The South African Chemical Institute

Promoting chemistry, chemists, the chemical industry
    and chemical education in South Africa






Obituaries 2016

Obituary: Professor R.E. "Robbie" Robinson (1929-2016)


    Robin "Robbie" Robinson passed away peacefully on the evening of 21 January 2016 after a brief battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife Diane, four children and eight grandchildren.

    Robbie’s Chemical Engineering career started in 1950 at the Government Metallurgy Laboratory, where his research to test and improve on Uranium extraction using ion exchange resins led to a PhD (1953), economical Uranium processing, and a secret thesis, lodged securely only at the Atomic Energy Board. After joining Anglo American as Head of their Chemical Engineering Lab, he was seconded to the Atomic Energy Board to direct their Government Metallurgical laboratory, which in 1966 became the National Institute for Metallurgy (NIM), a facility he directed until 1976.

    Those years, culminating in the Presidency of the South African Chemical Institute (1975-1976) saw a collaboration of research with University students, and an Honorary professorship (1969) in Chemical Metallurgy. Projects ranged from extraction and sale of rare earth elements, chemicals in beach sand, copper and phosphates, fuel from coal, ferrochrome alloys, platinum, and fluorine and resulted in establishment of friendships across the globe, across wide disciplines.

    Interests broadened when on leaving NIM in 1976, Robbie joined Sentrachem as Direct of Research (1976-1989). He recognized that innovative success depends on researching a portfolio of possibilities, led by a champion, something he acknowledged in accepting receipt of the 1979 South African Chemical Institute Gold Medal. Citing a list of contributors so long as to be unmentionable, he highlighted the success of collaboration, not individualism. His gold medal address to SACI (CHEMSA June 1980 page 96-101, was a plea for greater interdisciplinary collaboration as he linked mining with chemistry and agriculture, envisaging a number of mine clusters centred around a chemical plant utilizing agricultural by-products for food, fuel, chemicals and fertilizer production. 

    In retirement (1989), he expanded on a number of these themes not least of which was his desire for job creation. Against fervent argument, he refused to abandon the premise that thousands could be actively engaged in small lot farming around mines. Central was education, the treatment of acid mine water, hydroponic fertigation, the sale of chemicals and by-products, including fertilizer, animal feed, gypsum and later: energy, utilizing platinum fuel cells. Even with failing eye sight and deafness, he relentlessly called for research portfolios to economize, revitalize and capitalize on South Africa’s unique resources: the sunshine, the agricultural land, the minerals and the manpower, to create an educated, prosperous and industrious nation.

    Other interests:

    1. Photography: awarded black beret by Johannesburg photographic society. Started with South African landscapes, then wildlife, and later art and sculpture photography including an accurate photographic record of the University of South Africa’s 1100 piece art collection of sculpture, paintings, bead work and tapestry.
    2. His final works he started were to be entitled "Unfinished Symphonies"

    The first that was completed was the use and improvement of ion exchange resins for treatment of acid mine water and combination with a platinum fuel cell.

    The Second, not yet completed, but mentioned as an unfinished project in other texts, was the possibility of selective blast mining in reducing the 25% lost mine call factor, which he believed was partly lost in explosion dust. His plea was for this to be researched as a possibility as it would enable mining of lower grade ores.
    It is likely that 3, 4 or 5 projects were considered unfinished but necessary for South Africa and this probably included:

    Third likely related to hydroponic fertigation and small lot farming.

    Fourthly he was passionate about improving education, and getting school children engaged in research, in farm clusters, and in having mentors from the graduates in the mine communities.

    Finally, he was disappointed in the loss of research in chemical metallurgy, and promoted the concept of portfolios of research (SAIMM Journal Comment March 2015), Research Indabas perhaps being his final unfinished business, likely along the lines of the INFACON conference successes.

    Jenny Robinson