THE EDITOR, Sir:
I note with interest the announcement made by Minister of Mining Phillip Paulwell in the House of Representatives on January 15, 2013. The minister announced that a memorandum of understanding has been entered into between the Jamaican Government and the Japanese company, Nippon Light Metal, for the extraction of rare earth minerals from our red mud. This certainly holds great promise.
However, it may be of interest to your readers to note that the late Robert Lightbourne, former minister of trade and industry, invented the process of extracting valuable mineral by-products from 'red mud' right here in Jamaica in 1971. (The Daily Gleaner of December 11, 1971)
Aware of the tremendous potential of the discovery, Lightbourne and Mr Barclay Baetz, his partner in inventing the process, filed patents in several countries and, according to The Sunday Gleaner of December 12, 1971, applied for and obtained a patent in Jamaica. The patents were held by Lightbourne in his capacity as a private citizen.
Lightbourne had a laboratory in which he conducted many experiments with the red mud. As I can recall from my personal interaction with him, he was a man of many ideas. When ask by The Gleaner's industrial reporter in 1971 to comment on his colleague and partner in their long but successful research, Lightbourne had this to say:
"It has been a long haul since 1956 when I first asked Alcan for the red mud, when Mr Baetz and I set out, perhaps with more optimism than good sense, to find answers, but I could not accept that the Good Lord intended us to throw away our red mud."
Lightbourne's process enabled iron, titanium dioxide and residual aluminium to be extracted from the red mud. It was reported that the feature of the process is the high quality of the end products. Analysis of the iron showed that the very high quality of 99.55 per cent pure iron (free of phosphorus and sulphur). The resultant titanium dioxide is extracted by means of the tetrachloride process and is therefore of the best grade pigment quality.
The alumina, which is predominantly aluminium sulphate, is very low in iron and seems able to be used for paper and other industry, as well as for water and sewage treatment. (The Gleaner, December 12, 1971)
It was also reported that Alcoa and Alcan, two of the leading bauxite companies operating in Jamaica at the time, examined the newly invented process and had found it to be chemically sound, and preliminary evaluation suggested that a million tons per year per plant for treating 'red mud' would be economically viable.
At the time, Lightbourne's invention was regarded as a major international breakthrough in the industry, which had been seeking for many years to find a method of making economic use of red mud and extracting more valuable mineral properties from it rather than paying for pumping and storing it. It was also seen as having the potential to accelerate Jamaica's industrial development and perhaps bring about a revolution throughout the world.
As to why we did not develop an industry based around Lightbourne's discovery is not known. One can only hope that this renewed interest in the red mud will make great progress.
OSWALD G. HARDING
Dean, Faculty of Law
University of Technology