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Neville Plint's sustainable career in mining

- Heather Dugmore

Environmental sustainability, good governance, social responsibility and innovation have guided this alumnus for the past 30 years.

For 30 years Dr Neville Plint has been contributing to the mining industry.

Neville has a clutch of Wits degrees: BSc 1994, BSc Hons 1995, PhD 2000 and MBA 2004. He was the top management development programme graduate in 2001.Neville Plint is the director of the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland, where he is an adjunct professor 

He worked in the Anglo Platinum Group for 20 years, primarily based in Johannesburg at the Anglo Platinum Research Centre. Having started as a metallurgical analyst, he was eventually appointed as head of research and development in 2006. From there he moved to Anglo American as head of business improvement to oversee the building of the Centre for Experiential Learning.

Eight years ago, Neville’s family moved to Brisbane when he was appointed as the director of the Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI) at the University of Queensland (UQ), where he is an adjunct professor. He is also the CEO of Mining3, an Australian not for profit research company that develops ways to transform productivity, sustainability and safety in the mining industry.

“I’m collaborating with a range of transdisciplinary global experts,” he says, including scientists, engineers, anthropologists, sociologists, economists and natural resource specialists.”

Leaving their families and friends in South Africa was tough for Neville, his wife Catherine, née Nattrass (BSc 1995, BSc Hons 1996, PDipEd 1996) and their two daughters, but they have settled well. Catherine assists in the Chemistry Department at the UQ, is the music coordinator at their local church and loves participating in children’s ministry.

Neville met Catherine at Wits when she was doing her honours in chemistry and he was doing his PhD. “We were both in the Chemistry Social Club,” he explains. Neville loved his time at Wits despite the fact that his student life was largely lectures and part-time work to help pay for his studies. “Friday afternoons were the exception. They were dedicated to sessions at the Boz, the bar down at the sports field, and I have such good memories of times spent there.”

Neville even drew on the Boz to help first year students: “During my PhD, my supervisor, Professor Neil Coville (BSc 1967, MSc 1968), asked me to give first year lectures on thermodynamics. I would offer free beers at the Boz if students correctly answered some challenging questions. This proved to be quite a hit with the students!”

Neville has the highest regard for Prof Coville. “He was spectacular, so supportive, and he mentored and coached me all the way. Essentially he helped set me up for life through my PhD and I’m still in contact with him.”

As for Catherine, after completing her honours and a teaching diploma, she taught physical science and maths at high schools in Johannesburg. Her family has several connections with Wits. Her mother, Ingrid, née Rudman, Nattrass, completed a teaching degree through Wits and was an accomplished maths teacher for nearly 40 years. Her father, Dr Michael Nattrass (PhD 1974) went on to be the research and development manager for Chemical Services.Neville, Catherine and their two children have settled in well in Brisbane. Photo supplied

Catherine’s sister, Dr Gillian Sheridan (BSc 1999, BSc Hons 2000, MSc 2001, BA Hons 2017, MA 2019), completed a PhD in chemistry at Cambridge University, and subsequently her master’s in psychology. Gillian is now a practising psychologist. Gillian’s husband, Professor Craig Sheridan (BSc Eng 2001, PhD 2013), currently holds the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Water Research at Wits.

Neville, Catherine and their daughters visit South Africa as often as possible but they now love their Aussie lifestyle. “We rented for the first two years and then found a lovely home 15km west of the city, surrounded by farms and just up from a beautiful park. Our girls can easily hop on a bus and go into the city without us having to worry. Driving is also safe and relaxed here.”

The family enjoys walking in the surrounding neighbourhoods and visiting the beautiful local beaches. They have explored Queensland and New Zealand, but two of their favourite places in the world are still in South Africa: the Pilanesberg and Drakensberg.

Neville says they may still return to South Africa in the longer term. “I’m obviously acutely aware of the challenges in South Africa, but we remain proud South Africans. Until then, we will continue to enjoy our Aussie adventure!”

Mining and Microbes

"With the emphasis on technology and renewables, 21st century society needs plenty of minerals and metals,” says Neville. “We will need copper, nickel, lithium, platinum group metals, cobalt, and rare earth metals for renewable energy technologies.

“Mining in the near future will be required to have a smaller footprint with more mines being fully autonomous underground operations. We have to create a whole new generation of sensors, automation and technologies to run operations autonomously.  

We are working to reduce mining’s impact on the environment by reducing emissions, energy and water consumption and waste produced.

We can lower mining’s environmental footprint and at the same time increase efficiency and productivity by reprocessing legacy waste streams and rehabilitating these areas for future land uses. There is an opportunity for government, industry and academia to work together to find new uses for old waste streams and novel uses for old mine sites. It is important to include all stakeholders in these discussions including small-scale and artisanal miners.

“The next generation of mining will be the use of microbes and biotechnology, to extract metals underground into a solution that can be pumped to the surface for further beneficiation. A lot of interesting work is being done on bio-heap leaching, and we need to assess if this can be done underground to reduce surface impacts.

We are at the stage where it is not negotiable that mining needs to be done in a responsible and regenerative way.”