Prof Christie Dorfling’s research helps improve extraction of valuable metals

Prof Christie Dorfling’s research helps improve extraction of valuable metals

Prof Christie Dorfling from the Department of Chemical Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU) delivered his inaugural lecture on Thursday 18 April 2024. The title of his lecture was “Hydrometallurgical extraction of metals from primary and secondary resources”.

Dorfling spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about how his research helps to improve the extraction of economically valuable metals from, among others, minerals, mining waste, electronic waste, and spent catalytic converters (devices that contain a catalyst that turns toxic gases from a vehicle’s exhaust into less harmful substances).

Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.

I started my career as an engineer at Mintek, working in the mining and metals industry. During this time, I gained experience in a range of aspects associated with the mineral processing and extractive metallurgical industries. It allowed me to develop an appreciation for the technical challenges inherent to complex processes and continuously changing conditions, as well as the significant role that the mining and metals industry plays in South Africa. For this reason, I decided to contribute to the mining and metals industry through research when I was appointed as a lecturer at Stellenbosch University. Hydrometallurgy (extracting valuable metals from their ores i.e. naturally occurring minerals or rocks), specifically, is very relevant because it is often considered as a potential processing route when seeking process solutions for low-grade resources.

How would you describe the relevance of your work?

The availability of high technology metals is critical to the development and manufacturing of equipment and devices that have become integrally part of our daily lives. However, as the grade of ore bodies gradually decrease and alternative ore bodies are evaluated, it becomes more difficult to recover these metals of interest. Novel technologies such as hydrometallurgical processes must be developed to allow economic recovery of these metals of interest.

Your research focuses on the hydrometallurgical extraction of metals. What are some of the real-world applications of your work?

Hydrometallurgy plays an important role in the development of processes for the treatment of secondary sources such as mining waste, electronic waste and spent catalytic converters. The recovery of metals from these secondary sources is important from an economic as well as environmental management perspective and in support of the global drive towards a circular economy (reducing the consumption of raw materials, designing products in such a way that they can easily be taken apart after use and reused, prolonging the lifespan of products through maintenance and repair, using recyclables in products and recovering raw materials from waste flow).

You have spent many years in the challenging environment of higher education. What keeps you motivated when things get tough?

For me, it helps to keep sight of the bigger picture and to maintain a realistic perspective: I try to spend my time and energy on decisions and activities within my control that are meaningful, add value and have a positive impact. I am also fortunate to be part of an excellent team in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and I am very grateful for colleagues who are always willing to support one another.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?

I am fortunate to engage with exceptional students, both through undergraduate teaching and research / postgraduate supervision, on a regular basis. It is fulfilling to be able to play a role in their development in some way or another, and to enable them to reach their potential and pursue their goals as future engineers.

Photograph: (from left to right) Prof Corné Schutte (Vise-Dean: Research), Prof Celeste Viljoen (Acting Dean: Faculty of Engineering), Prof Christie Dorfling (Chair: Department of Chemical Engineering), Prof Nico Koopman (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Social Impact, Transformation & Personnel) and Prof Joubert van Eeden (Chair: Department of Industrial Engineering).

Credit: Ignus Dreyer (The Stellenbosch Centre for Photographic Services).