- Written by R.E. Robinson
‘tithe—tax of one tenth, esp. one payable in kind taken for support of clergy and church’ The Concise Oxford Dictionary
The annual student papers are as interesting as ever. Nickel and platinum are always fascinating to me and most other members. Perhaps the most ambitious paper is that on computational fluid dynamic modelling of a hydro cyclone. To achieve such a model, which can be used in practical design and for optimizations has been a ‘Holy Grail’ target for mineral engineers for half a century. Some innovative thinking could have a most valuable outcome. I should like to hope that a logical conclusion to these projects might be papers in the transaction section of our Journal. This leads me to ponder whether this has a reasonable possibility of happening. A brief attempt to get a figure for the number of research workers in the field of mining and metallurgy reveals that at Wits in the department of Materials and Process Engineering there are 80 postgraduates. There are now many other centres of tertiary activity in mining and metallurgical research: Stellenbosch, Pretoria, KwaZulu, Potchefstroom (University of the North West), RAU (Johannesburg University of Technology) and Cape Town. So I guess that there are maybe several hundred worthwhile publications emanating from the MSc and PhD theses at our universities.
Sadly, only a small fraction is likely to appear in our Journal, for various reasons. According to my data from Wits, approximately half the postgraduates are sponsored by an industrial organization, and presumably their work will have some restrictions on publication. This has good and bad implications. Good because there is a high probability that the innovative features will be used in practice. Bad because the innovation cannot be used for upgrading the skills of the technical community in general, a priority focus in this country. Most of the other innovative contributions will be dispersed in the ether of international publications with limited access by the industrial working professional engineers of our Institute.
Nominally they are accessible via the Internet. For the universities this was adequate reward in the era of ‘publish or perish’. The status of a scientist or even a research group was to a large degree evaluated for accreditation purposes on their publication and citation statistics. Although technology transfer was obviously of importance, it was not the main concern of the universities and many of the leading scientifically based learned societies that were focused on innovative and forefront work. Thus international journals and proceedings of a variety of debating forums were the target for publication. But it is my perception that there is a galloping and revolutionary transformation taking place in which the business of Technology Transfer is the focal point. The title of my comment was deliberately chosen to reflect a religious connotation.
The last two millennia were characterized by a driving force of religious beliefs directing the evolution of nations and dynasties. In this, the third millennium, there is no doubt that technology is the overwhelming driving force directing the influence and prosperity of nations. Technology transfer is the new currency of this new ‘modus vivendi’. Indeed, there is big money to be made from this new currency. In the new system, the churches and temples are replaced by conference centres, the pulpits and preachers by Power Point slides and thirty-minute presentations. The distribution of the ‘gospels’ arising from the conferences is, at the best, a horde of CDs, a small proportion of which might appear as web sites on the Internet and referenced by Google.
In the advertising world, Google is the biggest brand name ever known, surpassing the previous champion, Coca Cola by a mile. While these systems are highly efficient in terms of profitability, popularity, and publicity value, they are far from adequate in serving the fundamental requisites of technology transfer. This new religion of technology can only be sustained on its present level if underwritten by the tenets of scientific and engineering disciplines, some of the most important of which are proper experimental techniques: proper interpretation of results of correct accuracy and precision; proper derivation and analysis of innovative concepts; and formulation of new basic theory. On the engineering side, there are proper design, proper materials selection, proper maintenance specifications and training and proper impact safety and impact assessment, both socially and on the environment. Historically a ‘tithe’ was called for from the congregation to sustain the guardians of these fundamental commandments and dogma.
In this millennium these guardians are, of course, still the professional institutions whose activities lie in accreditation and the training and judgement of the outcomes that are now of paramount importance. Their job is also increasing exponentially in terms of the demand of time, expertise and experience. This is the challenge of the professional institutions, in the face of the seduction of the conference and publicity explosion. When I first started in compiling these comments, I did not think the student projects would lead me into such a philosophical and lyrical pontification. So perhaps to conclude, let me take a highly pragmatic example, which relates to a conference and a workshop held recently on major discussion points of today. They were well chosen by the Fossil Fuel Foundation and, are in my view, the most strategically important topics for the mining and engineering professions in the country with immense political and economic implications.
The one was on Carbon Dioxide Sequestration, the means of disposing of CO2 effluents from coal fuelled power plants, and importantly from Sasol, so as not to appear in the atmosphere ever again. I have previously suggested that an urgent national R&D programme be initiated to examine the fundamentals and economics. This will determine the future of coal mining and of coal to liquid processes in Southern Africa, if not the world. The second conference/workshop topic was on the use of the vast amount of waste fine coal to generate electrical power using fluidized beds. Fluidized bed combustion of waste coal has been extensively investigated by the Fuel Research Institute, which is now part of the CSIR.
Now overseas technology claims to make this economically feasible. What is exciting everybody is the magnitude of the resource. According to Martin Creamer in his ‘Coal Face’ programme on radio, a billion tons of coal is available right now at negligible cost and is increasing rapidly. This in orders of magnitude represents about half a million mega-watt-years of power production. Surely whatever detailed information is available must be openly published so the geologists, mineral chemists, physicists, electrical, mining, metallurgical and all other engineers and scientists and the informed public involved in the impact of power shortages can have access to the information. This will lead to a proper evaluation and definition of what more has to be done to make wise action decisions, not the least being the possibility of an emergency national research and development effort. My thinking in quoting these examples is to suggest that our Institute take a lead in creating a forum to consider such moves and in these specific cases set an example by undertaking to publish the critical data in, say, a special issue of our Journal. R.E. Robinson April 2008 ‘