The papers in this edition of the Journal are authored or co-authored by recent graduates in mining and metallurgy. They are based on final year undergraduate projects and were presented at the annual Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s Student Colloquium in November 2013. This was held at the University of Johannesburg, and for the first time a student from Namibia presented a paper.
While the tone of the presentations ranged from outrageously flamboyant to virtual stage fright, it was abundantly clear that the research being undertaken by these students was of a remarkably high standard. The diversity of topics, together with the differences in approach by the different disciplines, was catered for by parallel sessions but delegates were unanimous in their praise of the quality of the presentations. The choice as to which ten papers should be published in the Journal must have been extremely difficult.
Rather than attempting to summarize the papers or comment on them individually, I would prefer to turn to the vexing question of mining research in South Africa. I exclude metallurgy, metallurgical, and chemical engineering not due to any prejudice, but due to my ignorance of those subjects and the feeling I have that research in these areas has fared better in recent years than has mining research. This feeling is reinforced by the very recent news that the CSIR has decided to disaggregate (their word, not mine) their Centre for Mining Innovation and to reassign its remaining researchers to areas where similar competencies exist but which service many different industrial sectors and clients. This terminates 50 years of mining research on the Auckland Park site, since it was in 1964 that the Transvaal and Orange Free State Chamber of Mines formed the Chamber of Mines Research Organisation (COMRO) and established it in Carlow Road.
The need for a mining research organization was recognized following the inquiry into the Coalbrook disaster, which found there was no scientific basis for the design of coal pillars and highlighted the need for systematic research. Three existing laboratories (Dust and Ventilation, Applied Physiology, and Biological and Chemical Research) were incorporated into the newly established COMRO and both a Mining Research Laboratory and a Physical Sciences Laboratory were created. An Environmental Services Division was added and in 1966 a Colliery Research Laboratory completed the Organization. During the 1970s and 1980s South Africa was undoubtedly the world leader in most aspects of mining research and the research output was prodigious. When I had the privilege of spending six months of sabbatical leave working at COMRO in 1981 there were nearly 700 employees, with three quarters of them being active researchers. The early 1990s saw structural changes and a reduction in size and in 1993 COMRO was taken over by the CSIR and became Miningtek. The staffing compliment was significantly reduced over the years and Miningtek eventually lost its status as a division of CSIR, and South Africa lost its status as the leading country for mining research. Only the coal mining sector has sustained coherent research activities, through its collaborative research programme, Coaltech.
It must be acknowledged that individual mining companies do undertake and sponsor research but this confidential research is often piecemeal, with contracts awarded worldwide to institutions and individuals who are experts in particular research areas. The result of this has been a dearth of opportunities for young people in South Africa to develop their skills in mining research under the mentorship of experienced researchers.
Over the past 15 years or so the focus of most mining companies has been on meeting the targets for transformation and sustainable development. Health and safety of the workforce, care for the environment, and engagement with communities are undoubtedly a vital part of mining. However, the need to develop new mining methods and technology to mine safely and economically requires hard-core mining engineering research. Since the completion of major programmes such as Deep-mine and Future-mine little has been done to consolidate the findings of these programmes and put them into practice. The future of many mines is to mine deeper and this, coupled with a significant change in the cost of employment of the underground workforce, cries out for efficient and effective mechanization, as the forerunner of automation of many mining operations. At present there is no organization or institution commanding sufficient respect from the mining industry to be the leader or custodian of the necessary research. Should it be a government department that initiates a revival of mining engineering research? Should it be the Chamber of Mines, or the CSIR, or indeed a consortium of universities? Time will tell, but time is also running out and the store of knowledge from previous research is dissipating fast.
What lends optimism to the current situation is the quality of the research undertaken by the students whose work appears in this edition of the journal. The two mining papers, three mineral processing papers, and three material science papers are of a high standard and give a clear indication of the talent available to our industry. Let’s hope these young people find careers that utilize their talents in meeting the challenges faced in the mining and beneficiation of our mineral resource.