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A monthly publication devoted to scientific transactions and specialist technical topics is unlikely to be on the priority reading list of the majority of the mining and metallurgical community. But it is the ambition of the Publication's Committee to make the Journal of much wider interest to our general membership from technician trainees to mine managers to CEO's of our constituent companies. It is to entice general readership that some 1200 words of valuable space are devoted to the Journal Comment each month. This is intended to highlight some of the features and impact of the papers to excite and activate attention.

To entice this preliminary glance before confining the publication to the book shelf or even the wpb, the author has to call on a large measure of journalistic licence in style, titles and quotations. It is essential to be spicy, controversial and even provocative to separate it from the abbreviated authoritative but necessary scientific style of the bulk of the contents.
The Journal Comment aims to be an enticement to dig into some important feature of the papers in the issue. For this reason it has been decided to include it as a separate item on the Institutes Web Site. This might provoke those who enjoy twittering, blogging and googling to submit comment and criticism, all of which will be welcomed and responded to. At least it is proof that somebody has read it.
R.E. Robinson

From the Desktop to the Coal Face

JN van der Merwe 19052024I thought to write this note as a researcher, author, and collaborator, and who, over a few decades has seen and participated in the development of several new equations, procedures, and processes on a number of topics: in my case, obviously in the field of rock engineering. These are invariably published in established journals or presented at conferences of some or other form, some more formal than others.

One of my worst nightmares is that practitioners in the field will see new equations or procedures and simply apply them without having gone through the proper preparatory steps and investigations.

What is often not realized is that a journal or conference paper is no more than the briefest of summaries of work that was often done over a long time period, sometimes by numerous researchers. The background preconditions and limitations are often implied—not even always, but not explicitly stated in paper publications.
A paper can only be of a certain length and there is simply not space to include everything. Just a simple example is a paper based on a doctoral thesis. The thesis itself may vary in length from 200 to 400 pages, but the published paper based on it, not more than 10 or 12 pages. It is totally impractical for everything that was stated or found in an investigation report to make its way into a paper for general consumption: only the highlights of the outcomes can be published in the popular domain.

There may be errors in the paper, in the form of misprints or other errors, that were simply not identified during the refereeing process. Referees, as well as authors, are just people and mistakes can happen.

It is even possible, albeit not likely, for fundamental errors in thinking in the original reporting or experimental phase that, at the time of writing or refereeing, were overshadowed by other more convincing-sounding arguments. There could be errors in the data and, often, the data may be incomplete.

Always remember that any new equation derived from experimentation or data analysis for anything is no more than a theory. In essence, it is a description of what the developer saw—or believed they saw—in the data, be it in the form of numbers or any other type of observation. But as long as it is on paper, it is no more than a theory.

It is against this background that I want to stress the point that any new process or design equation cannot simply be put into practice. No. This should never be done without careful consideration and evaluation of the local context.

Theory should not just blindly be put into practice. It is not a step from theory to practice: it is a process, and the process should be carefully planned and managed.

We have to progress and new processes have to be applied. Without incremental improvement, nothing will change. If we prefer to wait for perfection, it will never come. We would still have been mining with hammers and chisels.

Just one example of an error in the application from theory to practise is a lesson from a tragic mine-collapse disaster half a century ago that we may have missed or simply not heeded, and which can serve as illustration. At the time, the mine was in need of increased coal production, but the predevelopment to unlock new reserves was not yet in place. Consideration was then given to mining the coal in the roof in areas that had previously been mined at a nominal height of 3 m: this in a 6 m thick coal seam. The coal was already exposed, the infrastructure was in place. The solution made perfect sense.

There was no formal design procedure for coal pillars at the time, but warnings were issued that increasing the pillar height would weaken the pillars and could possibly result in failure. It was not known at the time by how much the pillars would be weakened, if at all.
The mine did not simply go ahead and increase the pillar height. They took the responsible precaution of embarking on an experiment. The height was increased in an experimental area and visually observed. After about three months, nothing had changed and no collapse occurred. The experiment was regarded as successful and so the coal roof was mined in several areas. Then the collapse occurred.

So what went wrong?

Firstly, the effects of time on pillar scaling and subsequent reduction in pillar width were not known or appreciated. In retrospect, and only in retrospect, three months was too short a time for the experiment, particularly as no formal measurements were reported, if at all performed.
Secondly, the experimental area was small and surrounded by solid coal on all sides. The effect of scale and increased pillar load due to the greater expanse of mining was not known at the time.

