MIT Natural Resources Study Tour: Digging Deep into the Chilean Mining Business

Stakeholders and members of the MIT Mining and Oil & Gas Club, which was founded by SDM students.Diego Hernandez (right) with SDM alumni John Helferich (left) and Juan Esteban Montero (center)Participants in the MIT Natural Resources Study Tour at the Komatsu plant By Renato Lima de Oliveira, MIT Ph.D. Student, Political Science
March 25, 2014

An interdisciplinary group of researchers, faculty, and students from MIT and Harvard traveled to Chile in December 2013 to explore innovation, technology transfer in the mining industry, and a vision for the future of cities that are impacted by the exploitation of natural resources in a study tour organized by the MIT Mining and Oil & Gas Club (MOG), MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (better known as MISTI) Chile, and the MIT Sloan Latin America Office. The aim of the group was both to learn more about Chile’s mining industry and to exchange information and practices to further contribute to the industrial and social developmental of the Andean country.

Stakeholders and members of the MIT Mining and Oil & Gas Club, which was founded by SDM students.

Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper and is known for combining increasing levels of economic and social development with a commodity-based economy. "This trip was a concrete effort to increase the awareness and interest inside the MIT community about the natural resources industry on a global scale. At the same time, it helped to promote MIT to the stakeholders of the natural resources industry. We selected Chile because mining has been its most important industry for the last century," said Juan Esteban Montero, SDM ’12, one of the founders of MOG and himself a native Chilean. "During this trip, we had the opportunity to work together with people from every part of the industry, from engineers to community leaders and government officials. I think that MIT founder William Barton Rogers, who was a geologist and educator, would be proud to see the MIT students, researchers, and professors working together in a multidisciplinary way in one of the most important mining regions of the world." In addition to minerals, Chile is a large producer and exporter of wines, fruits, and forestry products.

The workshop kicked off December 1 in Santiago, with the opening ceremony of the Eighth Meeting of the Copper 2013 Conference. The Copper 2013 Conference, an important copper industry conference that takes place only every three years, featured presentations by MIT faculty and students, including Assistant Professor Antoine Allanore of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Miguel Paredes, Ph.D. student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and Sergio Burdiles, Sloan Fellow ’12.

Also during Copper 2013, Nancy Leveson, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and of engineering systems at MIT, presented research based on her recent book, Engineering a Safer World (MIT Press, 2012). In this work, she proposes a model of systemic evaluation that leads to safer systems, the Systems-Theoretic Accident Model and Processes, or STAMP. She also presented the STAMP approach and its advantages over traditional methods during a meeting at the Chilean Safety Association (ACHS), which was very well received. "We want to bring the best practices to Chile, and this talk by Professor Leveson on system safety was really important to further our mission," said Sebastian Reyes, vice president of strategy at ACHS. The association provides safety and insurance solutions to half of the corporate market of Chile, employing about 5,000 people. Leveson was joined in introducing the STAMP model to Chile by John Helferich, SDM ’10, an MIT Ph.D. student in materials science. Helferich presented the model and its uses for food safety to the MIT Chile Club, which gathers the MIT alumni community from that country.

Diego Hernandez (right), ex-president of Corporacion Nacional del Cobre de Chile (Codelco-Chile), the largest copper production company in the world, with SDM alumni John Helferich (left) and Juan Esteban Montero (center), a cofounder of MOG, at the Copper 2013 Conference in Santiago, Chile.

In addition to participating in the Copper 2013 Conference, on the third day of the trip the group visited the Advanced Mining Technology Center (AMTC) at the University of Chile. The AMTC comprises almost 200 researchers working in five different groups: exploration and ore deposit modeling, mine planning and design, mineral processing and extractive metallurgy, mining automation, and water and environmental sustainability. In common, all groups aim to address the challenges facing today’s complex mining production. The AMTC produces both basic research as well as specific projects with mining companies, such as the Chilean state-owned Codelco and international giants BHP Billiton, Anglo American, and Vale. MIT students and faculty learned about the main projects that each research group is conducting, such as developing physical models of completely automated mineral extraction for underground mining, driverless cars for mining applications, and bacterial leaching of copper sulfide ores in underground mining. The principal investigator of this last project, Dr. Tomás Vargas, hosted the MIT group in its visit to the AMTC along with Rodrigo Cortés, manager of the technology transfer division.

Santiago has a significant concentration of the population, universities, and companies of Chile, but the mining industry is centered in other regions. Following mens et manus, the guiding MIT spirit of "mind and hand," the workshop proceeded to where production actually takes place, which meant traveling more than 1,000 kilometers from Santiago to Antofagasta, a municipality in the north of Chile in the Atacama Desert. The second part of the workshop started December 4 in Antofagasta and comprised visits to the Escondida mine and the Komatsu factory as well as talks with local stakeholders and social entrepreneurs.

The Escondida Copper Mine

Chile is the major world producer of copper, and the Escondida mine is itself the biggest copper mine of the world, producing 5 percent of global output. It was discovered in 1981, and commercial exploration started 10 years later. The mine is operated by BHP Billiton and employs about 15,000 workers and subcontractors. It is located at 3,100 meters (10,170 feet) above sea level and 170 kilometers (100 miles) from Antofagasta. There, the workshop participants had access to several facilities and productive process, getting to know this massive operation that is managed by state-of-the-art techniques and capital equipment. "While visiting Escondida, I had the opportunity to speak with local workers and I was extremely impressed with their dedication to improve their condition through innovation," said Jared Atkinson, an MIT Ph.D. student in geophysics.

