As mining costs continue to escalate, so too does the need to find more efficient processes. Government-funded researcher Mintek is at the forefront of finding such new technologies and relies greatly on its in-house analytical laboratory to affirm the success of its pilot projects.One of Mintek’s core purposes is to pioneer new technologies and processes aimed at streamlining minerals processing systems and enhancing operational efficiencies. It does this either through its own internal cash flows or by working in association with various mining houses. The company has various divisions devoted to the multitude of commodity sectors, along all processing avenues, largely hydrometallurgy, minerals processing and pyrometallurgy. “Because we are constantly evaluating new methodologies, we need a fully equipped, well-staffed laboratory capable of accommodating our analytical test work needs,” explains Dr Mike Bryson, specialist minerals processing consultant at Mintek. Bearing this in mind, Mintek’s head of chemistry, Sandra Graham adds: “Our analytical team is 70 personnel strong and consists largely of a diverse range of skills, all specialists and experts with unsurpassed knowledge in the field.” “Our workload is therefore largely dependent on the amount of support that our other divisions require,” she continues. Importantly, Graham emphasises the fact that despite its core support function, 30% of Mintek’s analytical work is commercial. The company, which also offers resource estimation work and analyses checking to its clients, has close working relationships with the mining houses, as well as with the engineers and consultants appointed to develop new projects.
The company is capable of taking on more work, and is willing and keen to do so. “We also still offer, upon request, certified reference materials for quality control purposes – an analytical business unit that continues to operate sustainably.Graham mentions that there are two mining ‘trend’ areas at present that are driving a lot of business into the laboratory. “The rare earths industry is extremely active at the moment and we are organising ourselves to take on and deal with all of the associated complexities that the analyses of these elements require. We want to decrease analytical turnaround time, and we are looking at the process of microwave digestion, as opposed to hot plates,” Graham outlines. Contradictory to belief, the frequency of rare earth prospects is high and their value high. It is how to process and extract these minerals (17 in total) viably that will determine how many projects make it to commercial production. Another recent development this year for the division is the addition of a new analytical instrument designed specifically for lower grade PGM ores. Although South Africa’s PGM market is currently becoming increasingly repressed, it remains one of the country’s most influential commodities. Overall, Mintek may not have the same capacity as other large-scale commercial mining laboratories, but instead offers the market “unparalleled” speciality and expertise knowledge, and has facilities large enough to take on more commercial analytical work than it is currently has.