Monday, 28 December 2020

2020 with MEI

Well it's almost over at last!  Not the pandemic unfortunately, but 2020, a year which none of us is ever likely to forget, a roller-coaster ride, mostly depressing but at times inspiring.

My annual round-up of events is usually crammed full of people and places, but not this year of course. 2019 seems a lifetime ago and who would have thought that the photo below, taken on 14th November at Flotation '19 at the Vineyard Hotel in Cape Town would be the last MEI Conference photo for a considerable length of time.


The year started normally enough, beginning with rumours of a suspected new virus originating in Wuhan, China, but life went on as usual, and in early February Barbara and I travelled to Cape Town for the African Mining Indaba and were surprised that all arrivals at Cape Town International Airport were being temperature tested.

Mining Indaba is held every year at the Cape Town Convention Centre, and I have attended every few years. MEI was a media partner and although investment conferences are not high on our agenda the event often springs a few surprises due to the sheer weight of numbers, around 7000 this year, and my aim was to forge new contacts and hopefully catch up with a few friends from around the world, some of them occasionally from the distant past.

Relaxing with old friends at the Cape Town Waterfront during Indaba 2020

Indaba was not the only major event taking place in Cape Town during the week. On the other side of the mountain, at Newlands, South Africa met England in a one-day cricket international, so Barbara and I took the day off to see England thrashed by the home side. Little did we know that this would be one of the last major sporting events to play to huge crowds, nor did we have an inkling that when we strolled the 10 minute walk from the stadium to the Vineyard Hotel we would not be returning to our conference venue as planned in April and October, and again in April of next year.

A huge crowd at Newlands
The year's last drink in the bar at the Vineyard Hotel

Returning home, we did not suspect that the February mining sundowner at Falmouth's Chain Locker would be our last at a pub in 2020, and a week later I was in USA for the Annual SME Meeting in Phoenix, a huge event as always with a great deal of that now ancient ritual of hand-shaking.

With Dan Fitts and Carly Leonida at the Mining Media International booth,
the last MEI photo at a 2020 conference

Only a week after returning from Phoenix the world started to collapse around us, with conferences around the world being postponed, cancelled, or going online. March was indeed the month that change the world.

April was the first month where worldwide lockdown was imposed and towns and cities became ghost-towns. Walking through a deserted Falmouth on our government-sanctioned exercise was an eerie experience, and almost deserted beaches an unprecedented sight.

Falmouth's Swanpool beach
Falmouth town

Face masks became a familiar sight, and who would have thought a few months before that we would have to don a mask before entering a bank!

Shopping, 2020 style
At home, social distancing with Amanda and family

At the beginning of May Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK was “past the peak” of the coronavirus outbreak and set out his "conditional plan"for a gradual exit from the lockdown. Relaxing the rules regarding distances that could be travelled to beauty spots led to worries that the virus would be brought into remote and attractive areas such as Cornwall and the "normal" beach scenes contributed to a feeling among many that the crisis was over and that social distancing could be relaxed.

Falmouth's Gyllyngvase beach, May

The UK lockdown was eased even further in early June, to try to stimulate the economy, and thanks to glorious weather Cornwall relaxed in the summer heat.

They think it's all over!

After a 5-month gap the Cornish Mining Sundowner burst back to life in July, with a completely different setting. The previous sundowner, in February, was held at Falmouth's Chain Locker pub, and although it was back in business, it was not, unfortunately, for 'mass gatherings' such as ours, so on a balmy summer evening it was good to see old friends once more, this time for a 'bring your own' party on Falmouth's Gyllyngvase beach.

July had seen a further relaxation of lockdown, and it was hard to believe the crowds, freed from previous lockdown restrictions, and desperate for a break, flocking into Falmouth in August, although ominously the overall Covid infection rate in UK was steadily increasing and it was perhaps inevitable that in September the second wave of infections arrived.

Falmouth town centre- the place to avoid in August
A brief escape to neighbouring Devon in September

Although Barbara and I managed a couple of hikes on the Land's End peninsular in October, it was a depressing month in which the virus surged throughout Europe, and strict regional lockdowns were imposed on many parts of the UK.

Walking near Land's End

With the nights getting longer, November was even more depressing with regional lockdowns in England being replaced by a lockdown of the whole country, despite infection rates being very low in Cornwall. The lockdown in England ended on the second day of December, although there were no major easing of restrictions in many parts of the country as a very controversial tiered system was introduced. Cornwall was the only area of mainland England to be in the low-risk Tier 1, while 99% of the country, in Tiers 2 and 3, complained of many injustices, parts of neighbouring Devon, for instance, with very low infection rates, being lumped together with the county's Tier 2 restrictions, with its inherent severe consequences, particularly for hospitality businesses.

But some amazing news on the same day, that the UK was the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, and the massive logistical operation to start the programme of vaccinations began on December 8th. Despite the awfulness of 2020 I hope it will also be remembered as a period of an incredible global expansion of scientific knowledge. Although it seems like a lifetime ago, it is only 11 months since the first Covid-19 case was documented and it would have been inconceivable then to envisage that at the end of the year not just one, but several vaccines would be available. The Christmas miracle is all down to the fantastic efforts of scientists around the world and it is a shame that certain politicians have been seeking political gain from this.