Building a Better Antofagasta

On December 5, the MIT group dived into the reality of the mining city of Antofagasta. In different activities, the group helped to articulate a vision for the future of the city and to devise solutions to day-to-day problems. In a truly interactive and hands-on experience, the group started the day promoting Antofagasta’s first "hackathon" to discuss the future of the city, 200 years from now. A hackathon is a collaborative event focused on creating solutions to given problems, an idea originally created by computer programmers. This activity was followed by a meeting with local executives and social entrepreneurs, who provided their insights to the MIT students and also learned business, technology, and social practices from the group from Massachusetts.

Participants in the MIT Natural Resources Study Tour at the Komatsu plant.

Political scientists and economists frequently point to the unique developmental challenges that resource abundance brings. To help Antofagasta manage its resources, the workshop promoted a meeting with local stakeholders to discuss the future of the city that today is heavily dependent on the copper industry and susceptible to the fluctuation of commodity prices. An initial presentation by MIT Ph.D. candidate Julio Pertuze addressed the history of MIT and its more than 150 years of innovation and close collaboration with the industry.

Participants were then divided into two groups and worked to envision the headlines of a newspaper published 200 years from now. In this activity, they discussed what they want the city to be and what paths of action are conducive to long-term development and diversification. "Desert is the place to live: Antofagasta beats Oslo in quality of life," read one headline. This kicked off a discussion of quality of life in the city and opportunities for knowledge creation, adoption of renewable sources of energy, and sustainable environmental practices. "I think we have a lot of potential in Antofagasta. We have to believe in our capacity to innovate and build a better city," said Mathias Werth, an industrial engineer who participated in the hackathon and has lived most of his life in the city. Werth is manager of the Komatsu plant, a unit that provides support for heavy machinery used in the mining industry. The next day, Werth hosted the MIT visitors at the Komatsu factory, showing them all the facilities and revealing how the adoption of new technologies and production process has enabled this local unit of a multinational company to expand production, local employment, and markets beyond Chile.

Following the hackathon, local entrepreneurs joined the group from Cambridge for an exchange of knowledge and best practices. The meeting gathered participants from a variety of backgrounds, including startup investors, community organizers, college students, and cultural producers. Each of the more than 20 groups at the meeting presented their business activities and main challenges, followed by mentoring from the MIT students. Issues ranged from financial challenges such as raising capital to social issues, including improving local education and youth inclusion.

The mentoring activity was an opportunity for local entrepreneurs to meet each other, exchange experiences, and develop team solutions to common challenges with the help of the MIT team. To achieve that, students trained in the M.B.A. and Sloan Fellows programs presented their business experience and talked about business strategies and how to develop them, providing examples from their own personal experiences and methodologies developed through the MIT social enterprise program.

The message resonated with the locals. "What impressed me the most was the inspirational message that I heard today. No matter what happens, I know I want to be a successful entrepreneur," said Giselle Cerda, a native of Antofagasta who recently graduated with a degree in tourism and is working on a proposal for a social project aimed at improving the identification of inhabitants with the city and its history. The exchange of experiences was also a highlight for Grace Zamorano, a teacher who is trying to fund a project aimed at introducing recycling practices in the mining city. "It was really helpful and I heard lots of good ideas," said Zamorono.

December 6, the final day of the trip, was dedicated to a visit to the Komatsu plant and social projects in Antofagasta. Members of MOG praised the schedule and organization, which had being locally managed by Francisco Delpino, who is also a mining engineer. "I really liked the trip as a whole. We learned about the mining industry from many angles. This trip gave me a unique perspective about the people who work in this industry and the opportunities that technology can offer to solve problems and necessities that can change the production and human beings," said Yuly Fuentes-Medel, a postdoctoral fellow at MIT Sloan and one of the founders of MOG.

"The impact of this trip aligned well with the goals of the MIT Sloan Latin America Office. I was able to promote various academic programs to potential applicants, there was some serious exchange of cutting-edge research, and the students really committed themselves by not only observing what was happening but influencing and exchanging ideas through the hackathon and the entrepreneurship workshop with local stakeholders. These events encouraged new multidisciplinary ways of thinking," stated Julie Strong, director of the MIT Sloan Latin America Office.

Excited by the results of the trip, club members are already planning new activities. "This trip to Chile, with its sound planning and impressive execution, went beyond the highest expectations, adding real value and leaving a strong impression on all those involved. Initiatives like this must be repeated, and we have been analyzing scenarios for visiting East Africa, Brazil, or Australia, where the extractive industries are facing particularly interesting challenges," said Jorge Le Dantec, SDM ’13, president of MOG.


Antoine Allanore — MIT Professor, Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Bernhard Stohr — MIT M.B.A. ’13
Bill Finney — MIT Water Quality and Environment
Cristobal Garcia — MIT S.M. ’04
Emele Uka — MIT Chemical Engineering Undergraduate
Juan Esteban Montero — MIT Engineering Systems Graduate Student (Participant & Organizer)
Jared Atkinson — MIT Ph.D. Student, Geomechanics
Jason Gonzales — MIT M.B.A. Student
John Helferich — MIT Ph.D. Student, Materials Science and Engineering
Jorge Moreno — MIT S.M. ’13, Engineering Systems
Julie Strong — Director, MIT Sloan Latin America Office
Julio Pertuze — MIT Ph.D. Student, Engineering Systems
Nancy Leveson — MIT Professor Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems
Rachel deLucas — MIT Materials Science Researcher
Renato Lima de Oliveira — MIT Ph.D. Student, Political Science
Sergio Burdiles — MIT Sloan Fellow
Tomas Folch — Harvard Graduate School of Design Research Associate
Yuly Fuentes-Medel — MIT Postdoc, Sloan School of Management
Camila Nardozzi — MIT MISTI Program Manager MIT-Chile (Organizer)