Gem industry gets boost with dedicated research | Daily News

Gem industry gets boost with dedicated research

The team of dedicated researchers involved in gem stone research.

Dr. Prashan Francis, Director General, Gem and Jewellery Research and Training Institute (GJRTI)

Mother Nature has gifted Sri Lanka with many types of natural resources and among them gem stones are quite significant. Sri Lanka is gifted with a variety of gem stones. Despite the smaller size of the country, it is surprising to have around seventy gem varieties compared to countries with huge land masses.Most areas of the country other than Jaffna peninsula possess gems, while Ratnapura area is famous for gems for many centuries.

Composites made of nano scale gem material (quartz and tourmaline)

Gems of Sri Lanka adorn the royal crowns of several countries and are exhibited in many museums world over. Legends reveal that King Solomon presented Queen Sheba with gems brought from Sri Lanka. Marco Polo, the explorer, mentions in one of his journals about a gem stone he had encountered in Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon, thus, “A span in length, without a flow brilliant beyond compare.”

In ancient Sri Lanka, all lands other than those known as Nindagam, granted by the king to a nobleman or an individual, belong to the King, therefore, it follows to reason that whatever spoils including gems that belongs to such land, were taken for granted as King's property.

The gem-mining was governed by certain laws and regulations. This is shown by the following extract from the records of Robert Knox (An English sailor imprisoned by a Kandyan King), which reads thus “In this island are several sorts of precious stones, which the king for his part has enough of, and so careth not to have more discovery made. The one who disobey were executed by impaling on a pole.”

For quite some time Sri Lankans have mastered the art of gem exploration, simply observing the residual sediment material found on the riverbanks, they could predict gem deposits. In addition, they use a long steel rod called Illumkura. Inserting the rod into the ground and pulling it thereafter, they inspect the material adhered to the rod.

This simple process enables them to accurately identify the gem deposits. Even today most gem deposits in Sri Lanka are discovered by villagers depending on the traditional knowledge which was passed down from father to son.

They are always successful in carrying out environmentally friendly and sustainable mining operations. Accordingly, they use local materials, which are freely available in the surrounding environment, namely, Arecanutstems,and other locally available wood. For water retention they use Kekilla leaves. This ancient practice in most gem mining operations is modernized merely by the addition of water pumps for de watering. Recently, there is a trend to exploit gem deposits using mechanized mining methods.

Sri Lanka is a small country and gem deposits are an exhaustible resource, hence mechanized mining would not be a sustainable practice in the long run. Fortunately, this fact had been identified by the higher ups and the practice was nipped in the bud.

Unlike other industries there are limitations in applying most modern technology to gem exploration and mining. Therefore, precautions are taken to safeguard the industry sooner or later and to protect it for our future generations.

Various furnaces used in the heat treatment of gems

Gem and Jewellery Research and Training Institute (GJRTI), is the only government appointed body entrusted for gem stone research. It had acknowledged this mandate from the beginning and diversified its research for the betterment of gem industry.

There is evidence that Sri Lanka had been exploiting gem resources from pre-historic times. At present, gem stones are an exhaustible resource; hence to safeguard the gem industry it is necessary to find new gem fields or to evaluate the real gem potential of the present gem producing regions.

As such,a team of dedicated researchers attached to the GJRTI are currently involved in the mapping of potential gem bearing regions. These maps would depict the most probable, probable and poor areas simplifying the identification of areas economically viable for gem mining and thereby minimizing the risk factor. Additionally, these maps would pave a path for eco-friendly mining operations suitable for different areas of the country because Sri Lanka is a country having lot of locality differences.

Thus,guidelines and contouring indicated in maps would considerably reduce environmental damage caused during gem mining;in addition, these maps carry chemical fingerprinting data of known deposits. These data would really help to find frontier gem bearing regions, especially, primary gem deposits that are essential tosustain the Lankan gem industry.

