Virginia Tech mining engineering literally opened up the world to Aaron Noble. He still remembers stepping onto an airplane for the first time as a junior on his way to Alaska for an internship.

As the newly appointed head of the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering, Noble said he wants to ensure more students have the kinds of opportunities that changed the trajectory of his own life. And he wants to grow the mining program, not only to provide careers for new graduates, but to boost U.S. competitiveness in critical minerals and the industries they support.

“I want to focus on sustainable enrollment growth,” Noble said. “I believe we can double our enrollment — double the production of mining engineers to support industries critical to national security and the country’s economic health. Being a mining program in a top-ranked engineering college gives us tremendous capability.”

Noble is a three-time alum of the department that he will lead beginning on June 25, and he is a professor passionate about classroom and hands-on teaching. He will replace interim head Erik Westman, who has served in the role since former head Kray Luxbacher took a position at the University of Arizona.

"Aaron's enthusiasm for developing talent and technology for mining engineers will create opportunities for both students and industry," said Julie Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering. "As a Hokie graduate, he knows firsthand the quality of an engineering education at Virginia Tech, and his focus on enriching the student experience while ensuring accessibility will strengthen our impact on sustainable mining practices."

Ross acknowledged Westman for his service — his second turn as department leader.

"We thank Erik for his dedicated service to the department and to the college," said Ross. "His steady leadership during this transition has positioned Aaron to quickly and confidently step into the department head role."

Throughout his career, Noble has worked on mineral processing with a specific focus on critical material production, techno-economic process modeling, mine environmental management, and complex separation circuit optimization. He has an internationally renowned research program focused on scientific discoveries that lead to technology development, maturation, and commercialization and has served as assistant director of the Center for Advanced Separation Technologies.

His research has produced 42 peer-reviewed articles and eight awarded or pending U.S. patents — four of which have been licensed to various industry affiliates. Outcomes from his work promote and support the sustainable production of mineral resources through improved energy and processing efficiency and reduced waste. In addition, Noble is an award-winning teacher, having received the departmental outstanding instructor award every year since 2018 as well as college-level teaching awards in 2021 and 2022.

Mining has suffered a reputational and economic decline since the 1960s and the falling fortunes of the coal industry. But the discipline now finds itself at the forefront of green energy and other crucial technologies. The U.S. Geological Survey maintains a list of several dozen critical minerals — many of which must be mined — that are important for society to develop alternative fuels, batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage, and wind turbines and solar panels. Lithium and cobalt, for example, are essential to the production of electric vehicles (EVs), a major part of the American climate protection strategy.

Some sustainability advocates worry about an increase in U.S. mining, given historical damage from the industry. But green industry leaders like electric car manufacturer Tesla have made it clear that reliable supplies of mined materials are critical to widespread, affordable use of EVs. 

Demand for these minerals is projected to rise by up to 600 percent in the coming decades, and the amount of lithium and graphite needed to produce electric car batteries may climb by about 4,000 percent, according to the White House. Because these raw materials are often mined outside the U.S., supply chain bottlenecks and tense diplomatic relations can limit our nation's access to them. 

Noble said training mining engineers who can design and operate safe, technologically advanced, and environmentally responsible domestic mining operations is critical to American industry and national security.

“We don't have enough mining and mineral processing engineers to meet the growing societal demands, and that is scary to think about. Over the next two decades, miners are expected to harvest more raw materials than in all of past human history combined,” Noble said. 

“Part of my motivation for becoming department head is that there is a critical need for talent and technology in the industry. There are areas of mining that require specialized expertise and leadership and communication skills. We can educate our students for those roles,” Noble said. “With the new Center for Autonomous Mining, critical minerals research, and our leadership-focused undergraduate curriculum, we’re already on the leading edge, producing mining engineers with experience in science-based mineral processing, data analytics, automation, and sustainable development.”

Noble said he wants to grow the student body in ways that maintain the culture of support and individual attention for which mining engineering is known. Nearly 100 percent of mining graduates have a job right out of school, and all department students with a 2.5 GPA or higher get scholarship support.

Noble also said he is committed to university and College of Engineering goals for closing the affordability gap for students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. In fact, he recalled that he chose mining engineering because some other engineering programs had summer class requirements. He chose mining in part so he could work during the summers to save money for tuition. And, as a first-generation student, he benefited from mining's commitment to student success.

“I grew up in east Tennessee in what was a very rural community,” Noble said. “In some ways, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know about succeeding in college. I was very fortunate to find a home in this department. The strong advising support and exceptional faculty gave me the structure and a path to success. I think it's important that we continue to do that for all our students.”

That support can also reduce the cost of a degree.

“Failing one class can be a $40,000 mistake for a student,” he said. “I want to ensure that those who are struggling academically get the help they need in a timely manner to eliminate the financial burden of delaying graduation.”

Noble received his Ph.D. in 2013, a master’s in 2012, and a bachelor’s degree in 2009 — all in mining engineering from Virginia Tech. He is also a licensed professional engineer in Virginia.

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