Thirdly, no follow-up monitoring or continued observation of the experimental area was done.

This is just a very brief description of hasty application of what, at the time, could be considered as a theory: Increased height would not substantially reduce pillar strength. This was the theory, believed to have been backed up by experiment.

Several other contributary events took place before the major collapse occurred. The brief description here is just to illustrate the point that any change in an existing situation has to be carefully implemented and properly analysed.

It also serves to illustrate another vitally important omission in our current mining operations, a point that has been stressed so often by researchers like Prof Francois Malan of the University of Pretoria; namely, that we do not do anything remotely close to enough measurements in our mining operations.

So, my plea is this: don’t just scan a paper until you find an equation that suits your needs and go ahead with implementation. Study the paper, get more information, consider the background against which the paper was written, and then plan implementation very carefully and slowly.

Perform measurements. Have a suitable control area for comparison, measure and continue monitoring, and especially continue with the observations in the control area. Adapt if necessary.

Also bear in mind that equations reflect the ideal situation. In the case of bord-and-pillar mining, for instance, this means assuming a constant mining height and perfectly straight roadways. No off-line development, equipment in perfection condition, so perfectly constant and equal traction on cat tracks, etc. No errors in the placement or observation of survey pegs. No simple human error.
But we all know that reality is different.

Therefore, there also has to be some form of allowance for real mining practice. There cannot be universal guidelines for this because the degree of deviation will be different for different mines, and even different sections on a particular mine. The practical allowance for error will depend on the on-site extent of deviations.

Build up confidence, think, observe, think again before you do final implementation—and only then go ahead. And even then, continue monitoring. We have to progress, but we have to do so very carefully.

J.N. van der Merwe

The relentless march of Moore’s law

QG Reynolds 17042024This special edition of the Journal showcases recent work in metallurgical applications of computational modelling. But what exactly is computational modelling? Historically this would have included any science or engineering problem that required a computer to solve numerical approximations of the governing equations. Computers were typically large, expensive pieces of equipment, and the problems solved were limited by the available power of the machine – early applications included chemical thermodynamics, numerical heat and mass transfer, and simple problems in fluid flow.

However, in modern times we have computing pervading our lives to an ever-increasing degree, and we are starting to catch more unusual fish in our computational modelling nets. Driven by sustained exponential growth in computer power over more than six decades (your wristwatch today has more capability than was available to the entire Apollo space programme), methods such as computational fluid dynamics have been enhanced beyond all recognition and are now capable of modelling realistic engineering problems with multiphase flow and free surface interfaces, coupled heat transfer, electromagnetic fields, and others. Tools like massively-parallel GPU accelerators are also breathing new life into old methods like discrete element modelling, giving us unprecedented insight into particulate flow problems.

Alongside the rapid growth in capability and performance of traditional computational modelling tools, the role of such models in the knowledge industry has also evolved. From being able to give an isolated (and usually not very accurate) result, they are now routinely used to study the general behaviour of systems across wide ranges of their parameter spaces. Such models are also increasingly viewed as intermediate analysis and interpretation tools for building intuition rather than producing the ‘final answer’, and they generate one thing that is in short supply in metallurgical processes – data. And since data feeds the physics-informed or data-driven reduced order models which power the ongoing revolution in artificial intelligence, computational modelling will remain a useful piece of the puzzle for a long time to come.

Q.G. Reynolds
Pyrometallurgy Division, Mintek
Chemical Engineering Department, Stellenbosch University

Ticking boxes won’t revive the mining industry

I Robinson 13032024The mining industry, which has been the engine of growth of the South African economy for about 150 years, has stalled. Commodity prices have plunged and production costs risen as the infrastructure within which the mines operate has deteriorated. Production is restricted by erratic power supplies and exports are throttled by Transnet’s lack of capacity and problems at the ports. Mining companies have to spend vast sums both to protect their assets and for personal security. There are few new projects and exploration has dwindled to nearly zero. Beneficiation has moved backwards as more chrome and manganese ore is being exported and less is smelted domestically to produce alloys.

