Monday, 30 August 2010

Is minerals engineering the world's most important branch of technology?

Is minerals engineering the world’s most important branch of technology? This is intended to be a leading and provocative question.

I have been following a discussion on the LinkedIn group Minerals & Metals Professionals Globally  on the worldwide shortage of mining engineers. There is a similar shortage of minerals engineers, as testified by the long list of job vacancies on the front page of MEI Online.

All Universities are in agreement that it is very difficult to attract students into the minerals industries. There aren't that many engineering degree courses out there to produce the next generation of minerals engineers. Mining is perceived as being dangerous, and the industry as a whole environmentally unfriendly, and is “ruining the planet”. One of the correspondents quotes his sister as speaking of his profession as the “dark side”.

What is the answer to this, and how should we go about attracting students into the minerals industry, rather than into cushy city jobs?

We should forcefully remind all detractors that mining companies do not mine for fun- it is a tough, dangerous business, as everyone knows after the recent events in Chile. The minerals industry serves society- without it society as we know it wouldn’t exist, as everything we use in our daily lives is either mined or grown.

Ask any pre-University student what is the most important branch of technology, and the answers will probably be computer science, electronics, genetics etc. What needs to be impressed on them is that without the minerals industry these branches of science and technology would not exist- they are totally dependent on sophisticated electronic instruments which need metals of every description. As ores become ever more complex and refractory it could be argued that the minerals engineer, whose job it is to economically extract these metals holds the key to sustaining and advancing modern society. Recycling also plays its part, but again it is the minerals engineer who has the key role, and recycling also presents immense technological problems- for instance how do we economically recover small amounts of elements such as lithium and germanium from used computers?

I would recommend that University academics take the time to speak to students in schools, and that the Institutes and mining companies provide the funding to do this.

There was a great shortage of minerals engineers in the 70s, due to the great mining boom, and many mineral processors were graduates in chemical engineering and physical metallurgy (I was one of them). During the 70s and early 80s, when I was a young lecturer at Camborne School of Mines (CSM), I was involved with an organisation called the Minerals Industries Manpower and Careers Unit (MIMCU) led by the late Geoff Cox. I discovered many years later that MIMCU was covertly funded by the South African Chamber of Mines, to recruit UK graduates to its, mainly, gold mines. MIMCU arranged and funded parties of students and their teachers to spend weekends at CSM to gain insights into mineral processing. The University of Birmingham was also very much involved with visits to the Ecton Hill copper-lead mine in Staffordshire, where I first met the very enthusiastic Terry Veasey, a senior lecturer at Birmingham.

With students at New Mills School in 1980
I also spent a lot of time visiting schools, showing students how their fundamental science knowledge could be utilised in a challenging field such as mineral processing. I can honestly say that I recruited to CSM at least one student from every school that I visited.

So my eponymous question, although provocative. was intended to encourage discussion and to get academics out on the road again.

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