MechChem Africa talks to Alan Cousins, who has been member of SAIChE for over 30 years and, for the past ten years, the chemical profession’s representative on the professional advisory committee (PAC) for ECSA.
Alan Cousins was born and educated in Zimbabwe. “I completed A-Levels in Zimbabwe in 1979 in pure and applied mathematics, physics and chemistry. Then I was in the last call-up for national service and was commissioned into the new Zimbabwean army, where I spent most of my time getting my colleagues released early,” he tells MechChem Africa.
“After completing national service, I wanted to go overseas to study in the UK, but it was just at that time that Margaret Thatcher pulled the funding plug on overseas students and I couldn’t afford it,” he continues. ““So I applied for and was awarded a Union Corporation bursary to come down to the University of Cape Town to study Chemical Engineering.
“I came to South Africa in 1981 and graduated at the end 1984. At about that time, Union Corporation merged with the General Mining and Finance Corporation to become Gencor. On completion of my studies, I joined Gencor as part of my bursary obligation and ended up going to Impala Platinum’s precious metal refinery in Springs, where I worked from 1985 to 1987,” he reveals.
For a young graduate interested in chemical processes, “this was a good place to be”. The options for a young chemical engineer in a mining company at that time were gold or PGMs (platinum group metals) and “I wasn’t too impressed with the chemical engineering involved in gold processing,” Cousins explains.
“The Springs precious metal refinery was a place with an intense chemical engineering focus at that time. A whole chain of extraction processes was being used to separate out the different metals, including solvent extraction; inorganic leaching; ion exchange; and calcining. The refining processes were much more chemical extraction focused than those used for gold,” he explains.
“PGMs are really hard to ionise, but when they do, they form some amazing compounds. Iron has Fe2+ and Fe3+ ionisation states, but PGM metals can form ions with a charge of 2+, 3+, 4+ or 5+. These all form different complex salts, so the R&D side is fascinating,” says Cousins.
A primitive process
“In those days, PGM extraction was fairly primitive, involving Aqua Regia leaching, salt precipitation and the emission of significant amounts of sulphurous and nitrous oxides (SOx and NOx)….