New Superstar of STEM championing sustainable solutions to growing mine waste problem

8 March 2023
MIWATCH Group Leader Associate Professor Anita Parbhakar-Fox

Sharing the environmental and social challenges facing an increasingly metal-hungry society will be a major aim for The University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute’s (SMI) Associate Professor Anita Parbhakar-Fox as she steps into her new role as a Superstar of STEM.

Anita is one of sixty-two female and non-binary scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians stepping-up to be role-models for future generations in their respective areas as part of the Science and Technology Australia’s Superstars of STEM Program.

A key goal of the Program is to equip the ‘Superstars’ with communication skills and opportunities – in the media, on stage and in schools – to create a cohort of diverse celebrity scientists inspiring young Australians into STEM study and careers.

Associate Professor Parbhakar-Fox, who leads SMI’s Mine Waste Transformation through Characterisation (MIWATCH) Group, says the Program will enable her to raise awareness of a little talked about, but increasingly pervasive, issue facing society – mine waste. 

(L to R) MIWATCH's Dr Laura Jackson, Assoc Prof Anita Parbhakar-Fox and Loren Nicholls completing field work at a mine waste facility.

“As society continues to put a premium on low-carbon, high-tech development, a challenge that will become increasingly inescapable is what we should do with the growing amount of mine waste,” said Associate Professor Parbhakar-Fox.

“This is a well-known issue in the mining industry – higher demand for metals equals more mining and therefore more waste – and whilst several organisations and start-ups are working on it, it really needs to be a more important part of any conversation about our future.

“The wider community needs to be aware of the serious environmental and social consequences of not properly managing mine waste, especially if we are going to be mining more than ever.

“As a Superstar of STEM, I want to get out there and communicate the realities of this issue to the public – not to spread a message of doom and gloom, but instead to turn the attention to how we can crack this wicked problem and view this as an opportunity to create, build and share sustainable solutions to these challenges that are being worked on right now. 

“The MIWATCH team, and our collaborators, are leading the way when it comes to the research and development of those solutions, so I am excited by the idea of us getting out there are influencing the conversation.”

The Mine Waste Transformation through Characterisation Group

The Mine Waste Transformation through Characterisation Group

MIWATCH characterises mine waste using a variety of chemical and mineralogical tools – by determining its properties, it helps then to understand how these wastes can be managed to reduce environmental risks and also highlights if the possibility of economically re-mining minerals within it exist.

The group’s proven capability and ambitious goal, to reduce the environmental footprint of mining, has seen it rapidly grow to include over fifteen researchers who work on projects at over thirty-five mine waste sites across Australia.

“One of the main things that attracts new people to the group, keeps us unified, and moves us forward is we are all scientists with a deep passion for continued environmental practice in mining,” said Associate Professor Parbhakar-Fox.

“The team is also impressively diverse in terms of individuals’ backgrounds and expertise, and each member brings their own insights to the work we do.

“Combine that expertise with the practical experience and perspectives we gain through close industry partnerships, whether they are with companies or governments, and the reason for our success so far is clear.”

Queensland Chief Government Geologist Tony Knight, whose mission is to help drive economic development of the state’s mineral and energy resources, has been a long-standing supporter of MIWATCH.

“In the span of a career it is a rare thing to see a person, a group and an initiative achieve stellar success, to be in the right space at the right time, and to make national and global impact,” he said.

“We are fortunate then to see that very thing happening now, with the work led by Associate Professor Anita Parbhakar-Fox and her ‘Mine Waste Transformation through Characterisation’ initiative – MIWATCH – and supported by her growing team of researchers.

“In close collaboration with Dr Helen Degeling and team from the Geological Survey of Queensland we have witnessed a fusion of capability and capacity, which now positions Queensland as a leading jurisdiction globally for work to unlock the value and need for many minerals needed to support both energy transition and the circular economy.”

To learn more about MIWATCH’s research, visit their webpage or contact Group Leader Associate Professor Parbhakar-Fox.