From the Good Earth: Lessons from the Past, Inspirations for the Future. Michael Abelman

This issue is devoted to a selection of eight papers from Mintek to represent a cross-section of the contribution to Mineral Research and Development to celebrate their 75th anniversary. They are all eminently note-worthy and the one most relevant to my interests is the paper on Resin–in-Pulp which endorses my predictions a few months ago that this technology is likely to take off internationally in the near future.

Eight papers are inadequate to cover the extent of Mintek’s activity, but are enough to invoke the anticipation that there are many more that could be forthcoming in future years.

There can be little doubt among the mining and metallurgical community that the central position of Mintek in South Africa is now extending to a wider and enviable global reputation. It was in the decades after the uranium plant era that the foundations were laid for the essential support facilities for an integrated minerals processing research activity.

These included a world class analytical laboratory, a mineralogical support facility second to none, an instrumentation and electronic group which is invaluable in the world of increasing automation, a process control and other services which are often taken for granted such as workshop facilities, economic evaluation, information retrieval and reporting functions.

Most importantly, the culture was evolved though interaction with research groups at universities thereby attracting into this industry, the chemical engineers, the physical, inorganic and organic chemists, the physicists and the many other engineering disciplines such as electrical, mechanical and materials science. The perception was soon promulgated that there were the most exciting and productive opportunities for innovative contributions in the minerals game. The same perception has been carried forward, and the Mintek specialties in pyrometallurgy, hydrometallurgy, mineral chemistry and ore dressing are still attracting new recruits from many disciplines, including medicine and microbiology.

What is not perhaps generally recognized is that Mintek is at the center of the stage in terms of State institutions and their contribution to strategic R&D. Minerals and metals are prominent in almost every area of economic activity in South Africa.

Mining and metallurgy is not a dying industry. It can continue to offer a growth potential with profound challenges for profitable developments.

Such a debatable assertion calls for some justification.

Coal, by far our greatest mineral tonnage, the life blood of our economy, offers a wide portfolio of potential R&D projects. The huge challenge of carbon capture and storage indicates solutions where mineralogy and mineral chemistry play a dominant role.

Coal contains other mineral constituents which are usually regarded as waste discards with toxic implications. Pyrite, the source of AMD, and ash containing aluminium and silicates, forming unsightly slag heaps, are, in fact, valuable raw materials such as for iron, acid, aluminuum, cement and glass production.

The manufacturing industry, our greatest contributor to GDP, can offer many innovative consumer end products at globally competitive prices via electrometallurgical intermediates such as ferrochrome, ferromanganese and aluminium metal. The building and infrastructure industries are critically dependent on cement from limestone and aluminium silicate minerals where local low cost deposits are being rapidly depleted. There is a challenging prospect of finding alternatives. Aluminium metal, glass, ceramic tiles, a host of low cost mineral-based materials for low cost housing with a huge local market, are also critical challenges.

In the automobile industry, metal components are well known but the move towards the electric motor car makes for interesting opportunities in super magnetic materials, lithium batteries and ultra light weight metals.

These few examples are scratching the surface of portfolio R&D options in minerals and metals. Second only to the energy issue, by far the highest priority has been given to job creation and almost every proposal is accompanied by a job creation statistic.

In this vein an ambitious programme has been proposed by government.

This includes a ‘cradle to the grave’ processing of uranium to nuclear power plants. (Not an inappropriate phraseology taking the waste uranium dumps around the ‘Cradle of Mankind’ to the burial ground of the locally made enriched uranium carbide spent fuel residues of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor.)

It also includes platinum group metal catalysts, hydrogen fuel cells, electric motor cars, battery systems and the super alloys and cancer cures using nano-technology.

This is a programme that would challenge a superpower. We are starting a decade or more behind our global competitors. Our indigenous markets for such advanced products are small, and the ogre of the ‘economy of scale’ might represent an impossible hurdle.

South Africa has little hope of mustering the number of specialist technical professionals to mount such a programme without a mammoth level of international collaboration and recruitment,

The level of skills needed would be way beyond those that could be developed from the mass of unemployed in our rural population.

As suggested in previous Journal Comments, I believe that there are possibilities in expanding the establishment of cluster industries and villages adjacent to mining and mineral processing operations which are committed to sustainability undertakings.

There are millions of houses to be built, and an army of building, electrical and water treatment and reticulation artisans are needed. Low cost materials, using industrial minerals, is an
important consideration.

There are incomes to be derived in such clusters from the predicted ten million tourists per annum to our shores. These offer exciting portfolios of educational schools in archeology,
paleontology, mineralogy and semiprecious stones with African jewellery design and technology.

There are a host of entrepreneurial services: analytical and out-sourced engineering, for example. Most of these would be easily promoted by Mintek in collaboration with industry and
professional Institutes with a mission to promote sustainability.

There is a large potential in the rural cluster for agricultural production of food, raw materials such as fibers and leather and the increasingly recognized bio mass for bio-methane and other fuels to meet transport and power demands. There is a vital connection with the mining and minerals industry in the treatment of effluents to provide irrigation water and fertilizers.

I am convinced that the solution to the problem of the ratio of rich to impoverished (where statistics show South Africa is the worst in the world) lies in the rural cluster concept. This is not limited to the minerals industry but to fast track the concept that minerals must lead the way.

On a higher level of venture capital demands, I must make mention of the huge iron ore resources of the titaniferous magnetites. And the largest known resource of gold in the form of the ultra deep levels of the Witwatersrand and Free State conglomerates.

Mintek is highly active in enticing young people into the technical field to take care of future manpower demands but not in their wildest dreams could they provide the staff for them to undertake the programmes envisaged. This implies but one conclusion. This must be a collaborative undertaking by Government and private industry,
local and international.

In presenting this anniversary issue, we should consider Mintek not only as a national asset of great prestige but also, looking to the future, recognize that it can be much more than a profitmaking Research institution. It could be the trail blazer in marshalling the whole government’s component in the deployment of the minerals and metals resources to generate the balanced employment targets so urgently needed.

After all, it needs nothing more than a renaissance of the culture evolved in the last 75 years.