In late February Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) announced that it had initiated a Section 189A process that would result in the retrenchment of 3 700 employees. This followed Arcelor Mittal’s (Amsa’s) threat to close facilities at its Newcastle and Vanderbijlpark steel plants which would involve the loss of 3 500 jobs. Amsa blamed their problems largely on factors beyond their control, citing Transnet’s inability to provide an efficient rail transport service and the erratic supply and high cost of electricity.

Amsa also reported that steel demand had collapsed under the weight of a sluggish economy and a failing state, with the country’s apparent steel consumption declining by 20% over the last seven years to an annual level of about 4 million tons. As demand for steel is a key indicator of industrialization this shows that South Africa has deindustrialized over the last decade.

However, President Ramaphosa struck an upbeat note at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town when he announced that 39% of the South African mining industry is now owned by blacks and the audience responded with rapturous applause. Did that mean that ownership of the industry has now been expanded to a much larger number of blacks or simply that a few wealthy individuals have gained a larger share of the industry? If expansion in black ownership does not equate to an increase in benefits and prosperity for the wider black community then calculating ownership figures according to race is a mere box-ticking exercise.

It also raises the question of foreign ownership. Perhaps the architects of this ownership-by-race analysis could also inform the South African public of the percentage of our mining industry controlled by foreign companies. It would be interesting to know what proportion of the South African mining industry belongs to the Chinese through their ownership of chrome ore and alloy producer Samancor. Or the Russian oligarchs through their involvement in the production of manganese ore and alloys? Or the British through Anglo American? Are these figures available?

Furthermore, foreign owned companies like Samancor and Acerinox, the Spanish company that owns Columbus Stainless Steel, which are not listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) deny South African citizens of all races any possibility of ownership of projects in their own country.

Evidently not prepared to face up to the really important problems facing the mining industry, MP Sylvia Lucas flippantly remarked during the State of the Nation (SONA) debate in Parliament that load-shedding was not ‘the end of the world’. Perhaps not, but certainly the cause of billions of rands in damage to the national economy.

Also during this debate, the Minister of Mines, Gwede Mantashe proudly asserted the government’s control of the mining industry, saying that ANC cadre deployment would continue and the ANC will continue to deploy ‘capable’ cadres because the party has brought about racial transformation. This may be so but he also needs to ask himself why the South African mining industry over which he presides was rated in May last year for the second time by the prestigious Fraser Institute in Vancouver, Canada, as one of the world’s ten worst destinations for mining investment.

I. Robinson

A window into the ramifications of journal publication

RMS FalconThe SAIMM Journal is an accredited international publication which enjoys respect and recognition worldwide. There are very few international journals focussed on mining and metallurgy, and therefore the SAIMM Journal makes a very important contribution in these fields.

Because there are relatively few ‘academic/research’ personnel in mining and metallurgy compared to the numbers in the diverse avenues of industry, the academic readership of such journals will be relatively small, hence there will be limited numbers of citations. The impact factor of our Journal is correspondingly lower than some specialist international journals published abroad. This may be a negative factor as far as research performance of academic individuals is concerned, as proof of performance is required for advancement in academia. However, this could be considered a false indication of true value of the information published because the application of ‘new knowledge’, when presented in such a journal, is often of inestimable value to those working in industry (‘in the trenches’). In this manner, new concepts, designs, operations, or developments will reach a wider and more appreciative audience and, as such, new information is more likely to see the light of day in growth and implementation in the mining or metallurgical workplace.

Material submitted to the SAIMM Journal for potential publication is assessed by reviewers drawn from a panel that includes both local and international experts. The review process is as stringent as in all other international journals. Material received is reviewed by at least two, but often three or four reviewers. Based on the reviewers’ comments, decisions on publication are taken by the SAIMM Publications Committee. Many submissions are rejected for various reasons, including inadequate English, technical inadequacies, lack of original material, inappropriateness, and so forth. Therefore, as is the case with other international journals, only approved material is published in this Journal. If authors of rejected material do not agree with the publishers’/reviewers’ opinion, they are free to submit their material to other journals or media – that is their choice.

The range of subjects published in the SAIMM Journal covers the full value chain in the mining and metallurgical fields. This ranges from the implications of geological factors on mining, through all branches of mining to current and advanced metallurgical processing and a wide range of associated fields. These include occupational health and safety, environmental aspects, forms of energy, and, more recently, ESG, computational modelling, and digitalization and AI in the workplace.

