‘ The lecturer should give the audience full reason be believe that all his powers have been exerter for their pleasure and instruction’ Michael Faraday 1781–1867

For once I am not taking my theme from the papers in this issue. This is not because they are unimportant. Safety, rock bursts and rock mechanics are as important as one can get in the mining business. The reason is that I attended the monthly meeting of the Johannesburg Branch, which was a panel discussion on the topic of coal, energy supplies and electric power generation. Clearly, I was not the only one who rated these topics as worthwhile discussing and probably the hottest topics so far this year since load shedding started in January. The speakers from Eskom and from power consumers were excellent on the economic situation in SA. After short highlight presentations, they were joined by a panel of prominent authorities to field the discussion points raised by a sea of hands in the audience.

Those who read my recent Journal Comments on coal and low-cost power being the lifeblood of our mineral industry can well imagine that I had a host of questions and discussion points. I didn’t get the chance to speak. The competition was too hectic and time ran out on me. But I was there long enough to come away with the impression that such an occasion was informative, important in dispelling many misconceptions, and convincing that the best was being made of a crisis situation. It was highly interesting and entertaining so much so that it could well be repeated on other controversial topics. The content of the answers should be reported more widely. It was somewhat reminiscent of my early first contacts with the Institute where the regular monthly meetings were formal in the form of the presentation of papers that were to appear as transactions in the Journal accompanied in due course by the proceedings of the meeting.

The office bearers wore black ties, clearly emulating the prestige of the Royal Society or the Faraday Society. The formalities of such meetings are now outdated but the presentations and contributions were serious, erudite and prestigious. These latter aspects are, I believe, worth preserving in the face of the explosion in information technology and mass production of stereotyped conferences, which seemingly have made the presentation of research papers and discussion redundant. But there is much merit in creating opportunities for open and critical interaction with professional colleagues. Indeed one of the speakers at the meeting emphasized the desperate need for more ‘strategic’ discussion between authorities and the professional members of the industries involved ‘at the coal face’.

I came away with the feeling that I had heard some very worthwhile questions, and the answers gave me a measure of confidence that the electricity crunch was serious but being handled by competent, albeit horribly understaffed, personnel. My mind was buzzing with a host of strategic topics, particularly (but not only) in the research and development activities that could be most usefully handled by similar presentations for our members and other concerned professionals, and for that matter, the public. The Minister of Science and Technology has proudly announced that we are close to reaching the first world target of 1% of GDP in research expenditure. This is great news.

The amount is thus of the order of R20 billion, and is claimed to be the season ticket into the league of the first world scientific countries. It is, I imagine, mainly taxpayers’ money, but I have tried in vain to get any definition of the portfolio of the major areas and projects encompassed. Does this include both research and development and does it include the annual proportion of R19 billion allocated to the pebble bed reactor and other Eskom financed projects on solar and wind power projects? Does it include a contribution to research on carbon capture and storage? How much is devoted to mining and metallurgy and how much allocated to the expenditure of the Industrial Development Corporation on its host of industrial orientated development projects? What wonderful topics for meetings, possibly best referred to as ‘professional summits’, if top government aristocracy are involved.

One hopes there is some policy on the distribution of funds to a balanced portfolio of projects and a mechanism to charter progress with appropriate abort criteria. The total will certainly include the allocation to the Innovation Fund, and detailed analysis of more than 10 years operation (ca 1000 projects), should give at least a preliminary statistical value for the success probability and an indication of the wisdom of selection. Some reportback information on the big news innovative breakthrough projects, for example, the Zebra and Vanadium batteries, which were claimed to be the answer to the storage of electric power in off-peak periods, or on the local electric automobile, a prototype of which is due to appear shortly. Battery research for such an automobile is the hottest topic in the world’s automotive industry.

What is the progress of the new solar cells developed by Professor Alberts? All off these were successful in the sense of their being taken up by major industrial concerns for economic exploitation. SA has the raw materials to supply competitively. Right now the new Energy Bill, which proposes another statutory body, ‘The Institute for Energy’, is available for discussion, and the formal debate is currently being pushed through parliament. The implications are profound and long-term. Is there enough uranium to foster a worldwide nuclear industry? An international authority, speaking recently at a conference in SA, estimates enough for only 40 years if nuclear power takes off as the salvation of many nations, unless breeder reactors become competitive, in which case plutonium is recovered universally, which would be political atomic dynamite!

I am scratching only the surface of important topics of vital interest to the professional public of South Africa and particularly those in the minerals industries. Would this collegiate be interested in being informed in greater depth and even participating in discussions? Would the SAIMM see this as part of its mission to satisfy this demand if it exists? I see no problem in the mechanics of doing so in this modern age of the Internet, podcasts and digital transfer of voice and visual material. Innovative planning will be necessary but we are well placed to do so with our branch structure covering Southern Africa, plus our monthly publication and website and, above all, the ability to summon expertise in mining and metallurgy. What is there in it for the Institute? I can only speculate that we could establish the Institute as the most prestigious and meritorious organization for the publication of research and development transactions and thus as a vehicle for transfer of technology.

This will be promoted because the researchers and entrepreneurs will realize that their contribution will be not only recognized but also endorsed by way of discussion and debate. This could be advantageous in comparison with being lost in a mega-multitude of Google’s citations via international publications. The prestige of the Institute in having a mechanism and database for detailed examination and informed opinions could enhance its members’ invitation to strategic consulting forums. It could also create great ‘pleasure and instruction’ for our audiences.  R.E. Robinson July 2008