New high-tech lab puts DRC on the map

The Democratic Republic of Congo, not exactly a country synonymous with state-of-the-art scientific facilities, is about to get a new multimillion-rand laboratory, which, when completed, will be the envy of the mining world.

Commissioned by the Central African Mining and Exploration Company (Camec) at its Luita copper/cobalt plant in the DRC, the high-tech laboratory will be the most sophisticated of its kind in the country, with 40 staff members analysing mining samples on a 24-hour basis.

The lab will be designed and set up by husband-and-wife analytical chemists, Terry and Vivian Ashworth, on a turnkey basis and the pair will work closely with Camec to recruit the team that will run the laboratory, with the aim of employing as many Congolese citizens as possible. Training, skills development and career advancement will be key to these new positions.

The Ashworths have extensive experience in mining-related analytical chemistry, having worked in the laboratories of major mining houses such as Mintek, MPRL (now Anglo American Research Laboratories), a Platinum Group Metal refinery and South Africa’s Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research.

The Luita laboratory will be divided into three sections. It will provide all the analytical requirements for the adjacent plant, from exploration and mining to samples from the various processing units, including the ultimate products — cobalt and copper cathodes. Terry Ashworth says it will be equipped to provide the high level of sampling, analysis and quick turnaround time required by the Luita plant.

“For instance, there will be 113 sampling points during the imminent commissioning of the plant’s solvent extraction process alone, while certain impure metals from the electrowinning process need to be measured down to 200 parts a billion,” says Ashworth.

“The laboratory’s first section, responsible for bulk sample preparation, will have five bays where incoming samples can be reduced in size and mass and blended to ensure a good representative sample for the subsequent analysis. The different bays are designed to receive specific sample types, thus eliminating contamination risks and allowing optimum sample flow,” he says.

“Section two will involve specialised sample preparation for the analysis of solid samples by XRF [x-ray fluorescence]. The third section will see the solid samples being processed into solutions for testing by a range of instrumentation including auto titrators.”

Ashworth says a spark source ­spectrometer to analyse the cathodes will ensure conformity to the standards of the London Metal Exchange (LME) for copper so that, over time, the facility can achieve LME-branded status.

“We’ve been sourcing a range of top-class laboratory equipment from suppliers who can guarantee backup and maintenance once their equipment is commissioned in this remote area of the Katanga province,” says Ashworth.

“Once purchased, this equipment will be sent by air to sites as close as possible to Luita and will be packed on air cushions for the road journey.”

Eventually the laboratory’s sample throughput will reach about 1 000 a day with several hundred samples requiring a 24-hour or less turnaround time. There are plans to link all instrumentation to a laboratory information management system (Lims), eliminating manual transcription errors and providing users with online information on their sample progress and results.

The Lims will be configured to conform to international quality standards and the aim is to achieve certification of the management system and accreditation of the analytical methods.

When completed at the end of this year, the facility will have the capacity to produce 100 000 tonnes annually of copper cathode and 12 000 tonnes annually of cobalt cathode, making it one of the biggest producers of cobalt concentrate in the world.

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Sumayya Ismail
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