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National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

The School of Geosciences

For developing techniques to use legacy data to explore for mineral resources, support safe and efficient mining, and assess and mitigate geohazards.

The winner of the 2020/2021 for Data for Research Award was won by The School of Geosciences at Wits in recognition for the techniques developed to use legacy data to explore for mineral resources, to support safe and efficient mining, and to assess and mitigate geohazards. Because geological, geophysical and geochemical data is expensive to collect, but essential to the wellbeing of South African mining, the methods developed make a significant difference to data collection, analysis and geohazard mapping. The team leaders of this project are Professors Raymond Durrheim, Musa Manzi and Glen Nwaila.

Data gathering to save lives, improve operations and reduce the environmental impact of mining in South Africa

The data for research award recognises the work of an individual or team for the generation, preservation and sharing or re-use of a valuable scientific output. The University of Witwatersrand (Wits) School of Geosciences was awarded for achieving precisely that. Their body of work has allowed for the development of techniques that use legacy data to explore for mineral resources, support safe and efficient mining, and assess and mitigate geohazards.

Crops grow in soil, clay is used to make bricks, limestone and aggregate are used for concrete, bitumen is used for roads. Metals are used to make cars and trucks, and concrete to build bridges and dams. South Africa is richly endowed in minerals that meet local needs and earn foreign exchange; mining contributes about 9% of the GDP. However, there is a need to mitigate its impact on the environment while ensuring that it achieves its economic goals. This is where the School of Geosciences’ work comes into play.

“South Africa is a country where Earth’s resources are important for modern society, and mining is the backbone of our economy,” Professor Raymond Durrheim from the School of Geosciences at the Wits explains. “However, mining does have a negative impact on the environment and poses risks to health and safety, so our work ensures that we derive the most benefit with the least harm.”

 

Geological, geophysical and geochemical data is vital for the discovery and mining of mineral resources and the provision of a safe and healthy environment, but producing it is expensive and time consuming. The geoscientists at Wits have developed techniques to extract new information from data that was collected decades ago by government agencies and companies to support mineral exploration, mining and geohazard mapping. The methods include using algorithms to automatically interpret gravity and magnetic data; to compute the attributes of reflection seismic data; and machine learning techniques to predict ore grades and geotechnical properties.

“Wits started out as a mining university, and people from virtually every faculty, from law to commerce to biology, are doing work that is related to mining,” says Durrheim.

There are five major fields in which significant contributions have been made by the Wits School of Geosciences team since 2000. The processing and interpretation of gravity and magnetic data; broadband seismic studies of the African continent; pre-stack processing of hard rock reflection seismic data and the computation of seismic attributes that have improved the resolution and information content of images of the subsurface; machine learning techniques to predict ore grades, facies, domains and geotechnical properties; and geochemistry. The work has received significant scientific recognition, some of the algorithms have been patented, and the methods have been widely applied by the industry, so it’s easy to see why this team received the Data for Research Award for this field in 2021. — Tamsin Oxford

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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