Gestation: The Years Before
It is reasonable to suppose that 1946 was the year when a series of historical events began that eventually culminated in the formation of the Australian Coal Preparation Society. The progressive introduction of mine mechanisation procedures had resulted in an overall reduction in the particle size of run-of-mine coal. This was important in terms of coal quality. The coal from partially mechanised or non-mechanised mines was amenable to screening and hand picking, methods predominantly in use prior to 1946 at Australian coal mines. Coal having a large particle size was preferred for steam locomotive and domestic use, both important markets at this time. For the steel industry, control of coal quality was essential and, in view of the reduction in coal particle size, a central washery was constructed at the Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited Newcastle Steelworks in 1946. The objective was to reduce the percentage of overall ash forming constituents, and control fluctuations in the ash value, of coal being used to produce coke for the blast furnaces. This plant utilised a three product heavy medium separator for the large coal, and dry tables for the minus 25 mm fraction. Froth flotation was used to clean the flue dust medium for re-use.
Dr Russ Burdon, one of the foundation members of the Society, was associated with the construction, commissioning and training of staff for this project. Subsequently he lectured in this emerging technology, and these activities over the next 19 years were fundamental in developing reasons for the formation of an Australian Coal Preparation Society, which continues to be orientated to education of personnel for the coal preparation industry.
In 1948, a four-year degree course in Mining Engineering was introduced by the New South Wales University of Technology (now The University of New South Wales) which included a subject ‘Preparation of Minerals’ and involved considerable lecture and laboratory work in coal preparation. Dr Burdon organised and presented this course. With the assistance of a generous grant from the Joint Coal Board, laboratories were developed for practical sessions, and the School of Mining Engineering became a major institution for teaching and research in coal preparation.
Academics from the School developed a close relationship with the developing coal preparation industry and engaged in joint and individual research work. During this period the Joint Coal Board (JCB), the Australian Coal Association Research (ACAR, later ACIRL and now ALS) and the CSIRO were active in the field of coal preparation, with much research and investigational work being accomplished. Numerous plants were constructed and, by 1962, 33 plants were operating in NSW, with 70% of raw coal being treated. Companies interested in various aspects of coal preparation technology were operating.
It is interesting to note that, during this formative period, the first International Coal Preparation Congress was held in Paris in 1950, the second in Essen in 1954 and the third in Liege in 1958. A list of all International Coal Preparation Congresses is given in Table 7. The second edition of the reference work ‘Coal Preparation’, by David R. Mitchell, was published in 1950.
In 1959, Dr Burdon visited the United Kingdom to study developments in coal preparation. At the University of Leeds, Dr A Jowett had developed a strong interest in the subject. The first symposium on coal preparation at Leeds was held in 1952, followed by a second symposium in 1957. It was apparent that communication and exchange of technical information on coal preparation was much better in the United Kingdom than in Australia. This was assisted in the UK by the existence of the Coal Preparation Society, which held regular meetings and encouraged the circulation of papers. While visiting the Automatic Coal Cleaning Co. Ltd at Durranhill, Carlisle, Dr Burdon had the privilege of discussions with Walter Wallace, Wilf Ratcliffe and other engineers. It was at this meeting on May 15, 1960 that the idea of forming a Coal Preparation Society in Australia was first considered.
By 1961, it was apparent that a satisfactory standard of education for coal preparation at tertiary level was being maintained in Australia. However little was being done to assist the training and exchange of technical information for plant operators. The ‘Coal Miner’ journal had a wide circulation in the coal industry, and Dr Burdon prepared a series of papers for publication, the first appearing in the Coal Miner in August 1963 under the heading ‘The Principles of Coal Preparation’. It carried the following editorial note: “This is the first of a series of articles on coal preparation. It is hoped that they will stimulate interest in this essential part of the industry as well as assist those who are engaged in washery operations. The author will endeavour to answer any correspondence on the topics discussed in this and future articles”.
The papers that followed, on such topics as particle sizing, float and sink analysis and flotation techniques, were most successful. It appeared that a formal course in coal preparation technology, presented by lecturers prominent in this field, would be of value.
The University of New South Wales had established a format for such courses and supported the proposal. It was decided that the course would be presented at the Wollongong University College because of the proximity to important coal mines. Dr Burdon, J Mackenzie, Prof. Gray and Roger Gadsden had discussions. The Illawarra branch of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy supported the proposal, and the management of the Australian Iron and Steel Co. Ltd guaranteed a minimum number of enrolments. Five lecturers prepared a series of eight weekly lectures.
The speakers handed out printed lecture notes to the 46 attendees. In view of the interest, a special open forum was arranged after the completion of the formal lecture course.
On the world scene, the Fourth International Coal Preparation Congress was held at Harrogate in 1962. Paper D6, ’Some factors influencing the rate of flotation of coal’ by Dr Burdon, was the first paper by an Australian author in this series of Congresses. A paper entitled ‘Coal Preparation in Australia’, published in Australian Mining, March 1967, described the results of a survey conducted by Dr Burdon in 1966.