‘The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet’ William Gibson.
This issue contains six Transaction papers and one Journal paper. This is a pleasing change from the pattern of the previous issues during this year, in which there have been some extremely important events and conferences from which a wealth of Journal papers have emerged and which have contributed greatly to the technology transfer functions of the Institute’s publication. It is thus good to see some detailed experimental work with evaluation and conclusions in traditional format.
Interestingly and pleasingly there are three papers from foreign researchers in the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Iran on mining and mineral processing. I say ‘pleasingly’ because this
confirms that the Journal is read widely and gaining ground as a publication that makes research work which has a real interest and expertise which will complement that of the authors available to an international community.
With the new rapid website availability, one hopes that this international recognition will increase in future and encompass more of our recent trading partners in South America, India
The remaining papers from South African authors are from our well-established stalwarts at the Mining Technology Division of the CSIR, Impala Platinum, Stellenbosch Chemical
Engineering and Pretoria University, which are regular and valued contributors.
I should like to focus my Comment on the papers from Pretoria University for three reasons. The first reason is that they deal with the treatment of electronic waste and aluminium
metal discards. As you may recall from many of my previous comments, a favourite theme is ‘zero waste’, which is becoming internationally recognized as the only sustainable way forward for the exploding demands of humans on planet Earth.
The second reason is that both the papers are the first basic steps pointing to the possibility of employment opportunities for a wide range of jobless South Africans. At the lowest skills level, the collection of waste is a well-recognized employment activity, and even this can vary from scrounging in waste dumps to stealing copper cable and man-hole covers. At a higher skills level it is operating ‘chop shops’. Moving up in the entrepreneurial scale, there are several wellknown millionaires whose fortunes started with the recovery of metals from waste dumps.
In the two papers in this issue, there are distinct possibilities of employment creation depending on the cost of the recovery process and the extent to which the recoverable material
was imported or made locally. Instinctively one feels that waste electronic material and aluminium alloys should be recovered, but ultimately it is the skill and ingenuity of the
metallurgist that will provide quantitative answers.
This leads me to the third reason for commenting on these two papers which is much more profoundly intended.
The authors of these papers would be described as working in the discipline of ‘physical metallurgy’. This is old fashioned terminology and I understand that this discipline is now
simply included in the branch of ‘materials science’. However, the latter term commonly incorporates materials such as polymers, minerals and natural products such as wood and
rubber. These form the group of so-called composites, which are hugely important in manufacturing the super materials of this modern age.
South Africa is lagging way behind the first world countries in this sophisticated field of super materials science, for some obvious reasons related to the shortage of matriculants in
science and mathematics.
But it is a matter of greater concern that we are lagging behind in those areas that concern metals. Physical metallurgy is a discipline related to the physical properties of the solid metal
products and their impact on the properties of the host of alloys that can be produced as components of final goods to be sold on local and global markets. The properties include
strength, workability, appearance and, most importantly, corrosion resistance, which depend on the electrochemical properties of the metal alloys. Obviously such disciplines are vital to stainless steels and the many products that form components of nuclear reactors, fuel elements, and batteries.
Our technical culture that evolved over the last hundred years was centred on metals: gold, platinum, steel, vanadium, chromium, manganese, aluminium, titanium, nickel, cobalt,
and uranium. Recently the more exotic but increasingly important ones such as tantalum, zirconium, rare earths, tungsten and lithium are emerging as metals of significance in future
high technology applications. These latter metals are not uncommon in Southern Africa and, interestingly, they are key elements in the directives that have been announced as topics
for future R&D in South Africa.
The University of Pretoria is establishing a reputation of having a most productive department in terms of research papers and postgraduate activity on the materials science of metals.
Tantalum (no stranger to mineral occurrences in Southern Africa) is now a strategic material for production of the microsized electronic circuits such as those invading cell phone based information technology.
The suite of ‘rare earth metals’ is assuming great importance in solar cell and super magnet technology. It is interesting that one of the largest known resources of europium, one of
the rarest of the rare earth metals is located in South Africa. This element is in much demand in the fluorescent phosphors used in television screens.
It would seem that the lithium ion battery is the most promising solution to the energy storage system for the electric motor car, the prototype of which has been launched in South
Africa. It is also interesting that the breakthrough in feasible lithium storage batteries revolved around the physical metallurgy of the electrodes in these units. In a recent report from the President of the CSIR, itis indicated that this body holds a patent on lithium ion batteries. One therefore supposes that this country might take a prominent share in the rapidly expanding global market.
Electrical battery storage systems play a cardinal role in the many alternative clean power technologies of which solar cells are another South African specialty. Lithium is found in pegmatite bodies as spodumene and petalite minerals, some large deposits of which were prevalent in Zimbabwe. There are some large unexplored fields of pegmatites in the North Western Cape and neighbouring territories, which might provide a resource base for lithium batteries. An important export industry is not impossible, and, if so, our physical metallurgists will play a cardinal role in maintaining a forefront position.
My Comment is not intended to predict the future breakthroughs in technology for the next generation of all scientists and engineers. The message I wish to convey is that we will be
remiss not to build up our expertise in the branch of physical metallurgy (call it material science if you wish).
In future years such technicians, scientists and engineers will be much in demand in producing, marketing, servicing, designing, researching and providing the raw materials, and in contracting and building the plants for a range of innovative consumer products for export and local use. They are important people to propel us into the category of a first world
country of at least an equivalent technical status to those of our prospective international customers.
All success to the physical metallurgical departments at Pretoria and other universities
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