‘ I am proud of the part played by the mining industry in this remarkable co-operative achievement and of what was accomplished through the readiness with which the industry pooled its resources and experience to make uranium production in South Africa a reality’ C.B. Anderson, President of the Chamber of Mines 1956/57
It is the convention that in the issue in which the Presidential address is published there should be no Journal Comment. The topic for the presidential address is ‘The uranium story: an update’. I cannot resist the temptation to contribute to the early events that led to the successful establishment of the first uranium plants in South Africa, if only to reinforce some lessons to be learned from what many consider to be the finest collaborative project in the history of the mining and metallurgical industry. I would not dream of breaking tradition, so I am taking the liberty of using this August issue to reminisce on the exciting times starting in 1946.
A total of 12 past presidents of this Institute were closely involved and only two are alive today. Forgive this indulgence, for these events have tremendous significance for me and, I believe, for Denis Maxwell who played such a vital role in this story. Having just completed my final exams in the infant Department of Chemical Engineering at Wits, I saw a notice posted on our class notice board advertising vacancies at the Government Metallurgical Laboratory for chemical engineers to join a programme of research on uranium extraction. Applicants were to apply to the office of Prof Taverner, head of the Department of Metallurgy. I applied immediately and was forthwith taken on as a technical officer by the Rand Refinery to work at the GML for the mining industry.
I had jumped into a swimming pool which would keep me swimming excitedly and happily for the rest of my career of five and a half decades. In due course, half a dozen of my classmates followed suit and since this was the only chemical engineering course offered in South Africa this represented the first influx of chemical engineers entering the mining industry. This entry has increased dramatically to the point where extraction metallurgy and chemical engineering courses have, in many cases, been amalgamated. Certainly in the 1950s, the introduction of chemical engineering filled the gap created by the pathetically small number of metallurgists produced at the only school of metallurgy in the country. I was incredibly lucky. I came in half-way through the uranium project when most of the groundwork had been done and the standard approaches such as flotation and gravity concentration to recover the small amounts of uranium from the gold mining residues were considered to be unreliable and unlikely to be economically feasible.
An unfamiliar sulphuric acid and ferric sulphate leach proposed by the collaborating laboratories under the world renowned Prof. Gaudin at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seemed to be the most likely candidate for success. This proved to be the case when the revolutionary new process for recovery of a uranium complex using the strong base anion exchange resin was discovered by chance at the Battelle Memorial Institute and confirmed by the Dow Chemical Company and Rohm and Haas in the US. These promising laboratory results had to be converted to a mammoth plant scale. It was desperately urgent and the nuclear powers of the Western world were watching and waiting. The assignment was given to the gold mining industry of South Africa.
In a thoroughly coordinated effort, they succeeded beyond all expectations. Within three years the first full scale plants were operating. These were the first in the world using what must be considered to be a revolutionary process. The success was the result of a philosophy of total interaction and collaboration. Every consulting engineering discipline of every mining group was involved, with complete exchange of information between themselves and with local and international commercial contractors. While the engineering design work was in full swing there were pilot plants operating and producing results to confirm designs. The whole effort was co-ordinated by the Transvaal and Orange Free State Chamber of Mines through a committee of top consulting engineers.
With the success of this project, the South African mining industry won the respect of the world and the scientific and technical competence of the country was established. We became members of the nuclear club. There were regular invitations to the prestigious Geneva ‘Atoms for Peace’ conferences. We obtained a seat on the International Atomic Energy Agency. Not the least benefit was the production of 6 000 tons of uranium oxide at a sales value of ca $15/lb Let us not underestimate the magnitude of this achievement. At the peak of production some 17 uranium plants had been erected, treating many tens of millions of tons of crushed and finely ground rock from underground using a highly corrosive sulphuric acid leach process and in many cases associated with a sulphuric acid plant using pyrite recovered from the ore.
The ion exchange process was the largest application of ion exchange technology in the world and copied by every low-grade producer around the world, even by the Russians. The process technology was not plain sailing. Special methods had to be developed to produce rubber-lined pipes, pumps, valves and tanks. The filtration of the acidic leach slurries proved to be exceptionally difficult, requiring specially modified rotary filters and the use of animal glue as flocculent. Within the first few months of operation the ion exchange resins deteriorated rapidly. But fortunately the reasons for their ‘poisoning’ had been revealed by some fundamental work while the plants were being constructed and the remedy was available and could be immediately applied.
A new breed of plant metallurgist had to be recruited and trained. The assay laboratories had to enter a new arena of analytical chemistry. All groups with uranium plants established research units to deal with problems and to apply the new hydrometallurgical approach to other opportunities. A new era in extraction metallurgy had been started in South Africa, which expanded world wide. There is a purpose to this nostalgic reminiscing. What were the reasons for this success story? I can speculate as follows: The project was a national effort supported and positively encouraged at every level. It started by way of an approach by Sir Basil Schonland to the Prime Minister, Smuts, and was supported by cabinet and all industry leaders.
Every government department that could contribute from the Geological Survey to the Government Mining Engineer and the Minister of Mines was involved. The account of the achievement was the subject of a two volume publication by the Associated Scientific and Technical Societies of South Africa. Chemists, geologists, physicists and mineralogists made profound contributions. The project enjoyed the full scientific and technical support of the international community. There was no way that the scientific manpower in South Africa could have handled the total endeavour.
The Argonne National Laboratory, the National Chemical Laboratory in the UK, the Department of Mines in Ottawa, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Battelle Memorial Institute and the Atomic Research Authorities of the US and UK were involved There was a top-level experienced project champion and leader appointed by the Chamber of Mines to provide the direction and control of the project. This was Bob Porter, a metallurgist who had had experience of African conditions. He had the expertise and the personality to command respect from all who worked with him. Could and should a project of this magnitude and importance be repeated today? There are many of even greater magnitude and benefits calling for such a national approach. But this is another story...
R.E. Robinson Aug 2006
- Written by R.E. Robinson
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