Saving METALS FOR OUR FUTURE GENERATIONS
Sehliselo Ndlovu is the first black woman president of the SA Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and is associate professor in the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering at Wits University, writes Sue Grant-Marshall
Please call me Selo,” says the engaging associate professor, Sehliselo Ndlovu, who has come full circle with the SA Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM), for it used to send mining books and magazines to the BSc engineering student in metallurgy at the University of Zimbabwe.
Later on it paid for her air ticket to Imperial College London. There she obtained her PhD in Minerals and Mining Engineering with a Biohydrometallurgy specialisation, in 2003.
“I grew up with the SAIMM, which serves the needs and interests of mining industry professionals, playing a pivotal role in my chemical and metallurgical engineering life,” says Ndlovu. “It also paid for a year’s tuition at Imperial College so I am incredibly proud to now be its president.”
She is passionate about advancing and promoting the field of metallurgy and was instrumental in the establishment of the SAIMM young professionals’ council on which she serves.
“It involves youth in decision-making processes around the current challenges in the mining industry,” she elaborates.
Ndlovu began teaching and doing research in hydrometallurgy at Wits University in 2004.
“We use solutions such as acids, alkalis and complexes to extract metals from natural ores, as well as recovering metals from secondary sources such as waste materials.”
The latter include catalytic converters in old cars, cell phone batteries, computers and so on in the e-waste field.
“In Europe and other areas of the first world that have exhausted their virgin minerals for the most part, they now talk about the ‘circular economy’. We need to save metals for future generations, not least because it is metals that will drive the fourth industrial revolution,” says the professor.
Raise an enquiring eyebrow about the extensive use of metals and Ndlovu points to my clothing accessories, ring, even my handbag to illustrate her point.
It is Ndlovu’s comprehensible manner of communicating the intricacies of her science that has made her such a popular teacher in the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering at Wits.
She is currently supervising five PhD and 13 master’s students and the list of her supervision of higher degrees as well as her research papers and publications through the years would fill several newspaper pages.
Her research involves working with local mining companies to solve a number of challenges, ranging from finding solutions to acid mine drainage, developing new processes for higher metal extraction efficiencies at lower costs, and conserving water and energy in the metallurgical processes.
In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she has been involved in curriculum development at the school, which led to a new one being implemented in 2015.
She’s been involved in collaborative research with universities in Germany and Argentina, sending students there as well as to the US.
In view of the load on her slim shoulders, it’s no wonder that her students ask how she manages to be so well read and up to date on the topics they are researching.
Ndlovu’s journey to her current position is impressive.
She was born and grew up in Plumtree, Zimbabwe, before moving to Bulawayo with her postman father so she could attend St Columba’s High School there.
On holidays back home, she and her six siblings helped her mother work in the fields, cultivating maize, groundnuts and sorghum, as well as looking after cattle and goats.
“It was incredibly hard work and I didn’t like it much,” she says frankly.
Her interest in mining was a byproduct of her passion for “the ground, soil and minerals but the University of Zimbabwe did not encourage women in mining so I concentrated on metallurgy,” she says.
Ironically, her first job was working for Bindura Nickel Corporation where the then young woman designed a caustic soda production plant for the whole refinery section in 1998. She went on to work in ferroalloys before moving into diamond production, overseeing the day-to-day running of the diamond recovery department at Bubye Minerals near Beit Bridge.
Shortly afterwards she went to London to study for her PhD and had been offered several jobs in the British capital as well as in Canada before a colleague alerted her to the possibility of working at Wits.
“I wanted to come home to Africa, so when I got a call from the head of the school here, I didn’t hesitate.”
Today the busy professor, whose husband is a mechanical engineer, copes admirably with the difficult work-home balance with their son, aged 11. She relaxes by doing gym, running half-marathons, baking cakes and watching sci-fi movies.
MANY IRONS IN THE FIRE Professor Sehliselo Ndlovu