When we think about important pieces of technology used for mining or oil and gas operations, things like drilling rigs, diamond core drills, or processing equipment might come to mind. However, as a recent infographic published by Visual Capitalist shows, one of the most important technologies in use today in the fields of mining and hydrocarbon extraction is a bit less glamorous, and, in some ways, astoundingly simple. That technology is geosynthetic materials.

The development of environmentally responsible mining and hydrocarbon extraction has revolutionized the industry in recent years. Tougher environmental regulations in many countries require that mining companies take steps to prevent the contamination of groundwater. In addition, as mines have become larger and more complex, engineers have sought solutions to problems caused by unstable, unconsolidated materials.

Geosynthetic materials are used to address both of these challenges. These synthetic materials are usually composed of some form of petroleum-derived plastic, and come in a variety of forms.

Geomembranes are impermeable plastic sheets. They are used to prevent the contamination of groundwater by mining or drilling waste. At mine sites, geomembranes are installed beneath leach pads. At oil and gas sites, flowback water and used drilling fluids are typically stored in pits lined with geomembrane materials.

In contrast to geomembranes, geotextiles take more of a structural role. Geotextiles, and their more robust cousin, the geogrid, are used to hold solid materials. They allow liquids to pass through, but not solid materials. In places where contamination of groundwater is a concern, fragile geomembranes are often protected from the material being stored by geotextiles.   Geogrids are made up of thicker, more widely spaced fibres. Geogrids are often used to reinforce or retain unconsolidated materials.

Let’s take a look at the economics of geosynthetic materials. In general, the production and sale of geosynthetic materials is closely tied to growth cycle of the mining and oil and gas industries.  By 2018, the market for geosynthetic materials is expected to exceed 18 billion US dollars. About 7 billion dollars will be spent on them by the mining industry alone.

As with most aspects of mining technology, geosynthetic materials are always improving. Next generation materials include geomembranes woven through with electrical conductors. These conductors allow engineers to detect leaks before they cause problems. Next generation geosynthetic materials will be more resistant to corrosion, longer lasting, and cheaper.

Although it might not be as glamorous as following the market for gold or silver, keeping tabs on the geosynthetic materials market is an important part of being a savvy businessperson, miner, or investor.