“The imperatives that drive innovation are water, energy, sustainability, safety, efficiency and lowering costs. In South Africa, a particular driver is deep level mining as the country has a significant amount of deep level reserves.”
Can you give an overview of Mintek and highlight any recently achieved milestones?
Mintek was founded in 1934 as a national institute for metallurgical research with the aim to support and grow the South African minerals industry. The company started off on the back of uranium and essentially grew to encompass the entire span of minerals in the mining industry. The company is not involved in mining itself, but becomes involved once the materials have been mined and the processing of ores and the production of metal products occurs. We have a limited involvement in downstream beneficiation through our Advanced Materials Division.
Over the years, some very important developments have come from Mintek, such as carbon-in-pulp for the gold mining segment and the ConRoast process for treating high chrome PGM ores. Mintek is also probably the leading expert in DC arc smelting and has large-scale infrastructure such as a 3-MW DC arc furnace on site to support this expertise. We are also at the forefront of rare earth processing and separation and have developed technology to treat rare earths from the ore right through to separated and purified metals. The company has a large body of expertise, an 80-year history of knowledge captured in our records and all the disciplines that are required within the minerals industry, including analytical science, mineralogy, mineral processing, pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy. One of our strengths is the scale of test work that we can undertake since we can treat up to 3,000 mt of ROM material.
Can you elaborate on Mintek’s experience in attracting and retaining talent in South Africa?
Mintek has approximately 700 staff members of which roughly 220 are scientists and engineers. It can be very difficult to attract talent, but we have cooperation agreements with universities and institutions abroad to fill in where South Africa lacks the required expertise. Looking at the younger generations today, it is very difficult to retain an employee for more than five years.
What helps us in South Africa is that almost all the large mining companies have closed their mining research units. If someone wants to do metallurgical research, Mintek is about the only place where they can do it. The challenge is that although we have a means to attract talent to our company, the pool of talent is getting smaller. We have established a Mintek academy to offer metallurgical training courses in hopes of retaining employees and increasing the size of the talent pool in the industry.
What is your perception about innovation and technology available in South Africa?
The mining industry in South Africa and globally is a bit of a dinosaur. Mintek is certainly focused on innovation, but it is sometimes hard to introduce innovation into the mining industry due to the industry’s resistance to change. For example, we have developed a resin-in-pulp process for treating very low-grade uranium. We tested and demonstrated this process, and although it was very successful, the uranium prices are at such stage that this innovation just sits on the shelf.
I do not believe that South Africa lags behind in innovation, and the country has introduced innovations such as electronic ore sorting, resin-in-pulp processes and carbon-in-pulp processes. Mintek develops technologies that are used not only in South Africa, but in many mining countries around the world. I believe that South Africa has technology and innovation to offer, but we are fighting a battle in terms of the acceptance of new technologies in the mining industry.
I have done a study of the drivers of innovation in the mining industry and looked at South Africa, Canada, Chile and Australia. The imperatives that drive innovation are water, energy, sustainability, safety, efficiency and lowering costs. In South Africa, a particular driver is deep level mining as the country has a significant amount of deep level reserves.
Can you give insights into Mintek’s partnerships?
Mintek has partnered with Difeme Holdings Group (DHG) to contribute to the development of appropriate process technologies by providing technical services with the objective of advancing sustainable mining and minerals beneficiation in South Africa. This initiative is part of Mintek’s beneficiation strategy, as DHG is a black owned mining start-up company with a focus to mine and beneficiate Quartz (SiO2) to a purity standard of higher than 99.99%, which is very rare in the world.
We have also partnered with Unisa to launch a state-of-the art 3D imaging facility. 3D X-ray imaging of advanced materials, rocks and minerals allows us to see what is inside without physically breaking down the sample. The machine, which is similar to the CT scan for imaging the human body, can be used on different materials. For Mintek, the machine additionally visualizes rocks and their processed products in 3D, to relate mineral characteristics directly to their behavior during different stages of beneficiation.