Winning Women – Professor Rosemary Falcon: At the coalface

2014-08-05 08:00

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Professor Rosemary Falcon, who has devoted 47 years of her life to coal research, is SA’s authority on a mineral that we all depend on to keep the lights on, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Clean coal sounds like an oxymoron. It seems absurd that something so patently dirty could be regarded as clean.

Professor Rosemary Falcon, who has devoted her life to a fossil fuel we cannot yet live without, smiles patiently at the apparent contradiction in terms before explaining: “We are looking at making it as clean in its production and usage as possible.”

Until the lights went out in South Africa in 2008, coal was just a boring black lump of rock to most of us. We had never heard of wet coal, fine coal, discarded coal or even that there was more than one type of coal.

All we wanted to do was burn it.

“There are many different kinds of coal and we can’t just throw them all into the same boiler. They need to be compatible for a particular boiler,” says Falcon.

She is the chair of clean coal technology at the SA Research Chairs Initiative at the University of the Witwatersrand. There she and her husband, Lionel, supervise 25 master’s and PhD students in research topics in clean coal technology. At the same time, they keep abreast of developments in coal science and technology throughout the world.

She also advises new and current businesses on coal selection, acquisitions and performance. Furthermore, Falcon hosts extensive education and training programmes for industry on coal and related energy-based topics.

But for her, research lies at the heart of the matter.

“Eskom only began research into coal in the early 1990s,” says Falcon.

This became necessary because beneficiation (separation into different grades) of coal meant Eskom was being fed lower qualities of coal, and sometimes the dregs, after the best coal was selected for export.

It also became necessary for Eskom to do research into types of coal supplied from different collieries that would best suit a particular power station.

This is where the focused expertise of multifaceted Falcon is found. She studied geology at the University of the Witwatersrand, but many of her peers, including her husband, are engineers.

“It’s fortunate that I was able to approach coal research from a geological perspective because doing fossil research gave me a clear idea of the differences in coal,” says Falcon, showing me a lump with a clear skein of high-grade coal running through it.

“In the 1970s, Europe was importing coal from us as well as from Australia, Canada and the US. And because all the qualities were different and South Africa’s coals had different performance characteristics, I was paid to train in advanced coal characterisation for utilisation in Germany in 1975.

“I was able to use my training in four really large research projects that I was awarded at the University of the Witwatersrand,” says Falcon.

However, the professor left Wits in 1982 with 28 other people who were working in coal research and set up the Falcon Research Laboratory.

She chuckles as she recalls “the really ramshackle old house we were in for over two years in Parktown”.

In the mid-1980s, Eskom asked her to join as a consultant and that was followed by a short stint at Enertech, a big coal research directorate at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, “but within a year the executive had decided there was no point in having a coal research institute”.

“Four major coal research laboratories closed, of which Enertech was the largest. In hindsight, it seems extraordinarily short-sighted that all the coal expertise in South Africa – and there were hundreds of highly specialised people in the field – was closed down,” says Falcon.

To this day, people tell her that it’s important to start an independent coal research centre, and she tells them: “It’s almost too late. Mining companies such as Exxaro, Sasol, Eskom and others do their own research now.”

Yet the professor believes there is still much to be done in terms of research into coal, its value and applications, “and there are so few people left here to do it”.

“We need to increase the efficiency of coal. Part of that is devising our own technology for South African coals because they are unique to us.

“Equipment devised overseas for our coal does not work for us.”

The mother of three children and grandmother of eight had a difficult start to life.

Her father died when she was nine years old and, due to a childhood illness, “I spent three years flat on my back in bed. That’s where I learnt to study,” says the softly spoken, gentle-mannered professor.

The mother of a Roedean School friend of hers, the eminent South African palaeobotanist and internationally renowned coal scientist Dr Edna Plumstead, “used to sit on my bed and tell me about coal and the plant fossils that made up coal”.

“She was hugely influential in my life.”

Today, Falcon and her husband have their Clean Coal Technology Research Group offices in the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering at Wits University.

The modest professor is reluctant to discuss her many awards, but in October 2009 she was given an award at the International Conference on Coal Science & Technology in Cape Town for “dedication and performance in the enhancement and sustainability of coal science in South Africa”. It was well-deserved recognition for the woman who, for 47 years, has worked in power generation, petrochemical conversion and heat production across the industrial chain for agriculture and a host of coal users, including the metallurgical industries. Maybe if more people had listened to her brilliant insights and reasoning many years ago, South Africans might sleep easier knowing their lights would stay on. The little pink book

Business tip

You have to know more than everyone around you. You need to be able to talk knowledgeably about your field and its applications.

Mentor

Dr Edna Plumstead. She was recognised throughout the international coal industry and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Britain and of South Africa.

Best book

The Encyclopaedia Britannica. You can’t find a better book when you’re confined to bed for years and are as curious about life as I am.

Inspiration

Author Graham Hancock. He researches facts, not fiction, delving into hugely controversial areas.

Wow! moment

Getting the SA Research Chairs Initiative chair of clean coal technology at Wits University. It’s allowed my husband and I to really put forward new research ideas and develop education.

Personal advice

Persevere! I’ve never given up in spite of the odds against a woman working in such a male-dominated world.

» Meet more women in the mining and natural resources sector by tuning into CNBC Africa (Channel 410) on Wednesday at 9.15pm #WOW410

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