Monday, 17 August 2015

In conversation with Richard A. Williams

Professor Richard Williams is a remarkable man. He is currently a Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Birmingham UK and Head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, holding a Chair in Energy and Mineral Resources Engineering and leading work on large scale energy storage policy and technology.

Next month he will take over as Principal and Vice Chancellor at Heriot Watt University, a large science and engineering university based in Edinburgh, Dubai and Malaysia.

I first met Richard in 1986, when he attended the NATO Advanced Study Institute in Falmouth. He was then a Research Associate with Imperial College, UK, but it was obvious even at that early stage that he was destined for great things. In 1992 I invited him to the Editorial Board of the developing Minerals Engineering journal, a position he has held with enthusiasm and distinction ever since. But he is much more than a mineral processor. He is an academic leader, engineer and innovator, his leadership experience spanning a career developed at five UK Universities (Imperial, UMIST/Manchester, Exeter, Leeds and Birmingham) and he is one of the few engineers in UK to be an Academician of both the UK and Australian Academies of Engineering. He has particular experience at building and inspiring academic teams to develop significant new activities and business partnerships in UK and overseas locations. He has also been successful in the acquisition of global talent to build and focus research capacity and is widely networked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and three provinces in China. His direct experience with building businesses and business awareness in UK and internationally has yielded new strong university partnerships in rail, automotive, renewable energy, nuclear, space technology and defence sectors. Some of these are cross-disciplinary reflecting the necessity for future research frontiers to address social, technical, political and economic agendas.

His academic work spans scholarly publications in chemical and mineral engineering sciences, to applied engineering and instrumentation that has created new high throughput manufacturing processes with major environmental and business benefits. He was appointed full professor aged 33 and one of the youngest Academicians and Vice Presidents of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2000 and again recently in 2015. Amongst his many honours, awards and prizes is the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to science and engineering. He is on the technical advisory board of Lloyds Register Foundation.

Richard graduated from the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College in 1981 with a degree in Mineral Technology, and in 1985 with a PhD in the electrochemistry of ferrosilicon suspensions.

With fellow Imperial College students John Marsden and Cathy Evans, and their
former tutor Prof Tim Napier-Munn at the IMPC in Brisbane
After a brief period as a Research Associate, he took up a lecturing appointment at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) and became Honorary Professor of Chemical Engineering in 1993. In 1998 he became Royal Academy of Engineering – Rio Tinto, Professor of Minerals Engineering at Camborne School of Mines, which had recently been incorporated into the University of Exeter. In 1999 he left Cornwall to take up a position as Anglo American Professor of Mineral and Process Engineering at the University of Leeds, where in 2001 he became head of the Department of Mining and Mineral Engineering. In 2005 he was appointed Pro-Vice Chancellor for Enterprise and Knowledge Transfer and International Strategy and in 2010 for International Partnerships, before taking up the role in 2011 of Head of College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, and Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Birmingham.

At Birmingham he continued research in minerals systems with a focus on particle adhesion and wider systems energy. He was a Director of the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry and of the development of a new metallurgical activity in the form of a £60M High Temperature Research Centre in collaboration with Rolls Royce. These activities have developed the Coventry site as a major industrial campus for the University of Birmingham. In 2013 he became Professor of Energy and Minerals Resource Engineering at Birmingham, and in 2014 Honorary Professor at Taylors University, Kula Lumpur, Malaysia as part of the Grand Challenge Alliance. He is a visiting professor at Southeast University in Nanjing and at Chinese Academy of Sciences.

A characteristic of his fundamental work in particle, surface science and processing systems has been the way it has transferred to industrial practice. His early work on packing of ‘arbitrary shaped particles’ is widely cited and used in particle packing and waste management. The frustrations of visualising the invisible particle behaviour in opaque mineral slurries led to the creations and commercialisation of industrial electrical tomography, now used worldwide in minerals separation and audit, hydraulic conveying and food sectors. He was amongst the first to demonstrate desk-top use of x-ray tomography in mineralogical assessment of complex ores and multi-scale modelling of filter cakes. 
Richard with other UK Pioneers of Process Tomography, Ken Primrose, Prof Brian Hoyle,
Prof Lynn Gladden, Prof J Seville, Prof H McCann and Prof D Parker

Richard (right) and his wife Jane (left) and collaborators from the nuclear industry
receiving the Institute of Chemical Engineering prize for best innovation based company
(Industrial Tomography Systems plc) from Mr Boris Johnson


On Sky TV discussing the energy storage
and transport using cryogenic liquids
In the last ten years his interest in heat and cold transfer in nanofluids and process scale energy utilisation has contributed to new work in using cryogenic fluids to store energy, provide zero-emission transport, resulting in a National Centre for Cryogenic Energy Storage. Related commercial equipment is now being developed. In conversation recently he said “As an academic your latest research is often your best! For me this involves two topics. First, new fundamental measurements on the origin of stickiness in industrial powders. Secondly, and at a completely different scale, the adoption and wider understanding of what is now termed ‘the cold economy’ - as industries see how they can store power and create cold resource using cryogenic liquids. This has opportunity to transform energy utilisation in mining and other sectors. A story that we hope may unfold in coming years.”

As I said earlier, he is a remarkable man, and the above brief outline of his achievements only scratches the surface of his many achievements in what has been a relatively brief career to date. The wonderful thing, however, is that his many accomplishments has not changed the man within. He is still the friendly, unassuming man that I met all those years ago at the NATO conference in Falmouth, so it was a pleasure to talk to him about his life and his thoughts on the future of science and engineering.

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