Nov 04, 2011
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De Gouveia: We see that researchers are developing robots to improve safety in South Africa’s dangerous underground mines. That sounds quite interesting, tell us about that.
Creamer: Yes, this is the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa’s own State-owned research body. They have got in to do research into field robots. These are not going to be the robots that you see in the factories being pick and place and welding robots.
These are robots that move around, they have got mobility. There has been a lot of investment in these around the world for defence reasons. So we might as well ride on the back of that big investment and try and do something special in South Africa for underground mines, because most of these have been used in defence situations for hazard removal and, of course, they are on surface so they can use GPS and global positioning, you can’t do that underground.
There are going to have to be far different intelligent methods used. The South Africans realised that in our mining there is a cycle, drill blast and clean. In between that blast and clean cycle you need to inspect to see that what they call the ‘hanging wall’ the rock roof is not going to cave in on you.
That is quite a dangerous situation so that want to send these robots in that will be able to climb over rubble and operate in narrow passages. There isn’t much there to distinguish from, because there are no beacons underground.
So this is going to be quite a challenge on how they use the radio frequency identification with simultaneous localisation and mapping to actually guide and allow these robots to go in to do the inspection and then to produce a risk map so that you can save lives. We lost 128 people in our mines last year.
De Gouveia: Any ideas to where the funding is going to be coming from?
Creamer: Well this is just normal researching that is being done by the CSIR. Once they get this right there is going to be a demand for this even though some of the mines like AngloGold Ashanti are saying that they are going to move away from blasting all together. There are different trends in the technology spectrum, but this is one that could serve a lot of people, because this whole issue of drill, blast and clean is what most people use.
De Gouveia: While we are on that topic of mining, I hear that diamond giant De Beers is going all out to create thousands of non-mining jobs as it pulls out of diamond mining on South Africa’s West Coast. What does that entail?
Creamer: This is very interesting down in the Namaqualand area there has been a howl of protest with the withdrawal of De Beers from another diamond mine. Of course, Trans Hex are waiting to move in, so that is another issue with the state. The Section 11 transfer of ownership should be filed faster so that you can allow the new owner to move in.
Be that as it may, in the interim you can see De Beers going all out to do the creation of non-mining jobs and they have got a target of 5 000 jobs in five years. They created an enterprise development hub in August and already they have left several enterprises with R14-million worth of loans and 400 jobs have been created already.
They are also going to create 500 artisans down there and they are doing a lot of artisan training in Kimberley. What really impressed me was the new “diamonds” down there. Because of this infrastructure where they used to draw in the water from the sea for their diamond processing, you now see them drawing in that water and putting it into the pits where they’ve mined out the diamonds and growing abalone.
The price of abalone is a very good one at the moment and so you see there that their BEE partner Ponahalo with the fish company Irvin & Johnson (I&J) moving in on an initial R40-million abalone project. They are thinking that this could really have big potential. Then the oyster farm that they’ve got there is also very impressive.
Another aspect is what is happening with wind energy in that area. Although De Beers have got this enormous amount of land there they are offering the farms to various producers of wind energy, three of them independent, but also Eskom. It looks like there are going to be billions of rands worth of wind farms there. When you go around you can see the masts and they are doing the tests.
Another important aspect is that when De Beers goes into this mariculture it is not going to diversify. In other words, De Beers is not going to be producing abalone, they are just warehousing those shares.
The moment there is dividend-flow and cash-flow, they will then create a community trust so that that money can go into the community.
De Gouveia: Still interesting to think though that seafood and mining can go hand-in-hand.
Creamer: Especially with the same infrastructure.
De Gouveia: South Africa’s carbon capture and storage centre is preparing for its first test injection in 2016.
Creamer: Carbon capture and storage. We have got this curse of carbon build-up in South Africa. We use so much coal, I mean, 90% of our electricity comes from coal and 30% of our transport fuel, petrol and diesel comes from coal. A lot of our steel comes from coal.
We have got this obligation to really clean up the coal act, but we are walking in tandem with the world, the world has sort of gone to sleep on this. There was such a lot of urgency in getting the carbon capture and storage effort underway, but we see now the world is more worried about sovereign debt and countries going bust.
I think they are putting this on a bit of a back burner. In the meantime, South Africa is going ahead with its plans and hasn’t changed its schedule. It has got our carbon capture and storage centre and they just finished the scoping study which will result in the first test injection. This sounds horrific, but they are going to inject the carbon that they capture into the ground.
They are finding some sites in KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape, but that’s horrific because it is going to be long distance and a costly exercise to pipe that carbon out. One would say where is the business case here. Hopefully they will be able to do something with that captured carbon dioxide.
The Europeans say that there is nothing you can do with this, you are just going to leave it in the ground. It is a technique that is being used in the production of oil, because they use the gas to inject into these big cavities to lift the level of the oil. But what are we going to do with it here?
There has been talk that perhaps we could turn that carbon dioxide into fuel. That would be fantastic. Sasol is studying the using of algaeic forms of generating fuels from this with the use of algae, but it is still a long shot.
So it still looks like a very big cost at the moment and also a big timeframe, the first test injection only 2016, scoping study just being completed and the demo plant would only come after there are others in the world. South Africa, although we use a lot of coal, we shouldn’t be leading this show, the rest of the world should be doing it, but seem to have fallen asleep at the wheel.
De Gouveia: God willing you’ll be able to give us an update in five years time of what will be happening in 2016. Thanks very much. Martin Creamer is publishing editor of Engineering News and Mining Weekly, he’ll be back with us at the same time next week.
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