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Mintek celebrates nine decades of transforming the minerals industry

Mintek CEO Dr Molefi Motuku

1st February 2024

     

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South Africa's national mineral processing and metallurgical research council Mintek celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2024, offering a well-timed opportunity to reflect on how deeply Mintek is rooted in the minerals industry and the remarkable successes that have defined its journey.

For nearly nine decades, Mintek has been at the forefront of innovation in the minerals sector. It has pioneered in developing cutting-edge technologies and solutions that have not only transformed the industry but have also played a vital role in the economic development of South Africa.

One of the notable successes that underscores its legacy is its contribution to mineral processing that has led to the development of innovative processes and methodologies that have significantly improved the efficiency of extracting valuable minerals. 

“Our research and development in this area has not only boosted the productivity of mines but has also had a positive environmental impact by reducing waste and energy consumption,” says Mintek CEO Dr Molefi Motuku

Mintek’s commitment to excellence and quality has enabled it to export its products to over 60 countries worldwide. This international recognition is a testament to the council’s dedication to producing world-class solutions and its ability to compete on a global scale.

Global Competitiveness 

South Africa's rise to the top of the global platinum group metals (PGMs) reserves was not a given until Mintek intervened in the early 1970s. The majority of PGMs were trapped in the challenging Upper Group Two (UG2) reef, characterised by a high chromite content, making it economically unviable to process. 

“Mintek, in collaboration with industry leaders, engineered a two-fold solution. First, we developed a flotation procedure to reduce the amount of chromite in the concentrate, and second, a novel smelting technique using higher current densities and temperatures to process still-high chromium content effectively,” notes Motuku.

This breakthrough effectively more than doubled the country’s PGM ore reserves, propelling South Africa to the coveted position of the world's leading PGMs producer. 

“Mintek's DC arc furnace technology became a cornerstone, not just for PGMs but also for ferrochrome and ferronickel production, ilmenite smelting and cobalt recovery from slag. The widespread adoption of this technology, with its remarkable success in diverse commodities, underscores Mintek's prowess in driving transformative change,” he says.

Meanwhile, Mintek’s ConRoast process, developed by Mintek in collaboration with industry partners, addressed the environmental challenge of sulphur emissions as well as the ability to treat PGMs-containing materials with very high chromium contents. By assisting junior miners in their smelting operations, Mintek's ConRoast process has not only been commercialised successfully, but has also brought economic relief to smaller players in the industry. This initiative exemplifies Mintek's commitment to inclusivity and sustainability, ensuring that advancements benefit all stakeholders in the minerals sector.

Further, Mintek's Furnstar, a pioneering control system for submerged arc furnaces, exemplifies the institution's prowess in electrical control. 

“With patented models and control systems, Mintek's Furnstar achieves up to 5% energy efficiency improvements and over 10% production enhancements in submerged arc furnaces,” he notes.

Mintek's control technologies, exemplified by Furnstar, have become indispensable in the energy-intensive realm of smelting operations. Mintek executive manager for measurement and control Dr Loutjie Coetzee emphasises that these technologies can make the crucial difference between a financially viable and non-viable operation. In a landscape where electricity is costly and unreliable, the significance of control systems becomes even more pronounced.

“Mintek's technologies have found universal adoption in smelters globally, delivering economic benefits and ensuring operational viability,” he states.

The economic ramifications of such production improvements are staggering, translating into increased profitability for mining operations. Notably, the efficiency gains in smelting can be pivotal for mines facing challenges like electricity shortages or soaring costs.

Golden Touch

Amidst declining gold ore deposits in the 1980s, Mintek played a pivotal role in revitalising the gold industry through the development of carbon-in-pulp (CIP) technology which led to the global application of CIP for gold recovery. Collaborating closely with industry partners, Mintek introduced a game-changing approach to gold processing. This innovation not only increased global gold production but also became the gold standard in the industry.

Mintek's unique CIP approach, along with variations like resin-in-pulp, strategically manages carbon in the process, ensuring optimal efficiency. Mintek's approach does not stop at process innovation; it extends to comprehensive support for the gold industry. The development of MinfurnTM, a highly energy-efficient furnace for regenerating activated carbon, has been a critical element in supporting the gold processing industry.

Mintek's commitment to efficiency extends beyond process innovations to encompass cutting-edge measurement and control technologies. In the realm of gold processing, Mintek's Cynoprobe instruments and Carbon- (C2-) meters have set new standards. For instance, the Cynoprobe instrument, introduced in the 1990s, accurately measures cyanide concentration within leaching tanks, optimising the gold liberation process. 

The C2-meters together with the LeachStar Carbon Movement Controller, designed for the CIP process, not only measure carbon concentration but also ensure efficient movement, minimising gold losses” explains Coetzee.

Mintek's holistic approach to innovation, combining process breakthroughs with advanced measurement and control technologies, has positioned it as a global leader in the minerals industry. 

Mintek@90 Conference

Meanwhile, as Mintek reflects on its remarkable journey and heritage, Motuku is pleased to announce a milestone that will not only define the council’s future but will also mark a profound celebration of its past.  

“In 2024, we will proudly commemorate Mintek's 90th anniversary at an event we fondly refer to as Mintek@90,” he says.

This occasion will serve as a testament to the council’s commitment to advancing the frontiers of mineral science and technology. It will pay tribute to the countless individuals who have contributed their talent, passion and expertise to make Mintek the globally respected institution it is today.

The centrepiece of Mintek@90 will be an industry-leading conference that will bring together thought leaders, experts and innovators from around the world. The conference will serve as a dynamic platform for the exchange of ideas, the exploration of cutting-edge advancements, and the formulation of strategies that will shape the future of the minerals industry.

Mintek head of communications Mandla Ndlovu underscores the importance of collaboration, echoing Mintek's historical success with industry partnerships. The 90th anniversary provides an opportune moment to reignite collaboration between Mintek, industry players, academia, research councils and business. 

“The conference will delve into critical areas, addressing the challenges and opportunities that define the minerals industry's trajectory. Themes include the role of energy, the significance of critical minerals, exploration of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, innovative approaches to unlocking resources from lower-grade ore bodies, advancements in materials science, and a comprehensive exploration of environmental, social and human capital aspects of mining,” concludes Ndlovu.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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