Putting heads together to solve mining headaches at the Wits Mining Institute seminar

The WMI seminar sought to address mining challenges head-on through its collaborative efforts with industry

Building on the new focus areas of research at its DigiMine Laboratory, the Wits Mining Institute (WMI) brought together industry experts at its annual WMI seminar in panel discussions which delved into crucial topics shaping the future of mining.

The WMI seminar, held at the end of September 2023, aimed at shedding light on innovative strategies for the industry. Among other topics explored were sustainable energy sources, the pressing challenge of cyber-attacks, integrating critical raw materials for a just energy transition, the evolving landscape of circular mining and minerals, and the growing need for waterless mining.

The evolution of circular mining and minerals

Led by Sibanye-Stillwater innovation head Alex Fenn, DRD Gold CEO Niel Pretorius highlighted during a panel discussion on the topic of circular mining, his company’s commitment to sustainability through embracing circular mining principles. The company has become a waste-neutral enterprise, mitigating environmental impact while generating substantial economic and social benefits.

“Our innovative approaches, such as using recycled water and transitioning to solar power, not only reduce our carbon footprint but also enhance operational efficiency and financial viability,” said Pretorius. “Repurposing redundant mine infrastructure and tailings has allowed us to restore the environment and positively impact nearby communities, ensuring a sustainable legacy for future generations.”

One of the key opportunities he highlighted was the extraction of value from previously deemed unrecoverable low-grade ores. “Through optimising processes, leveraging economies of scale, and deploying cutting-edge technology, we have been able to mine and rehabilitate several operations, including tailings dams,” he said.

University of Cape Town (UCT) Professor Jenny Broadhurst, a renowned sustainable mining and resource efficiency expert, noted that governments and policymakers play a pivotal role in incentivising circular mining practices and creating supportive regulatory frameworks. “One of the key barriers to these circularity efforts is the existing legislation and regulation. Although there are policies at a higher level that should support these initiatives, the reality is often the opposite,” stated Professor Broadhurst.

She also highlighted the importance of collaborative efforts between industry and regulators at both local and national levels. “The burden should not solely fall on governments; it’s crucial for mining companies to work with regulators and local governments to create an environment where circularity is not just encouraged, but enabled,” she added.

Addressing the complexity of establishing a sustainable mining future, Mzwandile Buthelezi, Group Head at Implats and Chair of the WMI Industrial Advisory Board (IAB), highlighted the importance of traceability of materials, a concept gaining traction among investors. He noted that mining companies are working together to define the best methods for material traceability – to establish transparency in the supply chain. This collaborative approach signifies a shift toward openness and accountability, as the industry strives to share information openly with communities and investors.

Integrating critical raw materials for a just energy transition

With critical minerals playing a role in the global just energy transition, a  panel, moderated by former WMI Director Professor Fred Cawood, discussed how the mining industry has highlighted the need for a clear definition of what a critical mineral is and how this definition should be tailored to meet the unique needs of each country.

Dr. Nandi Malumbazo, a Senior Lecturer at the Wits School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, stressed the disparity in critical mineral identification among nations. “China recognises over 80 minerals critical to its economic development, while the UK identifies 34,” said Malumbazo. “In contrast, South Africa is lagging behind in defining critical minerals based on its industrialisation efforts.”

The Minerals Council of South Africa – Senior Executive: Modernisation and Safety, Mr. Sietse van der Woude emphasised that coal was identified as a critical mineral in ensuring energy security and addressing energy poverty in Africa. “The question is now, what does that mean for coal?” asked Van der Woude. “Does it mean that all coal mining companies will have to sell their coal to the power utility at a much lower price than international prices? Or does it mean that we now are going to ban all coal exports because it’s now a critical mineral?”

Both Van der Woude and Malumbazo highlighted that defining critical minerals had to revolve around growing the local economy and creating jobs. Malumbazo added that while many African countries, including South Africa, were primarily involved in mining critical minerals, they still lacked downstream value addition. “These nations need to integrate into the downstream segment of the critical minerals value chain, as it is pivotal for economic growth,” she said.

Van der Woude advised this needed a closer look. “Instead of universally mandating beneficiation, we need to analyse each mineral and its value chain individually,” he added.

Advancements in waterless mining techniques

Being a water-scarce country, South Africa’s mining industry is undertaking a transformative approach to its water usage, including advanced water recycling and sustainable dust suppression. During a panel discussion led by Wits School of Mining Engineering senior lecturer Paseka Leeuw, Implats corporate water specialist Murendeni Makhado explained that waterless mining initiatives aim to create closed-loop systems where water is continuously reused and recycled. “This reduces the draw from external freshwater sources,” said Makhado.

She further highlighted the role of innovation and technology in achieving this goal, such as the need for internal efficiency improvements and reducing water losses due to evaporation and seepage.

Professor Craig Sheridan, Director of the Centre in Water Research and Development and Professor Thokozani Majozi (Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment and active researcher in Water Process Engineering), noted that mining has a relatively small water abstraction footprint; however, its impact on water resources, particularly in terms of environmental contamination, is substantial. “Keeping water within the mining processes can mitigate environmental contamination,” said Professor Sheridan.

Makhado added that there was now a shift from internal water management to external water stewardship, considering the impact of mining activities on the entire catchment area, communities, municipalities and other industries.

Focusing on digital technologies

During a panel discussion that explored the development of digital technologies in Africa and the accompanying threats, Sibanye-Stillwater, Senior Vice President of Digital Transformation Werner Swanepoel pointed out that South Africa is not as disconnected as is often perceived.

”We are quick to adopt technological innovations,” said Swanepoel. “However, the key challenge lies in ensuring comprehensive end-to-end connectivity and addressing the pressing issue of cybersecurity, which is an integral part of the implementation of new technologies in mining. While pushing technological boundaries is crucial, it is equally essential to prioritise cybersecurity to safeguard these digitalisation efforts.”.

Also speaking during the discussion that was moderated by Dwyka Mining Services CEO Jamie van Schoor, WMI Sibanye-Stillwater DigiMine head Ahsan Mahboob emphasised the role of education, training and knowledge-sharing in shaping the future of mining technologies. Mahboob highlighted the intrinsic relationship between technology and the people using it.

“We have initiated training workshops in collaboration with renowned institutions, both locally and internationally,” he said, noting that he was currently at a university in Japan where specialised courses tailored to industry needs are being co-designed under the Smart Mining Program. This international initiative provides hands-on experience to students from seven African countries, preparing them for the mining sector’s challenges.

Addressing the gap between cybersecurity experts and industry professionals, Mahboob stressed the importance of regular workshops and networking events, further citing the necessity of continuous feedback from the industry to ensure the effectiveness and relevance of training modules. “The WMI actively seeks input through industry advisory reports, enabling the Institute to effectively align our work with the evolving industry requirements,” he added.

“In essence, our approach is holistic, focusing on creating an ecosystem that combines education, hands-on training and active engagement with researchers and stakeholders. By empowering future mining technologists, we equip them to be the first line of defence against cyber threats while ensuring they possess the necessary expertise,” concluded Mahboob.

This gathering of top minds within the mining sector underscored the industry’s collective commitment to finding sustainable solutions and fostering collaborative efforts to tackle pressing challenges. The discussions not only highlighted the urgency of these issues but also showcased the shared dedication of industry leaders, researchers and experts in driving positive change.

“As the WMI, we aim to promote research and innovation around these areas, in collaboration with our industry partners,” said WMI director Professor Glen Nwaila.


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