As is illustrated in this month’s Journal edition, one paper highlights the potential for gemstone mineral extraction in Zimbabwe while two cover mining aspects. One explores the potential benefits of the Last Planner system on infrastructure projects in the South African mining industry, while the other mining paper evaluates the role of rockbolts in stoping gullies as one of the important components of rock support in underground mines. The metallurgical paper deals with methods to remove Cr from waste solutions for one of the largest Cr-related industries in the world. and the final paper investigates the experiences of South African women on male-dominated mining company boards. The intention in future is to have special themes for specific Journal editions while continuing to run general editions with varying topics, as is the case in this instance.

R.M.S. Falcon

The Future of mining research in South Africa

DF Malan 19012024There is currently a flurry of bad news emanating from the mining industry. The electricity shortages, logistical problems, and low commodity prices have resulted in the proverbial perfect storm, and this is testing the resilience of our industry. As an encouragement to the readers affected, this is not the first time the industry had to survive exceptionally difficult periods. With ingenuity and a bit of luck, we always seem to pull through. For example, the gold price was artificially low in the 1960s owing to the London Gold Pool’s actions to defend the dollar price of $35 an ounce. Many of the marginal gold mining operations in South Africa had to close. The strong mining units survived, however, and they did exceptionally well in the 1970s during the gold boom that followed. Commodity prices will always be subjected to cyclic volatility, and we need to build our mining houses on solid rock to weather the occasional storm.
Part of building this resilience involves ensuring that we conduct the necessary research to improve our productivity and lower production costs. The Leon Commission of Inquiry into safety in the mining industry wrote in their 1995 report:

‘Furthermore, as no other region of economic significance has similar geometry, no mining industry outside South Africa pursues the solution to this problem. The platinum mines have essentially the same difficulty. The solution must therefore be found in South Africa.’

The key aspect is highlighted in bold, and we therefore need to foster mining research in South Africa. In terms of geometry, the Commission was referring to our tabular orebodies at a very flat dip with a small mining height. This makes mechanization extremely difficult, and it results in very high stress levels ahead of the mining faces in deep excavations. Furthermore, the decreasing extraction ratio of the shallow bord and pillar mines with increasing depth needs to be studied in detail and good solutions found. Multi-reef mining with a small middling between the reefs also requires further study. Unfortunately, the mining research capacity in our country has shrunk drastically over the last two decades. In his 2006 paper in this journal – Beyond Coalbrook: what did we really learn? – van der Merwe described the transfer of COMRO to the CSIR and the subsequent collapse of CSIR Miningtek.

‘Due to disillusionment and internal problems in the CSIR, there was an exodus of qualified and experienced researchers from 2003 onwards. It is estimated that in the period 2003 to 2005, an aggregate of over 1 000 years of research experience was lost. In retrospect, the collapse of Miningtek could well in future be seen as having a more severe impact than the collapse of Coalbrook.’

The situation has only become worse in the years following the publication of van der Merwe‘s paper. An innovative solution to this research challenge must be found and may in part lie with the small mining research groups that still survive at the tertiary institutions. Postgraduate students from industry are keen to do research and further their qualifications. A new ‘distributed research organization’, involving both industry and the universities, may therefore make a huge contribution to generating new knowledge. The mining industry and government must support and grow these mining departments. The current limited funding initiatives, unfortunately, seem to become increasingly complex, and simple ‘no-strings-attached’ support is required to enable the few surviving good researchers to focus on research only and to train the next generation of academics.

This edition of the Journal features several papers focusing on environmental and safety aspects in mining, and these are valuable studies for the South African industry. I congratulate the authors on their contributions to research.

D.F. Malan

Variety (at a high standard) is the spice of life

RMS FalconOne of the aims that an Editorial Board of an internationally accredited journal (such as that of the SAIMM) aspires to achieve is to present to its readers novel, high-quality scientific and technological information. This requires papers submitted to the journal to be vigilantly reviewed and evaluated and, once published, assessed in terms of the citations arising from them. The number of citations affects the journal’s Impact Factor and related publishing evaluation norms. The Impact Factor of the journal in turn directly affects the professional standing of academics associated with the papers printed in that journal.

For a journal to be successful for all parties concerned, it is essential that it features only the highest level of research showing uniqueness, relevance, and previously unknown information.