The news in the middle of this month was not so good, however, with a new strain of Coronavirus being detected and a rise in Covid cases leading to many areas, including London, being put into Tier 3. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, warned that we must be more vigilant in following the rules, but the prospect of a Christmas without large-scale celebrations was obviously preying on Boris Johnson's mind, who probably did not want to be seen as the first person to cancel Christmas since Oliver Cromwell in 1646. Even though the evidence was clear that the new strain of virus was rapidly increasing infections, and ignoring the advice of two peer-reviewed medical journals, he decided 9 days before Christmas that he was sticking to his guns and relaxing the rules for Christmas, putting the onus on the public, saying "'tis the season to be jolly careful."

Peter Brookes, The Times, December 17th

Inevitably, three days later, when many had made plans for the festivities, he tightened the rules, effectively banning Christmas altogether in London and SE England, which was put into a new Tier 4, and tightening of restrictions throughout the rest of England allowed families to mix on Christmas Day only.  This allowed very limited 2020 festivities and hopefully our guard has not been let down when help is so close at hand.

But only two days ago, as the mutant strain continues to spread rapidly and travel to over 50 countries from the UK has been banned, the country was effectively put into quarantine. With another highly contagious strain, emanating from South Africa, being identified, restrictions were escalated and now Cornwall finds itself in Tier 2, along with the county of Herefordshire. 

We must now put our faith into the amazing efforts of the scientists and their vaccines and hope for better things to come in 2021.


Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Season's Greetings from MEI

By any standards 2020 has been an awful year, but as it draws to a close we hope that 2021 will lead us back along the road to normality.

This will be a low-key time of year for most, but whether you celebrate Christmas or not we would like to wish you all sincere best wishes for the holiday season and for the New Year to come.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

MEI Young Person's Award 2020: call for nominations

2020 has not been the best of years and it is a shame that we have not been able, as yet, to present Nikhil Dhawan with his 2019 Award.

But as the year thankfully draws to a close, it is time to start thinking of who you might like to nominate for the 2020 Award, for outstanding contribution to minerals engineering by a young person in 2020.

Nominations, for persons under 35 years of age at December 31st 2020, should be submitted by email to by February 12th 2021. Nominations should include the name, age and affiliation of the nominee, and reasons for the nomination. The recipient will receive an engraved award and a complimentary registration to any future MEI Conference, hopefully in 2021,where the presentation will be made.


Thursday, 17 December 2020

600 Mining & Metallurgy researchers in the top 2% of the world's scientists

I have never been a great fan of ranking-lists, such as those comparing University departments around the world. Some are dubious to say the least, and are often biased.

Ranking individuals is usually subjective, but Stanford University in USA has provided a list of the Top 2% of Scientists in the world based on the number of citations of their research papers. This must have been a truly mammoth task, as there are around 160,000 scientists in the top 2%, representing all disciplines of science.

Although there is no human bias, such a list is also open to much scepticism. I have always tried to point out, for instance, that journals can only be judged on their impact factors by comparing like with like. Minerals Engineering, with a current impact factor of 3.795, is the leading journal in minerals processing and extractive metallurgy, but its impact factor cannot compare with a journal such as Nature Nanotechnology, which has an impact factor of 31.538. This is because minerals engineering is a relatively small field, so attracts far fewer citations than does Nature Nanotechnology, which publishes papers from a far great number of scientists, involved in what is one of the world's most intensively researched disciplines.  So it is not surprising that #1 in the list of Top Scientists is in the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Group, and #2 is from the intensively researched and cited area of Epidemiology.

Another reason to be careful of the listing is that you won't see any child prodigies in there, as scientists build up their list of citations over the years, and the vast majority of the top 2% are older scientists whose citation records began last century.

So bearing in mind its limitations, it is impressive that 600 scientists in the field of Mining & Metallurgy are included in the world's elite.

At #1 in Mining & Metallurgy is Dr. Paul Cleary, a very familiar face at MEI and other major conferences around the world. A Chief Research Scientist at Australia's CSIRO Data61, he is a world-renowned expert on particle based modelling for industrial, geophysical and biophysical applications, including simulation of rock and slurry flow in mills. We were very privileged, therefore, to have Paul present a keynote lecture "Recent developments and future of modelling in mineral processing using particle methods" at Computational Modelling '19 in Falmouth last year. And only this week Paul agreed to present a keynote lecture "Progress towards the Virtual Comminution Machine" at MEI's first online conference Comminution '21.

