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Asheville’s Minerals Research Laboratory remains rock solid

MRL researcher in lab

The College of Engineering’s footprint in North Carolina extends far beyond NC State’s Raleigh campus, with site-based undergraduate programs with partner institutions from the mountains to the sea and an industrial extension program that operates in all 100 counties.

In Asheville, the College has helped further North Carolina’s mining and mineral industry for nearly 75 years.

The Minerals Research Laboratory (MRL) was established in Asheville in 1946 as a joint venture between the state of North Carolina and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). TVA eventually discontinued its support of the laboratory, and in 1954 the operation was transferred to the then-School of Engineering. The MRL is still a part of the College of Engineering; since 2004 it has been part of Industry Expansion Solutions, the College’s extension service.

Over the years, engineers and geologists employed by the lab have worked to examine and evaluate mineral samples for commercial potential. That includes helping to identify viable ore deposits across the state that have led to North Carolina’s rise to prominence as a world leader in industrial mineral production. Part of the MRL’s mission includes research into how mining waste products can be reused to mitigate environmental impacts.

In this archive photo, taken in April 1960, an employee of the lab oversees a spiral concentration process, in which minerals are separated according to density and particle size.

The lab’s most prominent feature is a pilot plant, the only one of its kind in the United States. The facility allows engineers to determine the cost and specifications of assembling and running a full-scale plant to exploit a particular mineral resource.

It’s a vital tool for a mineral industry with more than 700 active permitted mines in the state, annual sales in excess of $800 million and an employee base of 100,000 people. North Carolina is the only producer of andalusite and pyrophyllite, and a major producer of common clay, feldspar, mica and phosphate rock. The state also produces construction and industrial sand/gravel and crushed stone, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Over decades, the MRL has shifted from being largely state funded to today providing the majority of its research efforts through contractual agreements with client corporations.

In 2008, the lab began a partnership with nearby UNC-Asheville to offer a mineral processing curriculum, part of which is delivered at the MRL’s facility on Coxe Avenue in Asheville’s South Slope neighborhood. The laboratory also offers free educational materials, such as rock kits and posters, to schools that request them.

The lab has been led since 2012 by Dr. Robert Mensah-Biney, who has more than 35 years of experience in mineral and chemical industry research and development.

Return to contents or download the Fall/Winter 2020 NC State Engineering magazine (PDF, MB).

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