However, there comes a time when young professionals, whether in their final years of study or early in their professional lives, are obliged to submit papers in order to build their own reputations and, more relevantly, to meet the requirements for graduation. For example, a doctoral student is required to publish at least two papers in an internationally accredited journal in order to be awarded his or her degree, while a master’s student is required to produce one such paper. The question then arises as to where to submit such papers for publication and whether the papers meet the journal’s publication criteria.

Given the high standards that journals set, and that senior students need to publish despite their limited experience or highly focused research topics, it is often difficult to reconcile these two requirements. However, the Editorial Board of this Journal believes it has found common ground in this dilemma by hosting an annual student conference at which senior students are invited to present their completed mining and metallurgical topics. From that event, the best papers are invited to be submitted for review. Once the papers have been reviewed and have met the criteria of the Journal they are selected for publication.

On this basis, the SAIMM Journal has, for many years, published one or more of its monthly editions featuring such top student papers. Readers will note the wide variation in topics and the nature of the research, all of which address issues of concern within the greater mining and metallurgical value chains worldwide.
In summary, may I refer to the previous month’s Commentary which called for industry to provide suitable research topics for senior mining and metallurgical students to undertake in order to meet the criteria for publication in journals such as this one.

The Editorial Board looks forward to many more student-based research papers in future, papers that will benefit the industries and communities in which the students are destined to serve and which will enhance the students’ own professional careers.

This month’s topics include an investigation of the ability of yielding rockbolts to resist multiple impact loads, which has considerable bearing on underground construction and safety. Research concerning the socioeconomic factors that influence women’s engagement on boards in the mining world led to significant recommendations based upon the findings. Another investigation found that the reduction of willemite in the presence of CaO showed considerable metallurgical benefit, with improved zinc extractions of up to 93%. In yet another paper a new model is presented for computing dimension stone operational costs during the cutting phase. This is significant as dimension stone is gaining rapidly in popularity because of its widespread use in construction.

R.M.S. Falcon

Student Edition

B Genc 09112023Welcome to another edition of papers for the Student Edition. Most of the papers published in this Student Edition are based on the annual Student Colloquium of 2022. The Colloquium, organised by the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM) since 2002, aims to identify the best final-year mining and metallurgical engineering students’ presentations. The papers presented at the Colloquium are based on the students’ final year projects. Our mining engineering students at Wits University, the School of Mining Engineering (Wits Mining) have a final-year course called Project Report, usually based on projects carried out by students on a mine during the vacation work session between the third and fourth year of study. It is a good opportunity for the students to showcase what they have learned during their summer vacation work. Wits Mining selects the top three presentations to take part in the Colloquium, similar to the other schools/departments in the country. The best performers amongst the participants were chosen by the panel of judges in the Colloquium and the winners were asked to prepare a paper to be published in the Journal of the SAIMM (JSAIMM). As with any paper submitted to the JSAIMM, the students’ papers are also subject to the Journal’s peer reviewing process.

In the last few years, the quality of the student papers submitted to the JSAIMM for publication has deteriorated, as most of them did not provide anything new. Novelty in a journal paper is essential. In order to address this, an initiative has begun with the help of the mining industry to realign the communication channels between the industry and academia. This initiative has a number of aims and objectives - one of which is to relook at the project topics given to the students; the project topics have a direct impact on the quality of the student report produced. Although it is still early days, this initiative has the potential to help generate more publishable papers in the JSAIMM. Further developments in this regard will be communicated to the SAIMM community.
In this Student Edition of the Journal, five papers have been selected, covering topics ranging from coal washability, contact sorption drying and real-time gypsum quality estimation in an industrial calciner. In addition, papers about electric-powered robotic subsea dredging crawler and electrical resistivity of heat-treated charcoal are some of the interesting reads.
Enjoy the October edition of the Journal!

B. Genc

A mineralogical phoenix rising out of the ashes …?

SO Bada 17102023In the last two centuries there have been significant changes in the way energy is generated. In countries that lack other natural resources such as hydropower, energy has traditionally been derived from solid, liquid, or gaseous fossil fuels. A mix of factors, including geological resources and technological advances, as well as political and economic pressures, has led to the selection of energy sources in each country. Over time, energy selection has been influenced by the availability of resources, the cost of production, and more recently by environmental impact.