Paul with Barbara and me in Leeds, 2019
Paul with young researchers at Comminution '12 in Cape Town

Prof. Jannie van Deventer is #2 in our field. Jannie was one of the longest serving members of the Minerals Engineering Editorial Board until he retired from the board a few years ago to concentrate on his position as CEO of the Zeobond Group, Australia, specialising in geopolymer concrete.  Prior to that he was a professor at the University of Stellenbosch for over 14 years, before moving to Australia and the University of Melbourne for 25 years, as Professor of Mineral and Process Engineering and then Honorary Professorial Fellow.
He has been a familiar face at international mineral processing conferences, where he often had outspoken and sometimes highly controversial views, no more so than in his presentation at MEI's Precious Metals '12, on 'invisible gold' which is not detected by standard analytical techniques (posting of 12 August 2013). This led to perhaps the most debated paper ever published in Minerals Engineering, with some extremely strong views for and against his arguments.
Jannie van Deventer (2nd right) in Falmouth 2011, with Barbara and me, Mauricio and Ana Torem
and Dean Eastbury of Elsevier

Number 3 in the list is one of the 20th century's great mineral processors, Prof. Doug Fuerstenau of the University of California-Berkeley. Doug turned 92 years of age early this month, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him for MEI in 2015. He is the only person to hold the IMPC's top awards, the Lifetime Achievement and Distinguished Service Awards.

Prof. Fuerstenau in Denver 2019, with Prof. Jan Miller of the University of Utah,
also one of the elite scientists

I am pleased to see three of MEI's conference consultants are in the top 2% of world scientists. Prof. Markus Reuter is co-Director of the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology, Germany, and is a long time consultant for our sustainability conferences, including next year's Sustainable Minerals '21.

With Jens Gutzmer and Markus Reuter, co-directors of the HIF in 2019
Markus Reuter (centre) at SRCR'11, Falmouth with
Profs. Richard Williams and Jannie van Deventer

Prof. Sue Harrison, of the University of Cape Town, is also a long-serving MEI consultant, to our biotechnology conferences including next year's Biomining '21. She is pictured (left) below at Indaba '16 in Cape Town with me and her UCT colleague Prof. Dee Bradshaw. Dee was a long serving consultant to MEI on flotation. She sadly passed away in 2018, but it is good to see that she is in the list of the top 2% of the world's scientists. Dee and Sue are just two of the eight mineral processors from UCT's Chemical Engineering department who made it to the list (can any Institute better that?).

Two more of UCT's elite scientists are shown below, with Prof. Jim Finch of McGill University, Canada. On the left Prof. Cyril O'Connor, Chairman of the International Mineral Processing Council, congratulates Jim on organising a successful Congress in Quebec City in 2016. On the right our Flotation '13 consultant Prof. JP Franzidis, passes on the consultancy baton to Jim, who has worked with us for the past seven years, and will be our consultant and keynote speaker at Flotation '21. He was recently awarded the IMPC's Lifetime Achievement Award (posting of 26 November).

I am sorry that I cannot mention every one of the 600 minerals scientists on the list but if you would like to single out individuals of special merit, then I invite you to make use of the comments section on the blog. The more the better!


Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Doug Edmunds 1944-2020: an Nchanga legend

With Doug at Nchanga
Rugby Club, 1973

Sad news from Scotland of the death of Dr. Doug Edmunds, a fellow Nchanga metallurgist, who I worked with on the Concentrator from 1970-72, but for several years I knew via the Nchanga weighlifting and rugby clubs.

Doug was a larger than life character who crammed a wide range of experiences into his life. He initially went to Glasgow University before switching to Strathclyde, where he graduated in applied science before obtaining a Ph.D. in metallurgy. He was a Blue from both universities and in the 1960s claimed seven Scottish shot and discus titles as well as three British Universities’ titles and was Scottish weightlifting champion.

He spent three years in Zambia from 1970 and won the national heavyweight weightlifting title, organised the country’s first Highland Games, played for the national rugby team and represented Zambia at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh as well as the World Powerlifting Championships in the USA.

The photo below was taken in the Nchanga gym in 1971 and it is a sobering one as I am the sole survivor of that group, Peter Fiore dying in 2014 and metallurgist Vic Bryant last year.

Peter, Doug, Vic and me, Chingola 1971

On his return to Scotland Doug built his family milk business into one of the UK's biggest dairies, and, concentrating on the Highland Games, he won the World Caber Tossing Championship in 1976 and 1978.

But Doug was most well known for founding TV's World’s Strongest Man competition, becoming a highly recognisable figure clad in black with trademark stetson as he sat shouting instructions. He is survived by his wife, Linda, daughter, sons, four grandchildren and a great granddaughter. One of his sons, Gregor, from Doug's first wife Moira has followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a winner of a World Highland Games and Scotland's Strongest Man.

Doug was a tremendous character, a gentle giant, who I feel privileged to have known.


