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Duke Part of Research Team Winning Top Prize in Global Competition

October 5, 2020

A team of researchers from multiple universities and organizations received the Gold Award and top prize of $200,000 in the Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge. Duke faculty members Alex Pfaff and William Pan were among the researchers on the team, led by Mercer University.

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, and improving human health.  ASGM is a critical source of livelihood for over 40 million people worldwide, but its practices can cause habitat loss, species’ population decline, poor water quality, hydrological changes, and negative human health and livelihood impacts. ASGM is the leading source of global mercury pollution and among the most significant drivers of deforestation in the world’s tropical forests, a leading cause of global biodiversity loss.

The Gold Award-winning application, titled “Mercury Capture Systems for ASGM Gold Shops,” details a system developed 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.

“Our mercury capture system is a great tool to put in the hands of miners to immediately reduce mercury pollution in the environment.  It’s the first step toward a more sustainable solution to address the horrible human and environmental health impacts of gold mining,” says Pan, associate professor of global environmental health. 

Pfaff, professor of public policy and economics, said this research collaboration to design an appropriate and effective roll-out of such a useful invention is an example of how multiple disciplines can come together to develop and apply innovative solutions.

“This project exists because a bunch of academics who did not know each other but all wanted to improve the social and environmental outcomes from small-scale mining ended up together in the office of an open-minded agency leader in Peru. That conveys exactly the cooperative attitudes everybody has taken toward trying to make the most of a fabulous technological advance by considering the welfare of all of the key parties involved,” he said.

Pfaff and Pan began collaborating following the formation of the Duke Team Gold, a catalyst initiative supported by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.  Pfaff studies how economic development affects and is supported by the environment and natural resources, in the service of more effective implementation of a range of environment and development policies. Pan studies how coupled demographic, economic and environmental changes impact human health directed towards the development of tools to enhance human-environment sustainability.  Both have worked extensively throughout Latin America, particularly on issues pertaining to policy, environmental outcomes and health, including research in ASGM.

The Mercer team developed and tested its Mercury Capture System (MCS) that was the basis for the successful Artisanal Mining Grand Challenge application. The team included researchers Adam Kiefer, Laura Lackey, Craig McMahan, Caryn Seney and Sagar Patel at Mercer University; Claudia Vega at the Centro de Innovación Científica Amazónica in the Center for Energy, Environment and Sustainability; William Pan and Alex Pfaff at Duke University; Bridget Bergquist at the University of Toronto; Ruth Goldstein at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Suzette McFaul at SEF Canada Ltd.

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.

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