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EDITORIAL - Red mud: hoping for Dr Davis' further intervention

Published:Wednesday | January 23, 2013 | 12:00 AM

In an article in this newspaper yesterday, Dr Carlton Davis, an expert on Jamaica's bauxite industry, reminded of the substantial research done in the past to find economic uses for the tailings from the mining and processing of bauxite into alumina.

He could not report too much success on that score, although we believe that Dr Davis, deliberately perhaps, underplayed a significant success from that period of ferment, when he was head of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI).

For instance, research in Jamaica, led by Alcan, underpinned technology for the drying and stacking of the residue from the processing of bauxite into alumina, lessening the need for red mud lakes and the potential leaching of chemicals into groundwater. It is unfortunate that the research momentum of the 1980s did not continue, or that the drying of red mud did not emerge in Jamaica as the front-line way for disposing of the industry's residue.


Maybe Japan's Nippon Light Metal Company's pilot project to extract rare-earth metals from bauxite waste will, as Dr Davis hopes to be the case, excite new research in the commercial possibilities of the tailings.

Dr Davis' particular interest is the potential of employing microbiology techniques for extracting titanium, to be used in metal alloys, from red mud. Perhaps it may be feasible to obtain gallium from the alumina-refining process, on which work has been done in Jamaica.

He has suggested that the JBI and the University of the West Indies, collaboratively, get on with such research. This newspaper agrees. We, however, believe that Dr Davis can, and should, offer more than exhortations to these institutions.

Dr Davis, a former Cabinet secretary, is no mere bystander. He is a senior adviser to Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, which gives him influence.

As we noted in the wake of the announcement of the Nippon Light Metal project, a major deficit in Jamaica's development is its limited effort in research and development (R&D).

Our tertiary institutions do little primary research in the hard sciences, and when they do, much of what they achieve stays in the laboratories rather than finding its way into enterprise. Moreover, very few firms invest in R&D, partly for lack of capital, but also because they assume that they are constrained by Jamaica's state of development. Companies in countries like ours just don't do such things.


The larger issue, however, is the failure of our governments to imbue a culture of R&D. There tends to be talk of commitment to science and technology and the occasional spurt of effort to support these declarations.

But there is no fundamental action by government, past or present, that signals, especially to the private sector, that there is real substance behind the statements.

Noticeably, Dr Davis' call for the new research work on bauxite tailings was directed to a government and a quasi-government institution. But there is no reason why a private Jamaican firm, driven by the profit motive, and encouraged by appropriate taxation policy for R&D, should not be involved. Perhaps Dr Davis has such matters on his advice agenda for the PM.

In such an event, he may find ingenious research to discover a way to even make the iron from red mud competitive with the mining of naturally occurring iron ore, as was the hope of Robert Lightbourne.

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