Sunday, 13 December 2020

Comminution '21 goes virtual, with an extended call for abstracts

I am sure that it will be of little surprise to hear that proceeding with Comminution ’21 as a face to face meeting in Cape Town is no longer viable due to the ongoing pandemic. Despite the great news on vaccines, international travel restrictions will likely continue for some time.
This, the 12th International Comminution Symposium, will now become MEI's first virtual conference, to be held over the same dates, April 19-22, 2021. We are also planning provisionally to hold a face to face conference, Comminution '22, from 25-28 April of the following year, assuming that we are back to some degree of normality.
The conference will be held via the EventsAIR platform, a highly professional and experienced online event platform, which has been adopted by the AusIMM for all its eight conferences in 2021. The AusIMM has said that they have already had a glimpse into the future with their recent digital conferences with high levels of engagement through the EventsAIR platform.
If you would like to present your work at the online event, the deadline for abstracts has now been extended to January 31st and you will soon be able to submit your abstract via the new website which will soon be launched.
Presentations will be timetabled and streamed, either 'live' from your own office, or as pre-recorded presentations. Live presentations will be recorded and all presentations will be available on demand for a period of 6 months after the conference.
In organising the timetable we will endeavour to take into account time zones so that presentations are, where possible, at convenient times for presenters within the BST (British Summer Time) timetable. 
Registering for the conference will give access to the presentations and abstracts, the virtual exhibition and the networking lounge.
After the conference, all authors will be invited to submit final papers for peer-review, and those accepted will be published in regular issues of Minerals Engineering, the world’s leading mineral processing journal, and compiled into a dedicated virtual special issue (VSI) of the Elsevier journal on ScienceDirect. As the conference itself provides initial peer-review via discussion, submission to the VSI has the advantage of reduction in time between submission and final acceptance. In 2017 the rejection rate of VSI submissions was 53% compared with 82% for non-VSI papers.
We would like to take this opportunity of thanking once again our sponsors, who have supported us throughout these difficult times.

Thursday, 10 December 2020

Cutting edge lithium technology for Cornwall

There is a lot going on at Cornish Lithium Ltd. In September I reported that the company had found “globally significant” lithium grades in geothermal waters and is preparing to extract lithium in a zero-carbon operation.  These geothermal waters are rapidly becoming recognised as the ultimate ethical source of lithium, as Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology will be used to extract dissolved lithium compounds from the water using ionic adsorbents and/or ion exchange membranes, with the residual water being returned to depth via a borehole. Using DLE technology Cornish Lithium aims to maximise product recovery from the geothermal waters in a small footprint, energy efficient extraction plant, which will be powered by an on-site geothermal power plant. Lithium will be extracted from the water from the geothermal power plant's 5.2km deep borehole and the water will then be reinjected into the rock.

Cornish Lithium announced this week that, following its maiden hard rock lithium drilling programme earlier this year it is to accelerate this project within an existing china clay pit near St Austell in east Cornwall, following the successful production of nominal battery-grade lithium hydroxide, achieved using Australian Stock-Exchange listed Lepidico Ltd's technologies on lithium mica samples. 

Cornish Lithium said it had acquired a technology licence from Lepidico, which provided it with a metallurgical processing solution for the Trelavour Downs project. The company will now proceed towards bulk metallurgical testing and the construction of a pilot plant using Lepidico’s proprietary L-Max® and LOH-Max technologies. Work so far has indicated the potential of this technology to produce battery-grade lithium in Cornwall without the need for further refining, thus offering a complete on-site solution.

The Lepidico pilot plant in action July 2019
Source: Lepidico Ltd

Unlike other hard rock lithium extraction processes, the L-Max® process does not require costly pyrometallurgical processing routes in order to extract and recover the valuable lithium. The hydrometallurgical L-Max® process involves direct atmospheric leaching of lithium mica and impurity removal stages with subsequent lithium carbonate precipitation. It differs considerably from the processing of spodumene, which requires high temperature decrepitation and sulphate roasting prior to lithium recovery. This novel process is simpler, and is expected to have lower energy requirements than existing lithium recovery processes. 

LOH-Max produces lithium hydroxide, which currently attracts a premium price compared with lithium carbonate and is in strong demand

The licence to these technologies would allow development of the low-carbon extraction of lithium from zinnwaldite and polylithionite mica ores in the St Austell region. The Company believes that this work will accelerate domestic production of battery quality lithium chemicals for the UK automotive and battery industry as well as generating a significant number of skilled jobs in the St Austell area of Cornwall.

“The next phase of work, which will shortly commence at Trelavour, will run in parallel with studies which continue to advance the company’s lithium in geothermal waters projects across Cornwall. In particular, the forthcoming construction of the lithium pilot plant at United Downs, will enable the company to trial direct lithium extraction technology at the United Downs Deep Geothermal Project together with partners Geothermal Engineering,” commented founder and CEO Jeremy Wrathall


Monday, 7 December 2020

IMPC Distinguished Service Award to Prof. Eric Forssberg

It was a pleasure to hear that Prof. Eric Forssberg has been awarded the International Mineral Processing Council's Distinguished Service Award (DSA).

I know from my own experience of winning this award in 2014 how proud Eric must feel, and ironically it was he who presented me with the award in Santiago-Chile.

Prof Eric Forssberg presents me with the DSA in 2014,
watched by Profs. Yoon, Yianatos and O'Connor

Eric now becomes one of the three living recipients of this coveted award, Prof. Douglas Fuerstenau winning the award in 2018.
Chile 2014 with Profs. Forssberg and Fuerstenau
Eric Forssberg has enjoyed an outstanding and distinguished career in the field of Mineral Processing.  He has served as a full professor of mineral processing at Lulea University of Technology, Sweden since 1974. He has a PhD in mineral processing from the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden and served as dean of the faculty of engineering for the period of 1980-1990.
For the purposes of the present nomination for the IMPC Distinguished Service Award Professor Forssberg attend his first Congress in Leningrad in 1968 and has attended every International Mineral Processing Congress since then. He joined the Council of the IMPC in Cagliari in 1974 and served as a member for 46 years until he retired from Council in 2020. He was elected as the President of the Council in Cannes in 1985 and served until 2006 in at the Congress in Istanbul. In 1988 he was chairman of the organising committee for the XVI IMPC in Stockholm, the first congress that I attended.
One for the history books:  Prof. Forssberg with 5 Lifetime Achievement Award winners,
in Quebec 2016. Profs. Janusz Laskowski (2008), Graeme Jameson (2016),
Ponisseril Somasundaran (2016), Roe-Hoan Yoon (2014) and Jim Finch (2020)

Professor Forssberg is nominated for this Award due to his huge and distinguished contribution both to the Council over such a long period but also to the global mineral processing community in so many different ways. 

