Monday, 10 January 2011

Minerals engineering's crucial role in sustainability

It is only another 4 months to the start of MEI's conference Sustainability through Resource Conservation & Recycling (SRCR) '11 conference in Falmouth.

I wonder how many people are aware of the true significance of the minerals industry, and particularly minerals engineering, in any society. As I discussed in the blog post of 30 August, the minerals industry is crucial to civilisation and always has been. Ccivilisations throughout history have been based on a thriving supply of metals and minerals, and indeed the various ages of man are identified by products from the Earth- Stone, Bronze, Iron- which have played major roles in our evolution.

The minerals industry is the great feeder; without it other industries, and major fields of research, such as medicine, genetics, electronics would soon cease to exist, as everything we use is either mined or grown.

So why is minerals engineering so important? It has almost become a cliché in mineral processing papers to state in the introduction that processing has to evolve to treat ores that are not only becoming lower and lower grade, but are also becoming more complex and refractory. Not only that, but as well as the traditional metals required for civilisation, copper, lead, zinc, nickel etc, there are relatively "new" metals required, such as germanium and lithium, which present new processing challenges.

It is clear that without continuously developing minerals engineering research, civilisation as we know it would soon cease to exist, as the hitherto unexploited mineral deposits would remain unamenable to treatment.

In the 6th edition of my book Mineral Processing Technology I highlighted, in the Introduction, the inability to treat the huge zinc-lead- silver deposit at McArthur River in Australia. It ranked as one of the world's largest undeveloped deposits, with reserves estimated at 227 million tonnes, containing on average 9.2% Zn, 4.1% Pb and 41 g/t of Ag. Due to the extremely fine dissemination and intergrowth of the minerals, attempts to treat the ore by existing processing methods had proved fruitless. The 6th edition was published in 1997 so I must have written this section shortly after the publication of the 5th edition in 1992, because in 1995 the McArthur River mine commenced production, operated by McArthur River Mining, a subsidiary of Xstrata.

Not until Mount Isa Mines (MIM) successfully introduced the IsaMill was the fine grinding necessary for mineral liberation available for McArthur River to be developed. The complex mineralogy, combined with the ore's relatively high lead levels, made the lead and zinc virtually inseparable prior to smelting, and there are very few smelters which can process concentrate which is high in lead. These issues led Mount Isa Mines (later Xstrata) to develop a new lead-zinc process in partnership with Highlands Pacific, known as the Albion Process, involving a hot oxidative leach of the finely ground concentrates at atmospheric pressure.

The success of McArthur River is but one example of the importance of minerals engineering research, which continuously improves existing techniques, develops new ones and utilises new tools such as process mineralogy, as well as advanced computational methods for simulation and control.

So be proud of being a part of this industry and take every opportunity to sing its praises and emphasise its importance, and next time you are assaulted by some misguided idealist deriding the minerals industry ask if he has any idea where the spoon came from that he is banging on the table!

Hope to see as many of you as possible in Falmouth in May. The programme can be viewed here.


  1. I don't think there is too much doubt in (thinking) society about the importance (necessity) of metals and minerals supply.
    Societies "complaint" about mining revolves around the environmental and community costs of finding and exploiting mineral deposits.
    Of course, there are nimby complainers. I can't find a lot of sympathy for them, I'm afraid.
    So, my view is that the central issue is not about the necessity of minerals but how we go about their supply. How much of the reward is distributed to which groups and in what forms. An important example is the decision as to how much is spent meeting environmental requirements set out in regulation and how much society expects governments to look after these issues with the share of wealth they receive from mining. A simsr logic exists for community/social responsibility.
    Forcing the silver spoon down the throat of the ill-informed might provide some instant gratification. However, focussing a great deal more attention in minerals engineering research on techniques and approaches that recognise and exploit the lInk between the ore body properties and environmental and social outcomes might just increase the possibility mutual supping. Dining together can then lead yo all kinds of positive outcomes.
    Chris Moran, Sustainable Minerals Institute, Australia

  2. Many thanks for your comments Chris. I agree with you that my blog posting should be stating the obvious to anyone in the industry but I am not sure that such awareness exists outside the industry,

    There is a shortage of young mineral processors at the moment, and if we are to attract young people into the industry, we should be singing the praises in schools. In my earlier posting ( I described how, in the 70s and 80s, I and others at Camborne School of Mines spent a lot of time visiting schools, showing 6th formers how their fundamental science knowledge could be utilised in the challenging field of mineral processing. I never failed to recruit at least one student from each school to CSM. In fact I am sure that you will know one of them, Andy Stradling, who was at the JKMRC in the late 80s.

  3. Mining and minerals and metals and energy are essential inputs to a modern sustainable civilisation. A long time ago I startled a mining audience by saying that they were under-valued, moreover that their products were undervalued - that the global consumer did not pay enough for their products Globally, we treat the outputs of the mining industry as bulk cheaply priced commodities; and the industry operates in a highly competitive price taking setting which never really reflects the simple fact that we are trading in products that a non-renewable, depleting and essential. I think the mining industry has to get its act together and focus its act on the real sustainability questions and values of its existence - and that is not environmental management and proper operations of tailings dams. If the mining industry is ever to be optimal in its practice of sustainable dveelopment, it will be a leader in educating consumers (first) and citizens (second) about what is really involved in providing the metals for a television or ipod or motor vehicle or steel bridge. And rather than fudge or act with the bravado that the sector is known for, the sector's sponsorship of some really open and challenging forums at which the issues,options, dillemmas, challenges are posed and discussed would be most welcome. Such a proactive focus on mining and minerals and energy in the broader context of economic, social and environmental sustainability extending beyond the politically expedient "we create jobs" focus might do more to excite the imagination and interest of some of our better and brighter yougn matriculants.
    John Cole, University of Southern Queensland, Australia

  4. It might be appropriate to swamp every politician in sight with this message:

    Absolutely every material thing that we have comes from one of only two sources - either it grew somewhere and was harvested (agriculture, fishing, forrestry) or it was in the ground waiting to be found (exploration, mining, beneficiation, metallurgy, petroleum refining, etc.). Mining is thus an absolute sine qua non - no more mining, no more metals, thus no more advancement of civilization. Minerals engineering converts the rocks from mining into the minerals that become metals. None of that, no more metals, no more progress. Metallurgy produces the metals, manufacturing makes our knives, forks and fancy automobiles. If we lose our minerals engineers we'll be in a bad way indeed. We are losing them - the greybeards won't be around forever and we don't have the next generation in place.

    If society continues to value non-productive occupations (stockbrokers being but one example) more highly that the engineers who are vital to mining, minerals engineering, etc., society will have nought but itself to blame when the metals required for a civilized lifestyle become too expensive to be affordable, simply because the emerging economies will take their fair share somehow and the developed economies will become the third world...
    Mike Dry, Arithmetek Inc., Canada

  5. Over the past years you and I have been organizing the sustainability conference together. I know therefore all the valuable work you are doing in this regard, helping to keep our field up to date especially addressing pressing issues critical to the future of our industry.
    Thanks therefore for keep progressing this valuable MEI conference.
    Kind regards
    Markus Reuter, Outotec, Australia


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