Monday, 8 April 2019

Whatever happened to all the mineral processing polymaths?

It was interesting to hear that a new University in UK is to open next year offering only one degree. The London Interdisciplinary School aims to teach students to solve complex problems which cut across disciplinary boundaries, and to develop a polymathic way of thinking.
This is a bold step which acknowledges that these days many academics tend to be highly specialised and unable to take a truly holistic view of their chosen subject. This has become very apparent in mineral processing academia over the last few decades, where the pressure is on academics to pursue research and publications, often at the expense of teaching.
At the beginning of last century there was no recognised mineral processing profession. Ores were of high grade and any concentration necessary was undertaken by the miners using simple sorting and gravity techniques. The increasing demand for metals led to the development of flotation, and mineral processing became an acknowledged discipline, but teaching was the primary focus of the main universities, and the teachers were essentially well-rounded mineral processors, such as the legendary Arthur Taggart, the first person to be offered a Chair in Mineral Dressing, in 1919 at the Columbia School of Mines in New York (posting of 6th March 2012). His Handbook of Mineral Dressing is a massive volume, still used today, and I doubt if any mineral processor today would be able to match this in its scope. The recently published SME Mineral Processing Handbook is the modern equivalent of "Taggart" but this is the result of the efforts of a large team of specialists from academia and industry.
When I began my 22 year stint at Camborne School of Mines (CSM) in 1974, the majority of the academic staff had been recruited from industry, many like me from the Zambian Copperbelt. Very few had PhDs and there was very little research being undertaken. CSM's reputation had been built on its education of mining engineers by its fine teaching staff. The Royal School of Mines in London did have a world class research reputation, but research was not at the expense of its equally strong commitment to teaching.
Things began to change in the late 1980s, and when CSM was merged into the University of Exeter in the early 90s the pressure on academics to research and publish began to build, so I decided in 1996 to opt out and try my luck doing my own thing.
Now it is evident that teaching in many universities is secondary to research, and the pressure to publish for career advancement is enormous. Recruitment of staff from industry is now not the norm, and an increasing number of academics in minerals departments have never seen a mine, let alone worked on one. A typical career path is now postgraduate research leading to a PhD, followed by a junior lectureship, researching and teaching in the same narrow post-graduate field. And my experience editing Minerals Engineering has highlighted that these fields of expertise are becoming ever narrower, flotation for instance now having reviewers who can only assess papers in specialist areas such as flotation physics, sulphide flotation, oxide flotation etc. Reviewers who can assess work on 'general' mineral processing I usually choose from industry.
So are today's mineral processing students getting the broad-based education which they deserve and which is necessary in the modern mining industry?
As John Starkey pointed out in his comment on the posting of 17th December, there isn't a mineral processing industry. There is a mining industry, and mineral processing is part of it. Also, most mine sites have a mill on the site and very few mills exist that are not on a mine site. The expert mineral processor therefore cannot do his or her job well if he or she does not understand mining, because the concentrator’s feed always comes from a mine. Very few mine General Managers are mineral processors, they are mining engineers, who have a broad knowledge of not only mining, but geology, surveying, mineral economics, mechanical and electrical engineering, as well as mineral processing.
I was recruited to Camborne in 1974 to teach mineral processing on the mining degree, but three years later we also started a mineral processing degree. Although it turned out some excellent graduates, it was always difficult to recruit sufficient students to make it viable, and in retrospect I feel that the best route for producing good mineral processors is probably a broad-based degree in mining, followed by an MSc in mineral processing.
I would appreciate your views on this?
Twitter @barrywills


  1. With the increased academic nature of many (most) academics it seems increasingly unlikely that they will have competencies relevant to industry.
    The academic pitch of breadth sans depth and lack of interest or awareness of technical literature leads to many issues with solving problems.
    Good points you make re degree for mineral processing. Yet lack of the competency leads to many average or below average mills in processing performance. Some great opportunities for improvement!
    Robert Seitz, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


  2. Being the "middle" technical discipline means the need for a hollistic understanding to cover each vantage point in a mining operation. We emphasize inclusion of mining but Geosciences also needs to be synergised (even further) given the changing nature of deposits. An incorporation of deep understanding in mineral economics is also needed, not only in plain metallurgical accounting but to acknowledge how these accounting systems plays into the macro scale... Then there is also the need to get-into-the'know-how of all the latter into data and digital space.
    Aaron Nieveras, Senior Advisor - Technical Capability at Rio Tinto, Australia