I look forward to seeing Eric and his wife Ebba when he is presented with his award at the XXXI IMPC in Melbourne in August 2022.

Ebba and Eric Forssberg in Cape Town in November last year


Thursday, 3 December 2020

Critical Elements at a glance

Dmitri Mendeleev published his first periodic table of the elements in 1869 and the modern version adorns the walls of probably every chemistry laboratory in the world.

It has been presented in various guises but no better than the one published last year by the European Chemical Society and I thank my old friend and CSM colleague Richard Edwards for making me aware of this. It is a wonderful way of seeing at a glance that the elements are from finite resources and there is not an inexhaustible supply. Protecting endangered elements needs to be achieved on a number of levels. As individuals, we need to question whether upgrades to our phones and other electronic devices are truly necessary, and we need to make sure that we recycle correctly to avoid old electronics ending up in landfill sites or polluting the environment. 

In a recent posting I questioned the promises of politicians such as Boris Johnson who make overly optimistic demands on the progress towards a "green revolution" and the European Chemical Society hopes that this unique and thought-provoking Periodic Table will lead to reflection and ultimately action.

The area allotted to each element in the table reflects its abundance on earth, and is colour-coded according to its likely future availability. The elements used in smart phones are also identified, which is of particular importance as a smartphone uses around 30 of these elements, many of which, due to increasing scarcity, may be of great concern in future, particularly with the need to mine more and more of these elements to satisfy the 4th Industrial Revolution. Around 10 million smartphones are discarded or replaced every month in the European Union alone, so we need to carefully look at our tendencies to waste and improperly recycle such items. 

Good examples are elements such as gallium and indium which are essential in smart phones. Gallium nitride is a semi-conductor, and without indium, alloyed with tin (also in limited supply) we would not have touch screens. They are used in tiny quantities in each smart phone, but as around 2 billion phones are manufactured each year the supply is becoming critical.

There are no indium or gallium mines, however. These metals are the byproducts of refining base metals, particularly zinc ores, and as can be seen in the table, zinc is also under increasing threat due to increased use, mainly for galvanising other metals such as iron. Metals vital to the new industrial revolution, such as copper, lithium and neodymium are all shaded yellow, showing a future risk to supply.

It is worth looking at two elements whose supply is rarely questioned, the two most abundant elements in the Universe, hydrogen and helium.  Hydrogen is the primordial atom, the fuel for the stars, the primary product of fusion being helium.

Hydrogen is in great abundance on earth, but does not occur naturally, being present in a multitude of molecules, the most common being water. It is a potential competitor to the electric vehicle, petrol and air being replaced in the internal combustion engine by the combustion of hydrogen, and oxygen from the air, to produce a harmless exhaust of water vapour.

Hydrogen is not cheap to produce and store, however. The majority of hydrogen (~95%) is currently produced from fossil fuels by steam reforming of natural gas, partial oxidation of methane, and coal gasification. Other methods include the energy intensive electrolysis of water, the opposite of what occurs in the hydrogen fuel cell.

Although helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, it is very rare on earth, being mostly created by the natural radioactive decay of heavy radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium. It is trapped with natural gas from which it is extracted commercially by low-temperature fractional distillation. Helium is an important constituent in deep diving gas mixtures, replacing nitrogen, which causes narcosis and 'the bends' when compressed air is breathed at depth. It has the lowest boiling point of any element, at -269C, just a few degrees above absolute zero (-273C). This makes it of key importance for superconducting magnets used in MRI scanners and other applications, which must be supercooled to generate the hugely powerful magnetic fields required.

Although helium is a critical element, some of it is wasted, as it is used to fill party and wedding balloons. Once the balloons are released they rise and eventually burst, but of course the helium does not sink to earth, it rises and is lost in space.  Although the amount that is used in party balloons is fairly small compared to its other main uses, it provides an example of the trivial use of something we should be valuing a little bit more.

This version of the Periodic Table should, I feel, be on the walls of every scientist and politician. It provides a constant reminder of how much we should value and conserve our natural resources, and how true it is that everything we use is either mined or grown.