Sometime ago Sri Lankan gem miners discarded a corundum variety called geuda stones as worthless material. Thai traders visiting Sri Lanka at the time bought that material in bulk for a song. After some time, Sri Lankans were able to acquire the secret of geuda enhancement and started practicing the heat treatment process by trial and error methods. Only a few could succeed in this attempt. There were no parties involved in the research relating to this specific area. As such, identifying the necessity and the potential of this value addition process, a team of researchers at the GJRTI started researching on geuda heat treatment.Both gas and ultra-modern electric furnaces are used in this research, especially, corundum varieties such as diesel geuda, silky geuda, milky geuda, and patchy geuda (ottu) were subjected to heat treatment under various conditions.

Thus, oxidation and reduction conditions were created within the heating chamber by adding certain chemicals or pumping certain gas types to the chamber. So far, they have achieved commendable results in relation to various types of corundum varieties. Following examples show a review of the success rate.

Colour changes of different types of corundum varieties subsequent to heat treatment

So far Lankans are only interested in the heat treatment of corundum, commonly known as geuda heat treatment. Nevertheless, heat treatment can produce or enhance colourin a variety of gems.It had been revealed that the heat treatment of gems other than geuda had been practiced in Sri Lanka for many centuries.This was proved by the revelation that they had produced brilliant white zircon called “Mathara Diamonds” out of undesired dull coloured zircon varieties. They had removed the turbidity of most spinel and made them to appear glassy by using charcoal furnaces.

These practices did not take place in recent times. As such,identifying the necessity and visualizing the potential of value addition GJRTI's researchers diversified their heat treatment research to other gem varieties such as moon stone, zircon, spinel (spinel having turbidity), quartz and tourmaline. Most people involved in the gem industry know that moonstones having undesired brownish tint are found in bulk quantities,associated with other feldspars, in the Matale region. The miners just sold them along with other feldspar material without any sorting, but such moonstones could have been heat treated to produce the moonstones of blush tint, which is highly sought after all over the world. The researchers attached to the institute have been successful in achieving this highly sought after bluish tint. As such, it was possible to produce value addition of this material by several magnitudes compared to its value in the raw state.

Likewise, it is possible to rectify a zircon eliminating its undesired colours. Yet, it was very difficult to produce colours like blue, which is highly sought after in the world market. At present, the researchers had been successful in achieving this blue colour, which can upgrade the value in common zircon significantly. In addition, they were capable of producing blue colour for material that was mostly sold for industrial purposes as heat treated rejects.

The third research group is involved in multifaceted research. Some are involved in the research of gem artifacts discovered during archaeological excavations. Rest of the team is involved in some innovative research, especially, on Nano technological applications of gem minerals.

They have already produced Nano composites made of semi-precious gem minerals like quartz and tourmaline. These can be readily used as a major component in water repellant paints and coatings; also in a variety of high-tech applications. Right now they are researching to find out the ways and means of applying these composites.

If they are successful they may be able to commercialize the findings of this research. It is noteworthy that the Nano-materials made out of semi-precious gems are price-marked for exorbitant values.

This discloses almost four hundred percent value addition. In addition, they are researching on Piezoelectric and Pyroelectric properties of gem minerals and their integration in high-tech applications. So far they have achieved a considerable amount of success and intend to achieve hundred percent successes during the next few years.

Right now the researchers are expediting the preparations to publish their ground breaking findings in both local and foreign refereed publications which were delayed for along time. The persons involved in gem and jewellery industry may be able to gain knowledge of these findings very soon and use them for the betterment of the gem industry.

This is an instance where a small team of scientists achieve ground breaking results. The secret behind this is their dedication and the liking for the subject. In addition to these two factors, leadership also plays a major role. Furthermore, the researchers are very fortunate to have a chairman,who understands the importance of real value addition and the importance of undertaking research to improve the industry. If everything is carried out according to schedule and once the above-mentioned research findings are commercialized, it is most likely that the gem industry as well as the whole country would be able to reap the benefits in the near future.

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