A SAFE, rapid and environmentally friendly method of measuring coal density has won the Australian coal industry's ACARP research excellence award in coal preparation for 2002.
Developed by the University of Queensland's Julius Kruttschnitt Mineral Research Centre (JKMRC), the UltraSort JK Pycnometer supersedes a laboratory-based heavy liquid technique, and the associated health and chemical disposal risks posed by the old method.
JKMRC researchers Dr Geoff Lyman and Andrew Jonkers won the award for their pycnometer, a technical innovation resulting from the ACARP-funded 'Safe, Rapid Coal Washability Assessment' project.
The JKMRC's innovation was selected from 160 current projects administered by the Australian Coal Association research program for the Australian coal industry.
Ross McKinnon, executive director of ACARP's management company Australian Coal Research Ltd, pointed out at the ACARP tenth anniversary function in Brisbane recently that a number of the awards for 2002 were given to groups working on the environmental impact of coal mining.
The award to the JKMRC was one such example where the use of organic heavy liquids for float-sink testing had caused increasing concern over potential health hazards.
"A lot of work has been done to find a non-toxic alternative," Mr McKinnon said.
"The JKMRC has come up with an entirely new approach in which dry density of individual particles is determined by separate mass and volume measurements."
Geoff Lyman accepted the ACARP award on behalf of the JKMRC and his colleague Andrew Jonkers.
"It's really quite a feather in the JKMRC's cap to be the originators of a project that has led to the successful commercial development of a machine to do this kind of analysis," Dr Lyman said.
"Gas pycnometers have been around for a long time, but they are slow to use and operate, and there is no way you would consider putting thousands of particles through a conventional laboratory gas pycnometer."
Dr Lyman said the new pycnometer had the capability of analysing 30 particles a minute, equating to the required 3000 particles in 100 minutes to get an accurate measure of the density or washability distribution.
Use of the instrument is at present confined to particles greater than four millimetres.
"It is now possible to put 3000 or so particles into the feed hopper of the machine, choose the density fractions into which the particles are to be stored, start the machine and come back an hour and a half later and collect the results."
He said the speed of the new pycnometer was remarkable: "Future models may work even faster."
Dr Lyman said that while the pycnometer had been developed to eliminate the use of toxic heavy liquids in the analysis of coal samples, another beneficiary of the technology would be the mineral industry, particularly iron ore and manganese, and anywhere else that gravity processes were used.
The pycnometer has subsequently been licensed for manufacture and sale to Sydney-based sorting machine company UltraSort through the JKMRC's commercial subsidiary JKTech Pty Ltd.