Mercer-Led Team Wins $200,000 Top Prize in Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge Global Competition

Artinsanal Mining Grand Challenge
Mercury Capture System in action
Anja Conlon uses the Mercury Capture System during a Mercer On Mission trip.

MACON – A team of researchers involved in Mercer University’s Mercer On Mission program today received the Gold Award and top prize of $200,000 in the Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge.

The global competition, which received applications from 42 different countries, recognizes innovative solutions for transforming artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) for water and biodiversity conservation.

The Gold Award-winning application, titled “Mercury Capture Systems for ASGM Gold Shops,” details a system developed by the Mercer-led team to remove dangerous elemental mercury vapor emitted in the air during the final stages of gold extraction and at the initial stages of gold refinement.

“What an amazing experience,” said Dr. Adam Kiefer, Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry at Mercer. “We have been working on the Mercury Capture System for almost 10 years, and to have others see the potential of our invention and acknowledge its promise towards a cleaner future for ASGM is a true honor.”

ASGM is a critical source of livelihood for an estimated 40-plus million people worldwide. While this type of mining generates wealth in developing countries, its practices can cause habitat loss, species’ population decline, poor water quality, hydrological changes, and negative human health and livelihood impacts. Mining is among the most significant drivers of deforestation in the world’s tropical forests, a leading cause of global biodiversity loss. In addition, ASGM in the developing world is the largest source of man-made atmospheric mercury contamination, which can have devastating consequences for those impacted by the contamination.

Dr. Kiefer has led Mercer On Mission initiatives in Mozambique, Ecuador, Peru and Guyana to develop and implement methods for reducing mercury pollution and poisoning among artisanal gold miners. His laboratory at Mercer is one of few in the world dedicated to developing solutions to this global health crisis. Teams of his students have developed analytical techniques using portable atomic absorption spectrometers and GPS units to map cities and identify the locations of excessive mercury pollution in the atmosphere.

In collaboration with Dr. Laura Lackey, dean of Mercer’s School of Engineering, Dr. Kiefer and students have designed programs to monitor mercury contamination as well as systems for capturing the mercury before it is released. Their team has developed and tested its Mercury Capture System (MCS) that was the basis for the successful Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge application.

“Our Mercury Capture System would have only been a dream if not for the drive, compassion and sheer grit of our undergraduate students working through the Mercer On Mission program,” said Dr. Kiefer. “We believe that the MCS has the potential to be a big step forward in addressing a global problem, and we are very excited to be part of the solution. We have assembled a talented team that is fully capable of taking the MCS to the next level and making it a viable solution that eliminates mercury pollution at its source.”

In addition to Dr. Kiefer and Dr. Lackey, members of the team include Dr. Craig McMahan, Dr. Caryn Seney and Sagar Patel at Mercer; Dr. Claudia Vega at the Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica and Wake Forest University’s Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; Dr. William Pan and Dr. Alex Pfaff at Duke University; Dr. Bridget Bergquist at the University of Toronto; Dr. Ruth Goldstein at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Suzette McFaul at SEF Canada Ltd.

“The development of this project is a testament to the power of Mercer On Mission. It’s the only program in the world that brings students and faculty to low- and middle-income countries to solve real-world problems,” said Dr. Lackey. “The team is thankful to Mercer University and private donors who support our work.”

Conservation X Labs, a technology and innovation company that creates breakthroughs and empowers innovators to build ventures that revolutionize conservation, is leading and administering the Challenge. Members of the Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge Global Coalition include the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Microsoft, Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica, Delve, Conservation International, The Tech Interactive, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, Andes Amazon Fund, Amazon Conservation Association, Levin Sources, Pan American Development Foundation, Water, Environment and Human Development Initiative, Resolve, Mongabay, Pure Earth, and the Chambers Federation.