SA loses edge in mining research

Lighting the way: Historically, South Africa has been a world leader in mining ­technologies and innovation. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Lighting the way: Historically, South Africa has been a world leader in mining ­technologies and innovation. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Research into mining technologies is necessary to make practices safer, cleaner and more economical, but funding has been dwindling and ­mining has been left off the government research agenda, according to experts.

Statistics SA figures show that in 2011 mining and quarrying contributed R260.3-billion to the country's gross domestic product, nearly 10%, and employs thousands of people.

Historically, South Africa was a world leader in mining technologies, mainly because of its isolation during apartheid when it had to develop its own technology to access mineral resources. It also had to overcome location-specific challenges, such as the depth of deposits and the hardness of the rock surrounding the gold.

Mining-related technology is an area in which South Africa has a number of valuable patents. Patents are considered one of the markers of a competitive economy.

In an article published in Resources Policy last year, University of Cape Town (UCT) economics professor David Kaplan wrote: "South Africa has a very significant global comparative advantage in mining-related technology and innovation."

But South Africa has lost its lead, according to Professor Jean-Paul Franzidis, chair in mineral beneficiation and director of the Minerals to Metals initiative at UCT.
"We need to get back there."

"Getting people to talk"
Franzidis, the deputy director at UCT's Centre for Minerals Research as well as a research chair, says his role is "getting people to talk to each other" because researchers work in silos and are separated from industry, where the solutions are needed.

Experts involved in mining research and research policy have noted with concern that mining is not included in the department of science and technology's 10-year innovation plan.

However, last year Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom acknowledged that mining research had been neglected: "We have not infused the mineral sector with the innovative support it needs to achieve its full potential."

Hanekom's department has been working on initiatives to promote mining research, but academics say that industry has picked up the baton.

"Research into minerals processing — from the time the rock is blasted to the refined product — is driven by industry," said Cyril O'Connor, who chairs the South African Minerals to Metals Research Institute (Sammri) and is a professor emeritus at UCT. Sammri was established in 2009 by Anglo American, Lonmin, Impala, AngloGold Ashanti and Exxaro.

"Industry pays the money, decides what projects are done, and monitors the projects," said O'Connor.

However, he noted that the department of science and technology "has come to the party".

"Elephant in the room"
The department has given Sammri a four-year grant to train students and facilitate mining-related projects. The "elephant in the room" is the department of mineral resources, he said. "They do not understand or appreciate the research", but focus on "mining rights and policies".

When asked whether research and development into mining-related research technologies would make mining more environmentally sustainable and safe, Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman, head of the mining department at the University of Pretoria, said: "One hundred and fifty percent." He cited research chairs established by Sasol and Harmony to investigate miner health and safety issues.

Sasol has established a R4.2-million research chair, focusing on noise-induced hearing loss and silicosis. Silicosis is an incurable disease caused by the inhalation of silica particles in underground gold mines.

It is painful and makes a person more susceptible to tuberculosis, which can be fatal. Ten former Anglo employees are currently trying to claim compensation from their employer. The matter is in arbitration.

"You can see that industry has realised that unless they contribute funding there won't be research," Webber-Youngman said.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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