Tuesday, 27 May 2014

In conversation with John Ralston, Founding Director of The Wark

John Ralston
South Australian of the Year, Officer of the Order of Australia, these are just two of the many accolades and awards showered on Prof. John Ralston, founding Director of the Ian Wark Research Institute (IWRI), now an Australian national treasure and known simply as The Wark. Prof. Ralston, Emeritus Laureate Professor of the University of South Australia, is an internationally recognised expert in colloid and surface chemistry and their application in metallurgical engineering and technology. His research is internationally recognised in the physical chemistry of mineral flotation processes, the surface chemistry of metal sulphides, and the static and dynamic wetting behaviour of simple and structured solid surfaces.

I first met John in 1986 at the SME Fall Meeting in St. Louis, USA, and was immediately impressed not only by his obvious intellect, but by his approachability- he is a very easy person to talk to. Two years after our first meeting I set up Minerals Engineering journal, and he was an obvious choice to represent Australia on the Editorial Board, which he did for over 20 years. So it was good to talk to him recently via Skype and to find out what he and Ann, his wife of 45 years, are doing now, his views on modern mineral processing research, and his long and varied illustrious life as a research scientist who has worked with many of the legendary names in mineral processing.

John Ralston graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1968 with a degree in physical chemistry, where he did a 3rd year project, followed by an Honours Degree project, with Prof. Tom Healy and became interested in the thermodynamics of air-solution interfaces. This led to a paper in Nature. John continued with a Masters degree with Healy, investigating the influence of inorganic salts on surface behaviour, which led to his fascination with colloid and interface science applied to minerals. He then took up a post as assistant lecturer at what is now Swinburne University of Technology Melbourne. After that, and with encouragement from Tom Healy, and Keith Sutherland, co-author of the seminal Sutherland and Wark text Principles of Flotation, he left Australia for a research fellowship at Imperial College in London working under Joe Kitchener (1916-2009), one of the UK's foremost colloid scientists of the 20th Century and who John describes as "in the top two of the most perceptive people I have ever met in my life". Keith Sutherland (1916-1980) he also describes as "a very special individual who had an influence on me which could have been much greater had he lived longer". Sutherland was a catalyst who made John think, at quite an early age, about where his scientific inclinations and motivations were.

After being awarded a Diploma of Membership of Imperial College (DIC), for his work on the properties of asbestos minerals, John returned to Australia in 1974 as a full-time lecturer at Swinburne, while carrying out doctoral research at the University of Melbourne on the surface chemistry and solid state properties of sphalerite, using mass spectrometry to show that when zinc sulphide is activated by copper ions elemental sulphur is produced on the surface. He explained the mechanism for this as part of his research, for which he was awarded a PhD in 1978.

After finishing his PhD, John took an extended sabbatical from Swinburne to work at the University of Bristol in UK with Prof. Ron Ottewill, one of the top colloidal scientists in the UK at that stage. John worked on time average and dynamic light scattering, as well as neutron scattering associated with microemulsions, realising that to be "a complete person it was necessary to change fields and move into different areas". He also worked with Peter Pusey who was then the doyen of photo-correlation spectroscopy at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment in Malvern. The Bristol Research involved a project with ICI Plant Protection at Jealotts Hill, working on 4-dimensional phase diagrams for microemulsions. All this provided a vital link between fundamental research and practical applications in industry.

In 1979 he and Ann and their young son moved into Europe and he then spent nearly a year in The Netherlands working with Hans Lyklema, Professor of Physical and Colloid Chemistry at Wageningen University, which gave him the opportunity of changing fields again, working on the properties of macroemulsions, using techniques such as rheometry.

In early 1980 the family returned to Australia, John resuming his position as lecturer and then senior lecturer in physical chemistry at Swinburne. He set up a centre for colloid and interface science and developed a "sort of country club for people from industry to drop in and talk about real problems and use the equipment”. He also established a coursework graduate diploma, and then a part coursework, part thesis Masters degree, in colloid and interface science, with people from industry coming in to do this course who had PhDs, Masters and honours degrees. He paid tribute to these people by saying that, although he taught them something, they taught him a "fantastic amount".