Tuesday, 1 December 2020

November: the second lockdown, the first real glimmers of hope and news of a new Cornwall-led research centre

In the first week of the month regional lockdowns in England were replaced by a lockdown of the whole country, although not as stringent as the April lockdown, schools, colleges and universities remaining open. Nevertheless this was frustrating down here in Cornwall, where infection rates are particularly low.
On the fight against Coronavirus there was good news from USA that President-Elect Joe Biden has the pandemic as his top priority, something which his ungracious Presidential loser never had, despite the virus raging through the country.
And on the 9th of the month news of the first 'milestone' vaccine was announced, which preliminary results show can provide 95% protection. The developers, Pfizer and BioNTech, described it as "a great day for science and humanity" and a week later the US biotech firm Moderna  announced results on a vaccine with an efficacy of 94.5%. Early data released on the Sputnik V vaccine, developed in Russia, suggests that it is 92% effective. 
And just a week ago more good news, that the Oxford vaccine is almost ready to roll out, with very promising results, especially as it is cheaper and easier to store and transport than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. There is growing confidence that these vaccines can help end the pandemic, but there are still huge challenges ahead, despite some scientists suggesting life could be back to normal by spring. Once the vaccines are approved, the race will be on to overcome the biggest logistics challenge in history, to distribute them around the globe,
In October Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to make Britain the "Saudi Arabia of wind", pledging that offshore wind will produce enough electricity to power every home by 2030 (posting of 12th October), and this month he put more pressure on 2030 by announcing that the UK will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, rather than the original 2040 (posting of 21 July 2019).
I am sure that the Government has given a great deal of thought as to where the critical metals will come from to do this (posting of 23rd November). Maybe they were aware of more good news from Cornwall this month. At the beginning of the month it was announced that Camborne School of Mines (CSM) will lead a pioneering new research centre, designed to revolutionise how crucial metals are extracted, used and reused in clean and digital technologies across the UK. 
The Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centre in Technology Metals is one of five new centres announced by the Government to explore how to create a circular economy for the technology metals, such as cobalt, rare earths and lithium, that are essential in all clean and digital technologies including electric cars and wind turbines. The centre aims to develop a new cycle, right from the first stages of extraction, to enable secure and environmentally-acceptable circulation of these crucial materials within the UK economy.
The project will be led by CSM's Professor Frances Wall, a regular at the Cornish Mining Sundowners, who presented a keynote lecture at MEI's Process Mineralogy '18 in Cape Town. Frances is a former Director of CSM and last year was the first ever female recipient of the Geological Society of London's William Smith Medal (posting of 8 March 2019).
Frances Wall (left) at Process Mineralogy '18 in Cape Town
The Centre will bring together experts from the Universities of Exeter, Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester and the British Geological Survey, as well as 40 partner companies and organisations. As well as researchers from the Camborne School of Mines, Exeter will also provide expertise from the Environment and Sustainability Institute, the Renewable Energy department and the Business School.
The Centre will apply circular economy principles to every aspect of mineral use in clean and digital technologies, including the initial extraction stage. The research will start with a case study of the industry ecosystem in Cornwall. With its exploration projects for the technology metals, lithium, tin and tungsten, the region has the opportunity to lead in whole systems circular economy actions for these metals. I am sure that we will hear a lot more about this at Sustainable Minerals '21 in June.
Finally a date to note for my diary- Good Friday April 2nd- as two days ago Boris Johnson said that he believed Easter would mark a "real chance to return to something like life as normal". Considering his previous promises and predictions, this is not the greatest of news.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

IMPC Lifetime Achievement Award to Prof. James Finch

I was delighted to hear that my old friend Prof. Jim Finch, Emeritus Professor of McGill University, Canada is the 2020 recipient of the highest award of the International Mineral Processing Council, the Lifetime Achievement Award.

I interviewed Jim for MEI in 2015, and his long list of achievements up to the end of 2015 are documented there. Over a career of 50 years he has supervised 106 post-graduate students, of whom 50 were PhD students, and has published 375 papers in archival journals. Unlike many academic researchers his work has not just been laboratory based but has had a major impact on industrial practice through his very close association with industry throughout his career.

When I suggested to Elsevier that Jim would be the only person that I would like to have in charge of the 8th edition of Mineral Processing Technology, I never expected him to agree. But he accepted with enthusiasm, and maybe a little trepidation, and put together a strong team which has delivered what I consider to be a superb update of the text.

Book signing with Jim in Phoenix in 2016
Jim has had a long involvement with MEI, being our consultant to the flotation series of conferences, and at next year's Flotation '21 he will present a keynote lecture on the appreciation of the life and work of Prof. Graeme Jameson, of the University of Newcastle, Australia, also a holder of the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Jim at Flotation '15 with fellow recipients of the SME's Antoine Gaudin Award,
Janusz Laskowski, Nag Nagaraj and Graeme Jameson
Janusz and Graeme are also Lifetime Achievement Award winners

Jim at Flotation '19 with Frank Cappuccitti and Jan Nesset

Prof. Finch has been a long-standing member of the IMPC Council (since 2000), a regular attendee at Congresses since the 1980s and was the Chair of the Organizing Committee for the XVIII IMPC in Quebec City in 2016, where he presented Prof. Graeme Jameson with his Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jim welcoming delegates to the Quebec IMPC in 2016
With Jim and Glen Dobby, his co-author for the seminal book Column Flotation
This year's award has gone to the most modest of men, who young students find very approachable and helpful, and it is a great pity that, due to the pandemic, we will have to wait until the XXXI IMPC Congress in Melbourne in August 2022 before the award will be presented in person and we will be able to share the evening with Jim and his wife Lois.
Barbara with Jim and Lois at Flotation '11 in Cape Town

Monday, 23 November 2020

Critical Metals and the UK's "Green Industrial Revolution"

2020 has been a momentous year in world history, and it is looking like 2030 is building up to be the start of a golden new decade, a new green era with the British landscape dotted with wind farms and electric vehicles moving silently and pollution free along our roads.

