Data center wins Henderson Mine Sustainability Challenge

A data center and technology campus that takes advantage of the cool, dry climate at 10,300 feet was the winning idea in the inaugural Henderson Sustainability Challenge.

Colorado School of Mines students worked with Climax Molybdenum, a Freeport-McMoRan company, and community members for an entire semester to envision innovative ways to sustainably repurpose the Henderson Mine property following the eventual depletion of the mineral resource.

Team Mo Data — a play on the atomic symbol for molybdenum — pictured the mine’s surface facilities and land, located near Empire, Colorado, just below the Continental Divide, transformed into a state-of-the-art tech campus, with coworking offices, innovation spaces where local residents can access 3D printers, workshops and more, food and beverage amenities and a small conference facility. Anchoring the site would be a 150,000-square-foot data center with 200 employees that capitalizes on the ambient mountain air to keep the servers cool and utility costs down. 

In operation since 1976, the Henderson Mine is one of the largest primary producers of molybdenum in the world and a major economic driver for the region, paying a significant portion of all property taxes collected in Clear Creek County. Student concepts were required to provide a socioeconomic benefit to the surrounding communities, as well as be economically sustainable, socially acceptable and provide a positive and lasting legacy in the state of Colorado.

The final five student teams presented their ideas and business cases Dec. 7 to a panel of judges representing Freeport, Climax, Henderson and the Clear Creek community. Initial proposals from the field of 24 teams included everything from resorts, education and recreation to business development, data centers and ecological enhancement.

“We were impressed by the quality and creativity of ideas submitted by the teams,” said Mike Kendrick, president of Climax Molybdenum. “This challenge offered students a unique opportunity to see up close the value of sustainable development practices and the need to incorporate them into every aspect of mining throughout the life cycle of mining operations. Sustainable development is everyone’s responsibility—we hope students were challenged to think differently, more creatively and to feel more empowered to bring fresh ideas and solutions for industry and community.”

The first-, second- and third-prize winners were:

$25,000 grand prize: Mo Data

  • What: High-altitude data center and tech campus
  • Team members: Ethan Bond, a sophomore in engineering physics; Jessica DiCaprio, a sophomore in environmental engineering; Luke Epp, a sophomore in applied mathematics and statistics; and Caleb Stetson, a PhD student in materials science.

$15,000 second prize: Henderson Engine & Automotive Testing (H.E.A.T.)

  • What: H.E.A.T. is a comprehensive automobile testing facility—located at the highest elevation of any such facility in the U.S.—for automotive manufacturers to test performance at high elevation and in inclement weather, with a particular focus on the emerging autonomous vehicle market. The facility would also host defensive driving and driver’s education classes for the general public.
  • Team members: Marie Hetherington, a senior in mining engineering; Anna Cable, a senior in mining engineering; Sarah Doyle, an environmental engineering PhD student; and Curtiss Spivey, a senior in mining engineering.

$10,000 third prize: Henderson Composting and Mushroom Farm

  • What: The Henderson Farm would sustainably produce three main products: biogas, compost and mushrooms. An anaerobic digestion system would transform food waste from the Denver metro area into the sustainable energy source of biogas. Compost would be produced as a byproduct and sold to the public. The compost would also be used to grow specialty mushrooms in an above-ground farm on site.
  • Team members: Grace Anderson, a chemical engineering senior; Chantel Flukiger, an environmental engineering sophomore; Nonso Ihebuzor, an exchange student from the University of Stavanger, Norway, studying natural gas engineering; Lee Zamalloa, a mining engineering master’s student; and Muthu Vinayak Thyagarajan, a mining engineering PhD student. 

“Mines students are innovative, entrepreneurial problem-solvers and the winning ideas in our first-ever Henderson Sustainability Challenge just go to show that,” said Priscilla Nelson, professor and head of the Mining Engineering Department at Mines. “I am so proud of all the hard work that our students put into this project and want to thank our partners at Freeport-McMoRan, Climax Molybdenum and the Henderson Mine for giving our students the opportunity to flex their creative and engineering muscle on a real-world challenge right here in Colorado.”

Freeport officials already plan to host the challenge again next year, this time focusing on the other side of the mountain. Arrangements are also being made to allow this year’s teams to continue to develop their ideas with the company. 

Students from the winning team said participating in the challenge was a great experience—and not just because they walked away with $25,000.

“The process was a lot of fun,” Bond said. “We got to work as a team and produce a lot of work that we’re really proud of.”

“It was great to see the development of our concept but also our development as a team and how we worked together,” DiCaprio said. 

“I really enjoyed the creativity and the open-endedness of the project. Seeing all the different ways that teams approached it was really fun,” Epps said.

“This is a great example of how well-connected Mines is with industry,” said Stetson, who has accepted an internship with Freeport next summer. “Most schools don’t have the same opportunities to collaborate with major companies.”

Special thanks to the alumni who participated in this unique opportunity:
Monika Brunkmann
Matt Juth
Glenn Krum
John McDonough, Jr.
Patsy Moran
Ken Neumann
Glen Oswald
Paul Panozzo
Rich Rein 
Steve Schultz  
Steven Steffens
Robert Wagner  
Dick Woods

Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3361 |
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 |

About Mines
Colorado School of Mines is a public R1 research university focused on applied science and engineering, producing the talent, knowledge and innovations to serve industry and benefit society – all to create a more prosperous future.