Monday, 6 June 2011

What is modern society's most important technological development?

Mark Fraser
Mark Fraser, editor of Australia's Gold & Minerals Gazette, asked me, at last month's ALTA conference. what I thought was the most important recent development in mineral processing.  I gave him my views, but thought I might extend the question to what is the most important technological development since the industrial revolution?

I have put this question to many people, scientists and non-scientists, and the answers are in general as expected- splitting the atom, electricity, genetics, computers etc.

But modern society, in common with all societies since ancient times, is dependent for its survival on metals, particularly iron, and the base metals, copper, nickel, zinc etc. These metals feed all other industries, which could not survive without a plentiful, relatively cheap supply.

The ores of the base metals are low grade and often complex, and without a reliable and efficient method of concentration, production of the metals would be enormously expensive and maybe prohibitive.

That is why my nomination for the most important technological development goes to froth flotation. Patented in 1906 by Elmore, it really took off in the 1920s with the discovery that xanthates could make the process highly selective to sulphides. Since then, with the development of even more selective reagents, inclding activators and depressants, it has become ubiquitous, being used not only to treat base metal ores, but also precious metals, industrial minerals and coal, all essentials to modern society.

The most important discovery prior to flotation? Maybe smelting, but that's another story.

3 comments:

  1. Modern society's most important technological development is the off-button.

    I was tempted at first to respond seriously, and then decided, I just had.

    In today's world of always on, always connected, 24/7, globally, with the parasite energy required to keep everything, and increasingly everyone, on stand-by, it might be the cultural development of what we do with new technology - rather than the technology per se - that is more important?

    David Barr
    Melbourne

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  2. The centrifugal slurry pump, invented by Charles Warman. Without it, there would be much less of everything.
    Adam Johnston
    Transmin, Peru

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  3. Thanks Adam, the Warman pump is one of the unsung heroes of processing plants, and is probably the most ubiquitous device.

    Ironically next week I will be taking the Physical Separation ’11 delegates on a tour of the old mines in the historic Camborne-Redruth area of Cornwall. This involves a 1-mile walk from one of the mines, which is on fairly flat ground, to the dressing floors, which are set on a hillside. In the 19th century, before centrifugal pumps, this was the only way to transport material from the stamps through to final concentrate.

    But metals are needed to manufacture centrifugal pumps, and electricity is needed to power them. Electricity needs metals for generation and transmission. So my vote is still with froth flotation.

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