In almost all of the world’s major industrialized nations, coal has been the primary source of power generation and a significant contributor to economic growth. But with the evolution of today’s complex energy mixes, the role of coal and its sister fossil fuels (oil and gas) is gradually changing. In the past two decades, the percentage of global energy produced from coal has decreased from 87% to 84%. Coal’s continued economic importance is due to its abundance, low cost, wide applications, and security of supply. The future role of coal will depend on a combination of factors, including mining pollution and the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases from coal-fired power generation. It is believed that these emissions have contributed to global warming and climate change, resulting in severe pressures from political and environmental quarters.

In recognition of its value in supplying safe, secure, and reliable energy, coal now needs to be used in a variety of clean coal processes as the world moves towards its Just Energy Transition. This approach has been taken widely by China and other countries in the Far East. No doubt South Africa will follow suit in due course.
However, the value of coal is now being recognized for a very different purpose. Coal is considered as an important source of carbon, rare earth elements, and related mineral-based commodities which are vital components in all high-tech, high-value advanced materials of the future. These include a range of products vital for use in the manufacture of renewable energy equipment.

This awakening to the new and alternative value of coal began in the USA and is now spreading globally, to the extent that coal is now regarded by some international bodies as one of the most valuable mineral commodities available. For these reasons, coal is now being termed in some quarters as ‘carbon ore’ and regional centres manufacturing high-tech high-value carbon-based products as ‘carbon valleys’, the equivalent of Silicon Valley in the USA.
Against this background, South Africa is now at an important crossroad.

On one hand, the country is undergoing a significant energy transition from coal to other sources of energy due to its commitments to meeting net-zero carbon emissions in the near future. On the other hand, a further and more innovative opportunity is now opening up for the use of coal in a highly efficient, responsible, and far more economically and nationally significant manner.

This new approach embraces a new coal-carbon value chain which, if followed, would lead to the development of new industries, increased employment opportunities, and the production of innovative products of considerable value in the fast-evolving world of modern construction, transport, and aerospace applications.
Such an approach would entail the recognition of coal as a high-value ‘carbon source’ yielding products of much greater value than simply producing a megawatt of heat or power that is gone in a flash. Furthermore, the use of carbon for production purposes would meet South Africa’s goal of capturing and use of carbon to achieve a low-carbon economy.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has predicted that over the next 25 years, industries that manufacture coal-to-carbon products in coal mining communities could generate 280 000 to 480 000 jobs using low-skilled to highly skilled artisans. The DOE predicts that the global market for advanced carbon-based materials and products will reach over $96 billion this year. To give an example, Dialead carbon fibres from Mitsubishi Chemical Carbon Fiber and Composites USA are produced from a high-performance coal-tar pitch. The carbon fibre is being used to manufacture aircraft structural components, pressure vessels, wind turbine blades, and various items of sporting equipment, among other products.

With such expansion in this field, the American National Coal Council estimates that the tonnage of coal used in product manufacture has the potential to equal that utilized for power generation in coming years. In South Africa, a further benefit would be the dual use for coal being mined, namely full use of both the better grades for export, Eskom, or industry, and full use of lower grades for carbon-based products. The sources of the latter materials include coal fines, discards, coal tar pitch, and low-grade run-of-mine coal. Such precursors are the low-cost throw-away/discarded products of coal mining, and their use would also thereby serve the country’s interests in the circular economy as it applies to coal mining.

The forms of advanced carbon materials for which South African coals can be used include carbon fibre, carbon foam, graphene, carbon nanotubes, activated carbon, and coal composites. The expectation is that these will replace or complement conventional materials in the production of aerospace and electric vehicles, as well as in robotics and energy storage. In the latter scenario, carbon products will enhance the capacity and performance of lithium-ion batteries and be utilized to securely store and transport hydrogen in various forms.

At the University of the Witwatersrand and elsewhere, research and development is currently underway to establish South African coals as the source for advanced high-value products. This requires collaboration between all stakeholders (government, industry, research institutes, and others) to support this endeavour in order for the industry to reach its full potential. If successful, in due course South Africa could be the ‘Carbon Valley of Southern Africa’.
In these ways, the often-denigrated mineral called coal could become the bright and shining Phoenix of the mineral industry, literally rising out of the ashes.

