New Uses for Old Mines

October 22, 2015


Entrepreneurs in many industries are finding new uses for abandoned mines around the world.


Prairie Plant Systems, a biotechnology company, grows engineered plants in a 2,500-square-foot underground chamber in an abandoned copper mine in Michigan. The plants are protected from predation and contamination and kept at a consistent temperature. The company spends less on electricity than it would with above-ground greenhouses.


A former gold mine in Lead, South Dakota has been converted to the Sanford Underground Research Facility, an underground lab where experiments in biology, geology, physics, and engineering are conducted. The Department of Energy spends about $15 million per year to run the facility. In August, crews began installing equipment for the Compact Accelerator System for Performing Astrophysical Research (CASPAR) that will be used to study deep space. By housing the equipment deep underground, experiments can be shielded from the sun’s cosmic rays that could cause interference.


Document and data storage company Iron Mountain stores valuable and classified information from government agencies and Fortune 500 companies in a former iron mine in upstate New York. The documents are protected by up to 270 feet of limestone, darkness, cool temperatures, and low humidity.


Iron Mountain also stores servers used for cloud storage underground. An underground lake cools the servers, which produce large amounts of heat, and keeps HVAC costs much lower than they would be with an above-ground storage facility.


Some old mines have been converted into tourist destinations. A limestone mine in Pennsylvania has ATV trails 250 feet below the surface. Mines have also been converted to an underground bike park in Kentucky, trampoline and ziplining courses in Wales, cathedrals in Europe and South America, and an underground theme park in Romania. The attractions often breathe new life into struggling local economics.


It can be difficult to find a mine suitable for a particular purpose. Mines in the United States are not well mapped, and they are sometimes found by accident. Coal mines are often unstable, which is made worse because mine owners frequently removed beams supporting walls and ceilings when they abandoned the mines. Some mines are difficult to prepare for reuse. They need to be cleaned of toxic materials, and some have dangerous methane pockets.


Companies that convert old coal mines can receive financial incentives. Coal producers pay fees to the federal government, and that money is given to the states for cleanup projects.


Some old mines may be used in the future for green energy production. Areas with old mines may be well suited for large solar fields.