golf courses for four dollars per ton. We are taking this sand and processing it to make it more valuable.”

Though the North Carolina mineral mining activity has decreased since MRL was founded, MRL remains rock-solid in providing solutions for the mining organizations that remain. Dr. Mensah-Biney reflects on the work MRL has done, “We’re the only university facility that provides the mining industry with these kinds of applied research-based solutions. We take pride in helping mining organizations improve their processes to extract minerals more economically and increase their yield.”