S.O. Bada

To use/accept or not to use/accept AI, that is the question!

RMS FalconThere is much interest in the fast-developing field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and more particularly ChatGPT, in all sectors of the economy, not the least in education, editing, and publishing. A recent webinar presented by four informed speakers and hosted by ASSAf outlined some important issues, all of which are highly pertinent to the activities in our Institute. Most particularly, this would be of relevance for our Journal and the papers published therein. A few key points are outlined below, which I hope will lead to a discussion with respect to the way forward in developing the SAIMM’s Editorial Board’s (Publication Committee’s) future policy in this regard.
Of greatest significance is the fact that, while AI in the form of ChatGPT is fun, it is not an author! In the words of the publishers of Nature, while there may be a place for it in due course, it still has problems and will not meet the requirements of publishing norms today. The challenges include the facts that it cannot provide accuracy or interpretations and explanations, it cannot be held accountable, nor can it ensure data privacy. Furthermore, it takes information or ‘learns’ from previously published data and may therefore be biased in its output. It does not have the capacity to evaluate the information so extracted. In other words, input affects output.

What AI can do with the ‘tools’ now available is background research in an extensive and thorough manner, incorporating data from all sources taken from all levels and from different qualities of papers. In such cases it is necessary to recognize that the information so derived may be biased and that, more significantly, it cannot be defended. Who is accountable for such output? Thus, while AI is useful in communicating science it may not be able to contextualize the information. It may also be adept at summarizing data for lay audiences, but it could use unreviewed material and thereby provide misinformation. AI can improve the detection of plagiarism and manipulation of illustrations.

For these reasons, AI is useful in the early stages of research. It can write an article, write purpose statements, retrieve associated references, and obtain information from the literature. Furthermore, it can analyse results.

But such abilities also raise questions.

Can reviewers use AI to peer review a paper and then use the outcome as their own work? This is not possible  due to the depth of evaluation required as such tasks require human interpretation.

Can AI be considered a co-author when paired with genuine human authors? I have had sight of such a paper submitted to another journal, and wondered what our Editorial Board would do in such a case. A team of publishing editors agreed that AI could not be considered an author as it cannot meet the rules and requirements of journals.

The answers to date have been that all authors must be active, responsible, reliable, and able to defend their stance or statement, which humans can do but AI cannot. The recommendation in this instance is for AI to be cited in the acknowledgements, with a clear explanation as to its role in the paper. However, this is not always followed. Papers are being submitted with the bulk of the work produced by AI. The validity of such a paper without clear definition of the role played by AI is unacceptable.

Questions are now being asked as to whether there are guard rails to protect against such practices. Authors are asked to take responsibility and adopt ‘best practice’; namely, to practice and clearly show transparency and accountability. All this leads to the ultimate question: Does AI diminish scholarly publishing? The discussions continue.

R.M.S. Falcon

Copper Cobalt Edition July 2023

K.C. Sole 11092023The African Copperbelt, which stretches some 500 km in length, roughly following the northwest–southeast border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia, contains more than 10% of the world’s known copper deposits, and hosts the highest concentration of industrial activity in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa.

In 1867, Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone first described the smelting of ore into copper ingots by people living in the Katanga area, who had
known and worked the deposits for centuries. Formal exploitation in the DRC (then Belgian Congo) began when the railway line reached Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) in 1910, under Union Minière du Haut-Katanga (which was nationalized in 1967 as Gécamines, La Générale des Carrières et des Mines). During the early 1930s, this was the largest copper-producing company in the world. Commercial copper mining in Zambia started in 1909 at Broken Hill, Northern Rhodesia (now Kabwe, Zambia). However, exploitation of these ores has long been one of the most complicated geopolitical and economic questions of the region, not only because of colonial (and later nationalistic) rivalries, but also because of the energy-intensive requirements of smelters—pyrometallurgical processing then being the only known technology for treating copper ores.

The first hydrometallurgical operation, comprising leaching and direct electrowinning, started up at Jadotville (now Likasi) in 1929, producing 30 kt/a of copper cathode. This technology could be economically operated at smaller scale, with a lower energy requirement, and in a less technically demanding environment than the traditional pyrometallurgy route. The Luilu operation started in 1960, with leaching and electrowinning for 150 kt/a copper production, as well as producing cobalt metal. Hydrometallurgical processing of copper oxide ores took a major step forward when the inclusion of a solvent extraction step prior to electrowinning was proven at the Tailings Leach Plant (now Konkola Copper) in Zambia in the 1970s. This technology allowed much higher cathode purity to be obtained than could be achieved by pyrometallurgical processes at that time.