Only a few weeks ago PM Boris Johnson, no stranger to grand announcements, often preceding U-turns, promised to make Britain the "Saudi Arabia of wind", pledging that offshore wind will produce enough electricity to power every home by 2030 (posting of 12th October). This would need an offshore wind capacity of 40 gigawatts, compared with the current capacity of 10 gigawatts, and analysts have suggested that this target would require the completion of a turbine every weekday throughout the decade- a lot of steel, as well as other raw materials.

And last week another promise for 2030, a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, all part of Johnson's "green industrial revolution" to tackle climate change and create jobs in industries such as nuclear energy.

The plan has been welcomed by environmental groups, but how feasible is it, and how 'green' is it?

Way back in 2019 (it now seems a lifetime ago) I asked whether the UN Paris Agreement target of zero carbon emissions by 2050 was feasible, as this would put enormous demands on the world's finite resources of raw materials (posting of 21st July 2019). This situation has now been exacerbated by Covid, which has led to the closure of many of the world's mines. New developments have been inhibited by the low esteem in which the industry is currently being held, inhibiting capital investment, and the need to obtain social licenses to operate (Is mining facing its second existential crisis?).

Many metals and non-metals are essential in the manufacture of wind turbines and electric vehicles, and it must be remembered that huge amounts of energy are required just to mine and extract these materials. Some of the most important metals are classed as 'critical', mainly due to geopolitical reasons or shortage of supply and their production in many cases cannot be classed as 'green'.

The most important metal in wind turbines and electric vehicles is copper, which is at the heart of either producing electricity or providing motive power. A large turbine requires around 4.5 tonnes of copper, and electric vehicles up to 100 kg. Average mined copper grades fell from 1.31% in 2000 to 0.94% in 2018, raising operating costs and slowing the enthusiasm to develop new mines. This year work stoppages due to measures designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus have stalled existing capacity and have delayed investments with long-term repercussions for supply. Chile has been the worst affected followed by the U.S. and Peru.

At the heart of a wind turbine nacelle is the giant permanent magnet which is rotated by the turbine blades to generate electricity in the copper coil which surrounds it. The magnet relies on a critical rare earth element neodymium, which is alloyed with iron and boron to make very powerful permanent magnets, not only for wind turbines, but for high power, low weight electric motors for many applications.

Around 2.5 tonnes of neodymium are required in a wind turbine, but when we look up at one of these giant structures we need to ask "how green are they in reality"?

Neodymium and other rare earth elements are not actually rare at all. They occur in the earth's crust in much greater abundance than the so-called common metals such as copper, lead and zinc, but they are very thinly distributed among the crustal rocks, and only occur in economic deposits, mainly of the minerals bastnaesite and monazite, in certain parts of the earth. Unfortunately we are almost completely dependent on China for their supply, accounting for 90% of the world’s rare earths production. China also controls the refining and processing sectors and mining and extraction is highly energy intensive, using mainly fossil fuels, and is by no means environmentally friendly (posting of 11th February 2013).

Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia, is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of rare earth minerals and the by-product of extraction produces dangerous gases and radioactive wastewater, which are fed, according to BBC corespondent Tim Maughan, into a dystopian lake.

Toxic sludge pours into the lake, with the city of Baotou in the background
Image courtesy of Liam Young/Unknown Fields
Maughan reports "After seeing the impact of rare earth mining myself, it’s impossible to view the gadgets I use everyday in the same way. As I watched Apple announce their smart watch recently, a thought crossed my mind: once we made watches with minerals mined from the Earth and treated them like precious heirlooms; now we use even rarer minerals and we'll want to update them yearly. Technology companies continually urge us to upgrade; to buy the newest tablet or phone. But I cannot forget that it all begins in a place like Bautou, and a terrible toxic lake that stretches to the horizon".

The West is more dependent than ever on China for the importation of critical minerals and rare earth elements, and China has repeatedly threatened to stop exporting these minerals, so 'home-grown' supplies are going to be essential in future.

A promising development is Pensana Rare Earths Plc's Longonjo Project in Angola, now one of the world’s largest known rare earth resources.The company has initiated a study into the establishment of an integrated rare earth processing facility in the UK with a view to creating the world’s first sustainable magnet metal supply chain. The Longonjo project could, together with the UK processing facility, produce enough rare earth oxide to supply the wind turbines at Dogger Bank in UK, projected to be the world’s biggest wind farm, for the next 20 years. The project is being developed to international standards and has established infrastructure, including the capacity to be entirely powered by hydro-electricity, making Longonjo one of the world’s most sustainable rare earth producers.

Just as copper is at the heart of turbines and motors, so lithium is at the heart of the batteries which supply electricity to the motors.

