Environment first: Chemical engineering's Dr Harro von Blottnitz (right) received a cheque from 3M for a research project on clean technology in the mineral industry. This will also involve Master's student Zimiti Mudondo (second from right). They were congratulated by EBE Dean, Prof Cyril O'Connor (far left) and Geoff Walker, General Manager of 3M's Traffic, Personal Safety and Electrical Group.
Environmental concerns have always been one of the main drivers of his research, says chemical engineer Dr Harro von Blottnitz.
Nursing environmental concerns is not always easy for a chemical engineer and Von Blottnitz (the name is Prussian) says he enjoys the tension of including both applied research for industry and objective evaluations on industry environmental performance in one research portfolio.
The UCT graduate (BSc in chemical engineering with first-class honours in 1990; MScEng in 1994, doctorate at RWTH Aachen, Germany) said more applied research was needed to solve the environmental problems associated with toxic chemicals, high energy consumption, dust generation and liquid effluents, which were among the main environmental watchpoints for the process industry.
"My research interests are inspired by the multiple challenges of sustainable development in the resources industries," he said. These span the fields of environmental systems analysis, renewable fuels processing and waste management.
He was thus delighted when he learnt that the American arm of diversified technology giant 3M had granted US$5 000 towards research into the adoption of the concept of clean technology in the South African minerals processing industry.
The sponsorship came as something of a surprise, he said. "3M wrote to UCT's EBE faculty asking for proposals for research projects for grant funding. We now have the luxury of defining the detailed research plan with a budget already secured. It's philanthropic in a way, which is very welcome in my line of research," he commented.
Clean technology in the metals industry is a particularly big challenge as mining operations tend to leave large footprints on the biophysical environment. "As primary industries, they take from nature. A ton of ore is needed to produce four grams of gold. The industry is literally moving mountains to get metal sometimes," he added.
The research project will also provide some new challenges. "It's not a typical laboratory project where you mix up some chemicals and see what happens," he explained. It will involve fieldwork; interviewing people and employing survey techniques, skills he and his team are keen to learn.
Master's student Zimiti Mudondo will play a key role in the project and Von Blottnitz hopes to assemble a multi-disciplinary team involving colleagues with design and other expertise in the minerals industry to advise her.