The SAIMM is a professional institute with local and international links aimed at assisting members source information about technological developments in the mining, metallurgical and related sectors.
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‘Contrary to popular belief, good scientists don’t seek to prove a hypothesis true. We make every possible effort to prove it wrong by subjecting it to the most withering attacks we can dream up. (It’s actually great fun). This refusal to accept a new idea until it has run a gauntlet of testing is the very reason scientific ‘truth’ is so reliable.’ Paul G. FitzGerald, PhD, University of California

I am compiling this Journal Comment during some of the most unhappy and turbulent times I have experienced in South Africa. It is not appropriate to use this Journal to comment on the social, economic and political impact of savage mob violence in the xenophobic atrocities we have experienced, other than to observe that a major contributing factor is the horde of jobless impoverished populations living in squalid shanty towns. In sharp contradiction, it is in these turbulent but exciting times that we have more opportunities than ever before to create jobs at a comprehensive range of skill levels in numbers large enough to break the back of the unemployment scourge. There are millions of houses to be built with water reticulation and effluent systems.

There is an infrastructure to be created for the ever expanding tourism boom and agricultural opportunities for small lot farmers to meet the food shortage. And above all, the mining industry and the associated industries seem to be on the crest of a wave in terms of job creation. The Chamber of Mines reported that employment was on the increase in the light of new major projects, in spite of power cuts. Anglo Gold Ashanti will reclaim, in September, the Guinness book of records plaque for the deepest mine in the world at Mponeng mine near Carletonville where the contact reef will be mined at 3 777 metres. In October, the board of Anglo Gold Ashanti is likely to approve the mining of the Carbon Leader reef at below 4 000 metres. This could be the breakthrough needed to reclaim the status of the world’s largest gold producer which was lost to, of all countries, China. Ergo is to be resuscitated and under the instigation of an Australian company. Mintails will re-treat the remaining gold slimes dams for gold, uranium and pyrites. New platinum mines are opening to the extent that water will have to be pumped uphill from the Olifants River into dams to provide these mines with water combined with a pump-storage system of 1 500 MW. Escom is launching the biggest power station and coal contract ever to be awarded in the history of this country.

All of these will need engineers, technicians and a large number of other semi-skilled workers. We will be submerged in the biggest training and mentoring exercise ever contemplated. In terms of the papers in this issue, which were selected from the International Symposium on Rock Mechanics and Ground Support, the big news was an announcement by the largest mining company in the world, BHPBilliton, that it is proceeding with the creation, in South Africa, of the largest opencast coal-mining operation ever undertaken by the company. This will be done by amalgamating the Douglas and Middelburg collieries into one vast open-pit mine. It will work with Anglo American to upgrade the Klipspruit treatment plant to handle the increased tonnage. The highlight of this issue is the paper by P.P.N. Pells, an acknowledged expert in rock mechanics. The title of his paper is: ‘What happened to the mechanics in rock mechanics and the geology in engineering geology?’

He deals predominantly with rock bolts, which are as important to rock mechanics as screws and glue are to carpentry. I was so intrigued with this contribution that I not only read it completely and avidly (even though I am no expert in rock mechanics, and the mathematics was more than a little above me). His approach is such that I selected the quotation from the end of his paper as the theme for my Journal Comment. His paper is a critical evaluation of many of the techniques used in rock mechanics. It makes fascinating reading in that it demonstrates beautifully what is needed to advance such technology. Such a detailed analytical approach is sadly lacking in so many of the scientific presentations at the prolific conferences with their Powerpoint slides, bar charts and pie diagrams.

It is ideal meat for mentors at many levels. The Institute is one of very few who later produce written publications for more detailed scrutiny. Pells’s contribution is a classic example of the benefit of this practice, and I recommend that members take time at least to scan through it. I imagine that it will be particularly valuable for our mentors guiding trainees in this area of technology. I believe it is an important function of our professional institutes to publish such detailed scientific analyses from their colloquia and conferences when it clearly advances the training and advanced education function, which is now an important component of their activities.

Maybe the ‘meat for mentors’ can give an additional impetus to the Journal and even the conference, colloquium and symposium programmers. If in addition to the postgraduate contributions, the Institute can establish a regular practice of publishing papers of the quality of Pells’s contribution at a technical level, it might well extend the influence of the Institute to the lower levels of technical mentorship and attract more associate members into the fold of the Institute’s activities. I believe that such an extension of the Journal’s function of technology transfer into a wider range of mentorship levels need not diminish, but enhance its prestige At the other end of the spectrum there is much scope for a similar approach at a much higher level.

All the examples I have quoted involving dramatic new advances and projects with a profound impact on society, demand the most critical update of forefront advances. I see a similar role for the Institute and its Journal for publishing authoritative critiques derived from top level conferences, even those promoted by other associated institutes and particularly those with an impact on mining and metallurgy But this is a profound concept, which requires much more debate at a top level. In the meanwhile, if we could keep the ‘meat for mentors’ concept actively in mind and even approach our sister institutes and associations, I believe we can make a worthwhile contribution to the almost impossible training requirements we are facing.  R.E. Robinson June 2008