Much of the latter part of the 20th century was characterized by rises and falls of the copper price, nationalization and denationalization of the mining industry in both countries, brutal civil wars, assassinations, abrupt changes of governments, many decades of political and economic instability and corruption, and the DRC falling to rank among the poorest countries in the world. Some stability was finally restored to the region in the early 2000s, prompting a cautious return of investment and industrial activity.

In the past 15 years, the DRC has experienced a huge resurgence of activity, with an impressive proportion of the capital spending, project development, operational expansions, and metal value production in the Southern African mining industry now located in this region. The geology and mineralogy of the deposits differ significantly from those in other major copper-producing regions of the world, the ores often having very high grades as well as the presence of cobalt. Both mining and metallurgy present some unique difficulties, not only technical, but also with respect to logistics, supply chain, and legislative issues; however, the region is blessed with large resources of oxide ores, mainly at relatively shallow depths, and a young, ambitious, and eager-to-learn workforce.

The high-grade oxide ores have enabled relatively rapid construction, commissioning, and ramp-up of numerous Copperbelt hydrometallurgical operations in the past decade to produce London Metal Exchange Grade A copper cathode. There are now nearly fifty production sites in the DRC, where copper cathode output has grown from almost zero in 2008 to 1.77 Mt in 2022, and is anticipated to exceed 2.50 Mt by 2025. More than 70% of the world’s recent new projects are in the DRC, accounting for more than 90% of new copper cathode capacity. Earlier this year, the DRC overtook Chile as the leading global producer of hydrometallurgical copper.
Pyrometallurgical production has not been abandoned, however: Ivanhoe Mining is planning the first new smelter in several decades to treat concentrate at the giant Kamoa–Kakula project in the DRC, which is ranked as the world’s largest high-grade copper deposit. Zambian processing has traditionally also focused heavily on pyrometallurgical routes.

The DRC also produces almost 70% of the world’s cobalt. In the 1960s, the highest-quality cobalt cathode in the world was produced at the Luilu plant near Kolwezi (now Kamoto Copper), which hosted engineers from Japan and the USA who came to learn from the African operations. Today, cobalt production from this region has become highly emotive and politicized: some 20% of the country’s supply is sourced from artisanal miners (estimated to exceed 100 000 in the Kolwezi area alone), often working in highly dangerous conditions and employing child labour. Cobalt is an essential component in many formulations of lithium-ion battery cathodes, considered critical to a low-carbon future; however, the precarious nature of the supply chain is driving technological development towards elimination of cobalt from these batteries. Cooperation and good faith between governments, legislators, multinational mining companies operating in the region, and labour are required to ensure that this window of opportunity for cobalt is not missed.

Despite ongoing difficult environments in the Copperbelt mining industry, industrial investment in this region is accelerating, mainly driven by Chinese-owned companies. To supply energy and electrification requirements to meet global decarbonization and sustainability goals, demand for copper is predicted to increase by some 20% by 2030; estimated cobalt demand is somewhat lower. As a major producer of these critical and strategic metals, the African Copperbelt is now slowly positioning to regain some of its former glory as a technical leader and major player on the world mining stage.

Crooks, S., Lindley, J., Lipus, D., Sellschop, R., Smit, E., and van Zyl, S. 2023. Bridging the copper supply gap. Declercq, R. 2022. Katanga and the American world of copper: mechanization, vertical integration, and territorialization of colonial capitalism, 1900–30. Born with a Copper Spoon: A Global History of Copper, 1830–1980. Declercq, R., Money, D., and Frøland, H.O. (eds). UBC Press, Vancouver. pp. 253–273. Etheridge, L. Not dated. Copperbelt region, Africa.
Tinkler, O.S. and Sole, K.C. 2023. Copper solvent extraction on the African Copperbelt: From historic origins to world-leading status. Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, vol. 123, no. 7. pp. 349–356.

K.C. Sole
Chair of the Organising Committee:
Copper Cobalt Africa 2023 (PhD, PrEng, FSAIMM, FSAAE)