Australia is the largest producer of lithium, mined from hard rock ores, but this is coming under increased scrutiny as the concentrates are processed in China using fossil fuels. Most of the remaining lithium supply is currently extracted from brines in Chile and Argentina, which involves evaporating the brine in vast evaporation ponds, with potential threats to the water supply. Chile’s Salar de Atacama is the world’s largest and purest active source of lithium, but uncertainty over the sustainability of mining activity has long cast a pall over the sensitive salt flat, home to one-quarter of the world’s current output of lithium, but also indigenous communities, protected areas, and endangered flamingos. The area is of huge importance in satisfying soaring global demand for the white metal, so again home grown supplies are vital if the green revolution is to take place at speed.

Brine pools and processing areas on the Atacama salt flat. Image courtesy of SQM
The UK has no lithium production at present but down here in Cornwall Cornish Lithium Ltd has found “globally significant” lithium grades in geothermal waters and is preparing to extract lithium in a zero-carbon operation (posting of 18th September). Geothermal waters which contain lithium are very different from other occurrences of lithium in brine, given that the same water can be used to generate zero-carbon electrical power and heat. As such these waters are rapidly becoming recognised as the ultimate ethical source of lithium, as Direct Lithium Extraction (DLE) technology will be used to extract dissolved lithium compounds from the water without the need for the large evaporation ponds that are used in the arid regions of South America. It uses ionic adsorbents and/or ion exchange membranes, with the residual water being returned to depth via a borehole.
Using DLE technology Cornish Lithium aims to maximise product recovery from the geothermal waters in a small footprint, energy efficient extraction plant, which will be powered by an on-site geothermal power plant. Lithium will be extracted from the water from the geothermal power plant's 5.2km deep borehole and the water will then be reinjected into the rock.

Geothermal brines are not the only source of lithium in Cornwall. British Lithium Ltd is the first company in the UK to explore for hard rock lithium and the only one so far to have established a resource, in the St Austell area, well known for its china clay deposits. It now aims to build a quarry and refinery in Cornwall that will produce 20,000 tonnes per year of lithium carbonate, from granitic lithium micas.

And finally, on the subject of lithium-ion batteries, their future success may depend on ditching a key ingredient, the heavy metal cobalt, which is used to increase the lifespan of the battery and produce a high energy density. Recent analyses show that there may be cobalt shortages if we don’t start refining and recycling it more efficiently or in greater quantities. Cobalt is often produced as a by-product of copper or nickel mining, but it is expensive and around 60%  of the world’s supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where responsible companies such as Glencore operate. The DRC is not the most stable of countries, however, and it is also the world's poorest, with many people, including young children, eking out a meagre existence by illegal and dangerous mining.

In summary I am not trying to paint a gloomy picture here, merely to highlight that an essential ingredient in the welcome green revolution always seems to be overlooked- mining and the supply of the vital raw materials- and the fact that fossil fuels cannot be phased out overnight- they will be needed for many decades to come in order to mine and refine the necessary materials, and to build the wind turbines and vehicles of the future.

It is essential that the internal combustion engine be replaced by electrification, as it is one of the world's biggest killers, due to the choking air pollution that it produces. But we must be realistic in how soon we can achieve the green revolution objectives, and 2030 seems very optimistic. 

In his announcement, Boris Johnson indicated that the revolution would create jobs in various industries, including the building of new nuclear power stations. These will all be fission reactors, of course, and although they produce relatively clean energy with minimal carbon emissions, any accidents that occur can be catastrophic, as witnessed at Chernobyl and Fukushima, and there is, of course, the problem of disposal of the nuclear waste.

Only last year, Johnson waxed lyrical about the future of nuclear fusion (posting of 30th October 2019), but there was no mention of this in his announcement. Politicians, unfortunately, seem to have very short memories and many do not grasp the basic concepts of science and engineering. A great deal of international collaborative work is being done to develop viable fusion reactors and once the immense engineering challenges have been overcome, it may be that in the not too distant future this abundant source of limitless clean energy may have made the many wind turbines which will dot our countryside and coastal waters obsolete. The run up to 2050 is going to be very interesting! A shame that I won't be around to report on it.


Saturday, 21 November 2020

Physical Separation '21 and IntegratedMinPro '21 postponed until 2022

It is with regret that, due to the pandemic, we have had to postpone Physical Separation '21 and IntegratedMinPro '21, which were scheduled to be held in Falmouth next June. We now plan to run these conferences back to back in Falmouth in June 2022 (Physical Separation '22; IntegratedMinPro '22).

We are extremely grateful to our sponsors and media partners, who have continued to support us during these difficult times.

We had planned an exciting historical tour of the St. Just tin and copper mining area next year, and this tour will be retained for both conferences in 2022.

We are also pleased that our IntegratedMinPro '21 keynote speaker, Dr. Osvaldo Bascur, has agreed to present his lecture in 2022. The lecture will be based on Osvaldo's recently published book Digital Transformation for the Process Industries: A Roadmap.

This is also a very early call for abstracts, which should be submitted by the end of 2021. All papers will be invited for peer-review for special issues of Minerals Engineering.

We hope to see you in 2022 when hopefully the world will be back to normal.

Friday, 20 November 2020

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