Around 1983 he began to become frustrated with Swinburne and a position came up at what was then the South Australian Institute of Technology, which subsequently became the University of South Australia, as a Professor of Chemical Technology in a school which involved a blend of over 30 chemical engineers, chemists and industrial microbiologists. He built the undergraduate programs, introduced an Honours degree and catalysed the research. After six years, John realised that as the Institute was about to become a University, to become a truly good University it must have excellence in high quality research. In the late 1980s, when his colleague Roger Smart joined the School, John realised that to build up a centre of excellence he would have to relinquish the role of Professor of Chemical Technology, and set up an independent research institute within the fledgling University.

As the then Vice-Chancellor was unsupportive, John had to raise AUD4 million for the first building for what was to become the Ian Wark Research Institute. “Why Ian Wark?”, I asked. John remembers Sir Ian Wark (1899-1985) as a formidable, rather stern man, who he met a few times during his visits to Tom Healy's lab in Melbourne. He describes him as Australia's founding father of colloid and interface science applied to minerals, and felt that not enough had been done to recognise him.

Once the first building had been erected, the Institute was embedded within the University’s research portfolio, giving it a large measure of independence, a critical element in its success. Initially there was very little support from the University, so the bulk of money for the goal of undertaking high quality fundamental and applied research had to come from industry and he paid tribute to the many companies within and outside Australia who supported the Institute. The Wark later, in 2000, became an Australian Research Council Special Research Centre for Particle and Material Interfaces, a testament to its high quality staff, students and publications.

John became the first, and founding Director of the IWRI in 1994 and retired as Director in March 2012 and during his tenure was the principal researcher, along with Tom Healy, Graeme Jameson, Tim Napier-Munn, David Boger and Derek Chan, who led the initiative to establish the Australian Mineral Science Research Institute (AMSRI) which commenced on 1 January 2006. AMSRI was a virtual institute in particle science and engineering, with its headquarters at The Wark and involved collaborative research at the Universities of Queensland, Melbourne and Newcastle. Major international companies were involved, through AMIRA International, along with overseas collaborators. During John’s tenure The Wark became recognised very strongly internationally and also became one of the few institutes in Australia to be awarded two top Excellence in Research Australia ratings, with 5-star rankings in physical chemistry, as well as in resources engineering and extractive metallurgy.

Although now formally retired from The Wark, John still spends several days a week there, "mentoring/terrorising younger staff and a few PhD students". Although one of the current staff, Prof. Bill Skinner, will be presenting a keynote at Flotation '15, there has been a noticeable lack of involvement from the Institute at recent major mineral processing conferences, and I asked John if the emphasis has changed since he stepped down as Director. He feels that The Wark is now going through a period of transition as the new leadership, with new Director Magnus Nyden, formerly with Chalmers University, Sweden, settles in, along with several other new Chairs, and the final positive changes should become evident in a few months’ time.

During his time at The Wark, John worked very closely with Dr. Stephen Grano, who he recruited from Mount Isa Mines (Stephen did his Masters and PhD with John), and I asked him if he agreed with Stephen's views on flotation research which I published on the blog some time ago. Stephen felt that much flotation research was recycled material and researchers are not making use of literature published over 10 years ago. John believed that Stephen makes a great point and feels that the quality of flotation research over the past 5 years or so has in general been of quite low quality. Later in the year he will be delivering the Delprat lecture for the AusIMM, on 21st Century challenges in the chemistry of mineral processing, and one of the points he will make, which his colleagues in industry endorse, is that if we want to maintain a cutting edge we must attract people into universities who are first class researchers, and the industry at present is not attracting the best talent. If we do not attract the very best minds in physics, physical chemistry, geology, mineralogy and the very best people out of chemical engineering we will not get the best research outcomes and the innovations that industry needs. John feels strongly that one of our biggest challenges is to attract first class people into research and also first class minds in industry, the latter working with the people in the Universities and other research organisations to apply the knowledge (see also posting of 5th May 2014).

