‘It is an ill wind that turns none to good’ Thomas Tusser 1524–1580

In this issue is one of the rare papers that I rate as compulsory reading for those interested in technical training and its strategic role in economic development. Although written with reference to mining, there is much of general importance in a much wider context. I refer to the paper, ‘Technical Skills: a major strategic issue’, by Stacey, Hadjigeorgiou, and Potvin. It deals with the training of technically qualified personnel at graduate and postgraduate level for mining industries in South Africa, Canada and Australia respectively. It is a classic example of a ‘bitter sweet’ article with an intriguing mixture of good and bad news.

The good news is that the statistics assembled by three authors who are intimately involved in the training activity reveal an increasing recruitment of professional mining engineers into what was an exciting international industry, operating at high profitability levels, with an insatiable demand for technical skilled personnel. In the case of South Africa, the excellent news is that there is a total of 570 students at the two faculties of mining engineering at Wits and Pretoria and these numbers do not include those mining courses at the various technikons associated with the technical universities. Many of these students are from the underprivileged communities.

Clearly something is working in the OBE school curriculum to provide these numbers of students in one of the engineering faculties with science and mathematics at a level that permits them to embark on an advanced technical career. Even more exciting are the figures for postgraduate enrolment, 353 at these two universities; and after their MSc and PhD degrees they should be able to contribute to the desperately needed mining research activity in South Africa. The beginning of the bad news is that there is no longer a formal institution in South Africa designated to conduct mining research. The history given in the paper represents a disastrous sequence of decisions by industry and the CSIR. As a result, many top-level researchers have left the country. Australian and Canadian institutions welcomed this expertise with open arms.

These two countries are now well in advance of South Africa in innovative research. The news gets somewhat worse when I learn that most of the postgraduate students are sponsored by private industry to obtain postgraduate diplomas, not for research to advance the national frontiers of mining knowledge, but as a much desired passport to overseas or regulatory jobs with firms supplying goods and services to the mining industry in terms of the Mining Charter. Quite apart from the research aspect, Stacey explains succinctly the role of a mining graduate in promoting the evolution of new projects and ventures into expanding mining activity as a major contributor to GDP with much needed job creation.

The bad news hits the bottom of the barrel with the advent of the global economic meltdown in which the prices of the commodities largely derived from mining have been devastated. Who would have believed that the price of platinum would drop from over $2000/oz to a low of under $800 in just over a year? Retrenchment is in the air, several mine closures have been announced, and the general pattern will be maintained to follow the Harvard Business School dictum to keep the cash generating staff and retrench the cash consumers. This means research and new capital intensive projects will be put on hold. Or abandoned.

A similar impact applies to Canada and Australia. In South Africa, a recent SABC news broadcast reported predictions of retrenchments of 120 000 early next year, a devastating figure for the 600 000 new job seekers entering the employment market. Even more worrying, hosts of national R&D multifaceted programmes of critical importance are in jeopardy. An example is the problem of acid mine drainage from coal and gold mines and the leakage of toxicity from old mine dumps which, with other forms of pollution, could lead to a shortage of unpolluted water in the very near future, let alone a devastating impact on the environment and wild life. A multifaceted multibillion assignment that can be tackled only on a national basis demanding multiple options and critical engineering planning with every mining, civil, chemical and biochemical expert we can muster.

A successful outcome can in itself create many hundreds of thousands of jobs. Australia has an equally strategic problem. Any chance of a collaborative crusade to amalgamate our limited engineering manpower? Another national research topic with immense implications for coal mining, Escom and our strategic power consumers and the transport industry is the collection and disposal of carbon dioxide. According to Martin Creamer on his appropriately named ‘At the Coal Face’ radio programme, Sasol has now formally indicated that for every ton of liquid fuel made from coal, over three tons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide will have to be discharged into the atmosphere, unless some form of carbon fixing can be devised—with eternal sustainability. This explains why South Africa has the reputation of being by far the worst greenhouse gas emitter in the world in proportion to our total energy consumption.

The Government has committed itself not to hide behind the developing nation status in the forthcoming negotiations, which have already started to allocate punitive levies for the emission of greenhouse gases. Carbon sequestration research is thus highly strategic. It is by no means unique to South Africa and I wonder if this is not another opportunity to suggest an international effort with, say, Australia and Canada. To end on a more jocular note for the Xmas period, one of the solutions proposed by Sasol for fixing carbon is to plant huge forests of ‘Spek Bome’, a fast growing tree which, like all plant material, absorbs carbon dioxide and water to form a variety of carbohydrates and give off oxygen. I am not sure how permanent this solution is because like all plants the trees will not live forever and they will sometime die and decay to take up oxygen to reform carbon dioxide or maybe methane.

This tree is well known in the Eastern Cape as being a favourite food of elephants and this is the basis of the build-up of a huge herd of elephants from Addo to the Fish River. If Sasol can plant the trees as fast as the elephants can eat them, we might have a sustainable solution. In such digestion processes inside the
elephant, the carbohydrates react anaerobically to form methane with a very evil wind emission from the rear exhaust of the elephant. Methane, if allowed to escape into the atmosphere, is twenty times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Little collection bags or catalyst exhaust cartridges are not feasible. The next best approach is to assiduously collect the elephant dung and transport it to Coega where it can be anaerobically digested to give methane to co-generate electric power. So, in this case, an ill wind can turn a gas turbine to good effect! Happy Christmas.  R.E. Robinson December 2008