Monday, 12 May 2014

In conversation with CEEC Director Tim Napier-Munn

Twenty seven years ago I attended a conference on Hydrocyclones in Oxford. I remember very little about the conference, but I vividly remember having a pint or three in an Oxford pub, and meeting for the first time Tim Napier-Munn. I immediately liked his dry, self-deprecating sense of humour, and so began a long friendship, although as we live on opposite sides of the world we meet fairly infrequently.

So it was good to catch up with Tim at Comminution '14, which he attended with his wife Georgie, and where he presented a keynote lecture and took part in an excellent panel discussion on the future of comminution.

Tim (right) with fellow CEEC Director Mike Battersby, at Comminution '14
It also gave me the opportunity of having a long chat with him, to find out how the boy from England became Director of Australia's JKMRC, one of the world's most prestigious mineral processing research institutes, and then a Director of the Coalition for Eco-Efficient Comminution.

Although a couple of years younger than me, we both gained valuable experience in Africa at around the same time, in the early 70s. Also, like me, a career in mineral processing was something not ordained from an early age. One of his school friends had been accepted for the degree course in mining at the Royal School of Mines (RSM) in London, and Tim, very much like me, had fairly ordinary science grades, and wanted to do something a little different from the usual degrees in physics, chemistry etc, so followed his friend and applied to RSM. At the interview he was advised that he might not be suited to a mining career but was offered a place on the Mineral Technology degree course. As this looked more interesting he signed up for it, but did a 'gap year' after school and applied for a scholarship from the Overseas Mining Association, and  Anglo American sent him for 6 months to Finsch Diamond Mine, one of the De Beers mines near Kimberley in South Africa.

After graduation in 1970 he was offered a job at the De Beers Research Laboratory in Johannesburg and spent 7 years there, gaining valuable industrial as well as research experience. During his time there he undertook a part time MSc with the late Prof. Peter King of the University of the Witwatersrand, then returned to RSM to work under the late Prof. Henry Cohen for his PhD on Dense-Medium Cyclones. Part of the deal was for Tim to teach a number of courses, as a full time lecturer, including flotation, and notably statistics which had become one of his interests, and after completing his experimental work he returned to South Africa and De Beers, running the Mines Division of the Diamond Research Laboratory for four and a half years, and writing up his thesis in the evenings. He was awarded his PhD in 1984.
With Tim and Peter King in Brisbane, 1998
We both felt that our early industrial experience provided the foundations for our later careers, so I asked him what he thought of many modern academics, particularly those in Eastern Europe, who have followed a path of PhD-Research Fellow-Lecturer, with no industrial training, many not even having visited a mine. He believes there is a role for such routes and there are some excellent productive academics who have chosen this route, although engineering academics should teach with a knowledge of the industry and how it works. The advice he always gives to students who have just obtained their PhDs is to go as far away from the University as possible! "By all means come back later after practical experience, so that your teaching can be from strength".

There are very few 'general practitioners' these days in mineral processing, specialism being the apparent way forward, which leads to very deep understanding within a narrow field, but is this a good thing?  Looking at Comminution '14 for instance, there were very few people there who also attend other MEI Conferences. Chris Greet was a notable exception, a regular attendee at the flotation conferences, but Tim singled out his colleague Rob Morrison as a general practitioner with both an academic and industrial background, and a deep understanding of many facets of mineral processing, but such GPs are now a dying breed.

So how did Tim end up in Australia?  Tim and the family had been in South Africa for many years, and lived through the apartheid era, so it was time to move on and he had his sights on the Julius Kruttschnitt Mineral Research Centre (JKMRC) in Brisbane, as it had academically rigorous research completely linked into mining operations. He introduced himself to the Director and founder, Prof. Alban Lynch at an APCOM conference in London and they then flew out to another conference in Johannesburg, where Tim had the opportunity of showing him the De Beers Laboratory, which impressed him so much that in 1985 he offered Tim a position at the JKMRC as a senior research fellow to look after the P9 project, and other AMIRA projects, which gave him the opportunity of traveling around Australia and overseas, making valuable contacts for the JK.

When Don McKee took over from Prof. Lynch, Tim became Research Director, then when Don moved on to establish the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland, Tim took over as JKMRC Director in 1997, and in 2001 as managing director of the newly incorporated JKTech Pty Ltd. He also found the time to lead a small team of specialists in editing the 7th edition of what became known as Wills' Mineral Processing Technology.

Tim and Georgie with Don McKee, Cape Town 2003
Now 'semi-retired' he currently divides his time between the JK, mostly with the students, presenting professional development courses on statistics, consultancy work with JKTech, and his involvement with the Coalition for Eco-Efficient Comminution (CEEC).

CEEC is the invention of Gekko's Elizabeth Lewis-Gray, described by Tim as 'one of the great movers and shakers'. She created CEEC from nothing to bring together information on energy efficiency in comminution. With board members now from around the world, and only one paid employee, the "brilliant" Sarah Boucaut, CEEC now highlights important issues and facilitates debate in comminution energy efficiency.

We talked about his deep interest in statistics and his latest project, his book Statistical Methods for Mineral Engineers, which in a way has been his life's work, having just delivered the 135th of his statistics course which he presents around the world. He is passionate about our profession utilising statistics properly. He feels that we don't at present, which is why he gives the courses and has written the book, which will be published in the JK series of books in a few months time.

It was a pleasure to talk to Tim, and hopefully it won't be too long before we meet up again.

More Conversations


  1. Looking forward for Tim's new book.
    Process analysis in mineral processing using statistical methods is very important.

  2. Richard Chatikobo12 May 2014 at 20:42

    I was privileged to attend one of his courses on statistics, Tim is fantastic.

  3. Thanks a lot, Barry, for putting some highlights of a part of Mineral Engn history in such a capsule form. Having known most of the stalwrds mentioned, the narrative brought back the memories of myself working at J.K. under the Great Person like Dr.Lynch,a path setter for the Profession.
    Pl keep writing these things{only you can do them} which will bring many sweet memories to persons like me but also would be source of inspiration to present and future generation of Mineral Engns.
    Best wishes to all.

  4. Klaas van der Wielen19 May 2014 at 12:04

    Is there a release date for this book? I'm very interested.

    1. Not sure, but as soon as I have information it will be on the blog


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