Mining Positron Emission Tomography (MinPET)
Adding sparkle to diamond mining challenges
Professor Simon Connell is the leader of the MinPET Research Group at the Department of Mechanical Engineering Science in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Johannesburg. His project focuses on applied nuclear and particle physics, diamond geology and diamond physics.
Diamond mining is the most extreme example of a valuable mineral among large amounts of waste in the mining industry, with just a few grams of diamond extracted per 100 tonnes of kimberlite. The application of artificial intelligence, machine learning, digital twins and big data could shift the profitability and success of the industry.
The Mining Positron Emission Tomography (MinPET) project draws on nuclear and medical technology to find diamonds inside kimberlite rock. Prof Connell participated in the ATLAS Experiment at CERN, and was spurred on by the research and technology transfer that resulted.
The project focuses on the intelligent sensor-based sorting of diamonds in kimberlite, which could have the capacity to detect diamonds in online sorting at a rate of 700 tonnes per hour, for kimberlite rock sizes up to 10cm, finding enclosed diamonds of down to 5mm.
MinPET has already been scrutinised through five due diligence studies and has attracted investors for further development. It can be added to existing mines or included in the design of new mines, used for preventing undesirable diamond breakages that diminish the value of the mined product, or to prevent the processing of barren material.
The business case valuation for investors for this project would be in billions of rands in 10 years, with income likely after just three years, should the solution be installed at just eight of the world’s 50 diamond mines.
The project’s value — apart from its potential impact on the diamond mining industry — has been significant, including student training through research, the development of high-end local experimentation infrastructure, the forging of strong relationships with venture capitalists and technology partners, and the patenting of intellectual property from publicly funded research in South Africa.
Professor Connell’s history and legacy in physics is remarkable. His research interests are in particle physics, nuclear physics, materials science, quantum physics, high performance computing, and applied (innovation) physics.
As part of his participation in the ATLAS Experiment at CERN, he is part of a team that searches for the force carrier particles associated with dark matter, along with multiple other research projects.
His inspiration is to partner with others to make a small contribution to building the strong acceptance of physics as relevant to innovation, and ultimately, wealth creation in Africa, along with inspiring others to study physics.
“Science is the engine of socioeconomic development, and I dream of a uniformly wealthy Africa, and for all the positive change that that will bring,” he says. “This project has benefited from the contributions by amazing colleagues, students, technology partners and business people. Especially recognising the youngsters, I’m confident that the future is in good hands.”
“This is only the beginning — there is so much more to come!” he promises.
— Kerry Haggard
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