  3. This is exactly what IIT (ISM) Dept.of Fuel and Mineral Engineering has done in the curriculum since 1984. A fine blend of Geology mining mineral processing and extractive metallurgy along with industry visits training projects to solve live coal in minerals processing plant operations form the contents of BTech and M Tech programs
    Prof. R. Venugopal, Teacher & Dean (R&D) at Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, India

  4. Barry,
    As you know, I’ve been working in mineral processing, process modelling, process mineralogy, pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy and worked in industry and academia. I find it sad that professions (not only engineers) are not taught by professionals with industry experience (and who can provide context), but by academic researchers out of touch with industry. This is even true for medicine these days where universities are focussed on medical research rather than educating good doctors and surgeons. I feel the only way to deal with this is through industry chairs (based on industry sectors, not individual companies) where a doctorate is not essential but a brod and varied indusry experience is valued and financially covered by industry. It is also the role of these chairs to engage with industry and learners and teachers in high school. To date, the baby boomer generation “rescued” industry from the imminent demographic precipice and the Gen X’s and millenials are just not there in sufficent numbers and very few remain to teach the next generation.
    Jacques Eksteen
    WA School of Mines

  5. By chance I read your Blog today and was pleased to see how you had used my comment.

    I reflect back on my own education as a Mining Engineer from the University of Toronto. In 6T1 as we used to say in describing our vintage or year marker. The mining degree was what I took and what I cherished. We took a course in Mineral Processing in our Mining program. It is also the reason I was able to sort out the SAG milling design question because in designing a SAG mill one is matching a mill to an ore body. The pure mineral processors cannot and did not do that – I believe because they were not well grounded in mining knowledge and did not understand the task.

    Regards, John
    John H. Starkey, Starkey & Associates Inc, Canada

  6. I am happy that this aspect related to mineral(coal) industry in general and mineral engineering in particular has been brought out. Mining,material handling,mineral(coal) processing and metallurgy/combustion have been working in silos and tight compartments. We never fully realised that it is a chain--mine to end use i.e. each operation has a significance affect on the other.
    For me, we need a paridgm shift in our approach and R&D. Ores are finite and so our target should be to recover each grain of any value from the ore we mine--may be extreme fine particle processing is the future. So we need energy efficient comminution systems(in least number of stages), innovative fine paricle processing technologies(preferably in dry state),new dewatering techniques, if it is a wet operation, and above all the present practices of metal extraction and combustion must change. to suite the form of concentrate one produces.
    Come out from present thinking and practices--quantum jump in methods and practices to ensure that there will be zero loss of value in tailings.
    Good characterisation of tailings thus produced and come out with appropriate technologies to use these tailings in other industries (constuction etc)
    Mine to metal is one package with environment as the boundary--work on these lines.
    I am happy that the name of Taggart had been broughtout. For me Taggart, Gaudin and Lynch --the names I greatly respect--what a wonderful work they did.We owe a great deal to them.

  7. It’s taken me years after my Ph.D. Coursework as an engineer of mine’s at the Henry Krumb School Of Mines, at Columbia University’s School Of Environmental and Applied Sciences, to appreciate Minerals Processing. My work there was largely statistical and geochemical Sampling’s & Valuations.
    There were No laboratories, not even old outdated machinery!
    I’m still limited and striving to educate myself to put it all together? Maybe the Field is just too complex to understand and be good at so many aspects of the mining business?
    It’s heartening though, that so many fine developments are coming of age presently in the minerals processing field and that there are still many competent Processing Professionals are out there. People like Outotec and others, to consult with....
    Arthur Michael Ambrosino, CEO
    Great Sacandaga Energy Metals Inc

  8. I think it's unfair for the academic institutes to shoulder all of the blame; on the production and operations side we are just as guilty of pigeonholing our talent. It is often too costly in the short term to give our technical talent the varied opportunities and exposure they would need to become polymaths, in spite of the long-term benefits that would generate for the organization. Once you're a specialist in one area, often you're too valuable to be given the opportunity to become one in another area. I suspect that's partly why it's easier to advance in a mining organization through the operations side, rather than through the technical or engineering side. This shortsightedness probably leads to unnecessarily higher employee turnover as well.

    Peter Amelunxen
    VP Tech Services at Hudbay Minerals


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