Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

SOUTH Africa used to be a world leader in mining technology, but not any more, according to Jean-Paul Franzidis, chair in mineral beneficiation and director of the Minerals to Metals Initiative at the University of Cape Town (UCT). "We need to get back there," says Prof Franzidis.

A number of academics and researchers in the field of mining and metallurgy point out that mining is not included in the Department of Science and Technology’s focus areas and that the word "mining" is not mentioned in its 10-year innovation plan.

This is despite the fact that it is an area in which South Africa has a number of high-value patents.

Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom earlier this year highlighted that research and development in the mining sector had largely been ignored, despite the fact that it is one of the country’s natural competitive advantages and the bread and butter of the South African economy. "The mining sector has been the mainstay of South Africa’s economy, and we have been taking it for granted and shifting away from it," he said.

"Yes, we need to diversify, but also need to stick to our strengths. We have not infused the mineral sector with the innovative support it needs to achieve its full potential."

The Centre for Mining Research at UCT focuses on "the processes of comminution (crushing the rock), classification and flotation (a way to separate the mineral from the ore), arguably the most important unit operations in mineral beneficiation", according to its website. "In excess of 2,000-million tons of over 100 different mineral species are recovered annually through the process of flotation, which is usually preceded by comminution and classification.

"Inefficiencies in these processes translate into both an enormous loss of revenue and an unnecessary waste of the world’s valuable and steadily declining mineral reserves," it says.

Prof Franzidis, who is the deputy director of the centre, says his research chair is "getting people to talk to each other and work together", a phrase that he repeats throughout the interview in his office in UCT’s chemical engineering building.

"In the past, there were major groupings (at UCT) doing work for (the) mining (industry) who didn’t speak to each other."

Minerals to metals encompasses the entire mining chain, he says, noting that it is not just about extracting the minerals, but there are also energy and water-use and emissions concerns to take into consideration. "The research is deliberately multidisciplinary," he says.

"Every student has to be supervised by at least two of the groups, to get people talking to each other."

With about 30-40 postgraduate students, this means that there is a lot of supervising to be done in the Centre for Mining Research. He mentions a PhD candidate, investigating the dissolution of copper, who has three supervisors, specialists in crushing and leaching (removing minerals from a solid by dissolving them in a liquid) and minerallurgy (extracting, refining and alloying the metal).

In order to address South Africa’s dwindling mining skills, industry, with the backing of the government, he established the South African Minerals to Metals Research Institute (Sammri). "It is a South Africa-wide initiative, driven by industry," Prof Franzidis says.

In its proposal to the Department of Science and Technology in 2009, Sammri states that the major threat to South Africa’s mining industry is "largely related to the shortage of highly skilled people in the industry and in the tertiary institutions at which such people are trained".

Sammri — founded by Anglo American, Lonmin, Impala, AngloGold Ashanti and Exxaro — gives money to universities to develop projects and train students. "The government has also come to the party," Prof Franzidis says, adding that it funds a number of bursaries for projects.

Sammri projects for 2013-14, listed on the website, include determining the water footprint of mines, to be undertaken at Wits University, and improving the recovery of platinum group metals using floatation.

However, while there is a strong industry problem-solving focus within the Centre for Minerals Research, "there is a lot of fundamental work happening" as well, Prof Franzidis says. For example, if the ore is crushed finely, the particles become very small, he says. This then becomes a matter of viscosity — in other words, the crushed rock starts behaving like a liquid.

The centre is not operating in a vacuum — it has strong ties with local and international academic and research institutions, such as Columbia University in the US, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Mintek, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, as well as other South African universities.

"Collaboration is the way to do things. We have worked with so many universities around the world, and we can do so much more," Prof Franzidis says.