He argues that a first class research group requires a distinguished professor, probably 6-8 post-doctoral fellows, a couple of senior staff and 12-15 PhD students, with half the funding coming from industry. Without that critical mass it is not possible to perform quality research work and within that team industrial projects and regular visitations from key people in industry are necessary.

John and Ann Ralston with Barbara Wills and Stephen Grano, Cape Town 2003
John feels that the major development that he has seen in flotation over his long and varied career has been its movement from an art to a true science, and the techniques we now have available are as sophisticated as those used to investigate the human body. For instance mineral processing research now utilises tomography down to the nano-scale. The Wark is now looking at microfluidics for improving techniques such as solvent extraction to achieve the "Holy Grail of minimum disruption of the Earth's mantle". The concept is breakage by pulsed explosions to produce micro and nano fissures in rocks, followed by very sophisticated leaching techniques, coupled with very fast solvent extraction, then electrochemistry to produce pure metals in a way which will be transformational to our entire industry. A pilot project has already commenced with a major international precious metals company and a refiner to take advantage of Wark research in this new field.

The great thing about 'retirement' is the freedom of choice to do the things that you want, and a few days after speaking to John, he and Ann left Adelaide for Canada. He will be spending some time at the Dept. of Chemistry and Materials Engineering at the University of Alberta. John was also in Namibia in April, as were Barbara and I. He is helping the Polytechnic of Namibia (PoN) to transform later in the year to the Namibia University of Science and Technology. He is working with the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Tjama Tijvikua, and the Head of Mining and Process Engineering, Dr. Harmony Musiyarira, to assist in the new University's engagement with industry and government, and to organise the research and undergraduate activities. The PoN currently has over 13000 students. Within the Faculties of Engineering and Science, the intention is to create a critical mass of expertise, which will hopefully become a resource for the minerals industry in Namibia. John has travelled all over Namibia visiting over a dozen mining operations, including diamonds, zinc and fluorspar, so he feels that in a way this is "back to the future for me, and it is important to give something back, to do something for Namibia, a very important country in Africa, which has the potential to set an example for the rest of the continent".

I really enjoyed talking to John and hope that our paths may cross again somewhere around the world. I particularly appreciated his view that "MEI has become an Institution in its own right: it is the glue that binds the international mineral processing community together". Praise indeed from a man of his stature.

More Conversations


  1. It is a pleasure to be felt to comment

    "Stephen (Grano) felt that much flotation research was recycled material and researchers are not making use of literature published over 10 years ago. John believed that Stephen makes a great point and feels that the quality of flotation research over the past 5 years or so has in general been of quite low quality."

    I would certainly agree that the problem of recycling knowledge is fundamental. There are two ways research is recycled. 1. The authors republish. 2. Other authors republish without appropriate acknowledgement.

    Problem 1 is symptomatic of the publish-or-perish dogma. The 2nd is due to poor ethical practice (at all levels of the academic hierarchy)

    Unfortunately it is getting to a point that an oversee body needs to be established to provide a watchdog over research and academic centres to ensure appropriate originality and ethical practice.

  2. Delighted to see my alma mater profiled globally! Thank you for profiling a great South Australian.

  3. Great commentary from Ralston. Thanks for posting this. These issues are really noticeable in reading the published literature
    Robert Seitz, Arizona, USA

  4. Barry, re John Ralston's presentation of the Delprat Memorial Lecture at Townsville on Sunday 31st August, we were pleased to hear an earlier delivery in Cloncurry two days previously, being the opening lecture at the annual NW Queensland Branch of the AusIMM. It was great to catch up with John after more than 30 years, he is very eminent in his field of physical chemistry in ways pertinent to flotation, and, as you say, very easy to listen to. The rest of the Cloncurry conference was also very interesting to me, to catch up a little on proceedings at Ernest Henry, George Fisher and other mines in the area of NW Qld.
    It was also much more economic to attend than the MillOps Townsville, for an old retiree like me and my wife, a long way from home.
    Regards, Rob Allan, Victoria, Australia