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South African Mining Innovators Spearhead Clean Technology Revolution

Clean Tech Pioneers Transform Metals Industry, Eliminating Smelters and Toxic Chemicals

by Adenike Adeodun


In a significant move towards environmental sustainability, South African mining veterans are playing pivotal roles in a groundbreaking initiative aimed at transforming the metals industry through clean technology. The focus of this revolutionary approach is the elimination of energy-intensive smelters, along with the use of toxic chemicals and strong acids in metal processing.

The initiative features prominent South African mining hall-of-fame inductee Ian Cockerill, chairperson of UK-based DEScycle. He is joined on an advisory panel by fellow hall-of-fame achiever Mark Cutifani and renowned technology innovator Tony O’Neill. O’Neill is notable for his work in developing the world’s first haulage truck powered by green hydrogen at Anglo American Platinum’s Mogalakwena platinum group metals (PGMs) mine in Limpopo province, South Africa.

According to a report by Mining Weekly, DEScycle’s innovative approach utilises a novel class of deep eutectic solvents (DES) chemistry, initially targeting the recycling of electronic e-waste. E-waste streams commonly include items like computers, mobile phones, large household appliances, and medical equipment. This development is a response to the anticipated growth of the e-waste stream, which is expected to reach a staggering $82 billion annually by 2030.

A key component of DEScycle’s growth strategy involves developing mineral processing applications for nickel and cobalt battery metals. Additionally, they aim to replace cyanide in gold processing, enable water-free copper and base metal processing, and simplify rare earth element processing. The envisioned low-energy, non-toxic metal treatment could significantly lower costs once it progresses from piloting to commercialization.

Each DES formulation, composed of salts and organic compounds, is specifically tailored to a particular task. This flexibility allows for a wide range of applications in the metals industry.

In South Africa, the smelterless Kell hydrometallurgical processing technology is gaining attention at Sedibelo’s Pilanesberg PGMs mine in the North West province. Sedibelo announced its collaboration with Kell over a decade ago at the premises of the state-owned Industrial Development Corporation (IDC). This partnership also includes the IDC and Kell founder Keith Liddell. Liddell conceived the smelterless concept in the late 1990s while working at Mintek, South Africa’s state-owned mineral research organisation in Johannesburg.

These developments reflect the South African mining industry’s commitment to innovation and sustainability. The involvement of renowned figures like Cockerill, Cutifani, and O’Neill underscores the industry’s dedication to adopting eco-friendly practices and technologies.

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