24 July 2023 | Story André Damons | Photo Stephen Collett
Biogeochemistry building opening
Dr Glen Taylor, Senior Director: Directorate Research Development left; Prof Paul Oberholster, Director of the Centre for Environmental Management, second from left; Dr Robert Hansen, Director of the CMBG; Dr Mariana Erasmus, deputy director of the CMBG; Prof Francis Petersen, Vice-Chancellor and Principal; and Prof Danie Vermeulen, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, were present at the unveiling.

The Centre for Mineral Biogeochemistry (CMBG) in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) showed off its new state-of-the-art facility at a “soft opening” to a select few guests which included the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the university.

The new facility, which boasts various laboratories, is funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and will, amongst other initiatives, host a Mineral Biogeochemistry Research Infrastructure Platform.

Prof Francis Petersen, UFS Vice-Chancellor and Principal, unveiled the building on Monday 17 July 2023, saying the centre, which was approved two years ago, is “where we want to go as a university”.

Dr Mariana Erasmus, deputy director of the centre, said the aim of the soft opening was to show it to a select group of people and thank them for the important role they played in finalising the new facility.

The official opening is planned for next year.

Partnerships are important

According to Prof Petersen, partnerships are important and the centre, with its already established partnerships with the DSI and in the fields of mining and agriculture, brings together other partnerships outside the university.

“As part of vision 130, we want to build and expand our research capacity, but not just research capacity, but research capacity of great quality. That is very important. We will do that on our own, but also with partnerships. The partnership is not only with other universities, other researchers and science councils, but partnerships with the funders and I know that the DSI has been a key funder of this particular group and we must start to expand that,” he said.

Prof Petersen said the question that usually gets asked is why this is being done and the answer is, to make an impact. This impact, Prof Petersen explained, could be process impact on an industry.

“We either make the process much more sufficient, come up with new processes, develop a new product and therefore you make not only the business process sufficient, but you also start to make products that can impact the market and society. And that for me is always the question one should ask when we talk about centres such as this particular centre where they interface much closer with the recipients who will utilise the technology.”

He also challenged the CMBG to not only get some of the postgraduate students in programmes within the centre, but to also make inter-institutional collaborations much stronger because that is one of the areas which needs to be developed.

Prof Petersen said the centre played a critical role during the tragic Jagersfontein disaster in the Free State where a mine tailings dam wall collapsed. He said the CMBG had first tried to understand what was in the sludge from the dam and secondly; what level of rehabilitation would be needed and how it would be done. The centre also did further analysis to create a database or experiential learning that will ensure that things like this do not happen again.

“That is an impact, a technical impact, but also an impact on the lives of people. A lot of people could have died during that particular incident. The centre’s work was recognised by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.

“This is really what a university is about; it is about training, development of human skills, research, making research impactful, collaboration, and where we can co-create,” Prof Petersen said.

Amongst those Dr Erasmus thanked were Prof Danie (Vermeulen, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences); Prof Paul Oberholster, Director of the UFS Centre for Environmental Management; and Dr Glen Taylor, Senior Director: Directorate Research Development, who she said were their leaders and mentors and said without whom they would not have been as successful thus far.

“We hope to make this state-of-the-art centre a flagship of the university. We owe all our current and future success to you. We really appreciate all your leadership and mentorship. We are looking forward to growing this centre and hope we can make you proud.”

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