Wednesday, 27 August 2014

In conversation with the Inspirational Brierleys

Corale and Jim Brierley in Cornwall, June 2014
We were priviledged to have two of the world's most eminent biohydrometallurgists at Biohydromet '14 in Falmouth. Husband and wife team Corale and Jim Brierley took very active parts in the conference, Corale delivering a keynote presentation, and Jim was one of the panel members in the final discussion on the future of biohydrometallurgy.

Corale also took the time to speak to the Cornwall Women in Mining Group about her life and career, from growing up on a cattle ranch in Montana to the present day running Brierley Consultancy LLC with her husband Jim. Amanda reported that Corale's tales of fluctuating successes and failures were a true inspiration.

Seattle, 2012
I first met Corale in Seattle in 2012 where she presented a fascinating Milton E. Wadsworth Award Lecture on the present and future of bioleaching applications at SME '12. I found the history fascinating, and had not realised that bioleaching had been around for the past 55 years. It was that lecture that inspired me to invite Corale and Jim to Falmouth for Biohydromet '14, which also led to Corale's appointment as biohydrometallurgy representative on the Editorial Board of Minerals Engineering.

Corale and Jim have prepared a joint biography for the Mining Foundation of the Southwest (USA) for their joint induction in December 2014 into the American Mining Hall of Fame (Medal of Merit award for transformative contributions to the mining industry) and have given us permission to share it via the blog. It's a fascinating story and indeed inspirational:

Jim was born and raised in Denver – the only child of an immigrant single mother. He developed an interest in science as he grew. This resulted in his choosing a major in Bacteriology at Colorado State University, graduating in 1961 with a Bachelor’s Degree.  Although Jim never considered himself an exceptional student, his CSU advisor encouraged and supported his application for graduate study at Montana State University.  Here, Jim had a unique opportunity to continue his studies and conduct research in Yellowstone National Park on microbial life in thermal springs for both his MS and PhD degrees.  The irony of this was that during his first trip at the age of 9 to Yellowstone Park on a family vacation he stepped in a thermal spring, badly burning his leg on the first day of the vacation. This unfortunate accident may have led in some odd way to his fascination with thermal springs.

Corale was born in Shelby, Montana – a small town located on the Canadian border. Her parents were sheep ranchers. When she was five years of age, the family, which included one older brother, relocated to a cattle ranch about 50 miles north of Yellowstone National Park in the southwestern part of Montana. Corale attended a one-room country schoolhouse in McLeod, Montana for grades 1 through 8, occasionally riding her horse, Betty, to school. She attended high school in Big Timber, Montana, graduating in 1963 with her class of 50 students. During the summers following her junior and senior years in high school, she worked in the Department of Microbiology at Montana State University in Bozeman under a fellowship from the Montana Cancer Society. There she met Jim, who was working on his graduate degrees. Corale started college at MSU in 1963, majoring in microbiology, and took a job as a student lab technician working for Jim’s major professor, Dr. Kenneth Temple, who earlier had discovered the microorganism, Thiobacillus (now Acidithiobacillus) ferrooxidans, which was long considered the workhorse of biomining.

Jim, Corale and Dr. Temple made frequent trips to remote hot spring areas in Yellowstone Park as part of Jim’s PhD research work. These were occasionally overnight trips in the winter, requiring snowshoeing, with one memorable summer-time trip to the grizzly-bear infested Hayden Valley/Mary Mountain area of the Park. Jim’s research on the contributions of bacteria to the chemistry of acid hot springs led to the discovery of the first high temperature (thermophilic), acid-loving microorganism that later became known as Acidianus brierleyi - named by German scientists in honour of Jim. This microorganism and its other closely-related ‘Archaea’ cousins are now central to the leaching of primary copper sulfide ores, principally chalcopyrite and enargite.

Working and experiencing Yellowstone Park adventures together, it was inevitable Jim and Corale would marry, which they did in December 1965, just months before Jim would start his first employment as an Assistant Professor of Biology at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro. They moved to Socorro the summer of 1966 with Corale enrolling as a student at NMT majoring in biology. The irony of this was, because of the small size of the Biology Department, Corale had to take classes from Jim – and she didn’t always get the best grades in the class! Corale graduated in 1968 with a BS in Biology.
At NMT, Jim met Dr. Roshan Bhappu (American Mining Hall of Fame Medal of Merit Recipient, 2006) who introduced him to the mining community providing an opportunity to research microbial processes in bioleaching of copper in sub-marginal grade dumps.  Jim progressed through the academic ranks to become Professor and Chairman of the Department of Biology at New Mexico Tech.  This period was a time for enhancing his interest in applications of microbial processes for metals transformations, both leaching and sequestration.

Corale and Jim c1972
Corale enrolled in a Master’s program in Chemistry at NMT in 1970; her research was a study of the high-temperature microbe that Jim has discovered in Yellowstone Park. This research culminated with a MS degree in 1971 and the first “Brierley and Brierley” technical publication in 1973. In 1972 Corale began working at the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources, a division of NMT, continuing bioleaching research, largely funded by the U.S. Bureau of Mines and supplemented with funding from other federal agencies.

Jim and Corale collaborated on bioleaching research over the subsequent decade, co-authoring a number of publications jointly and with other colleagues. Jim took a 6-month sabbatical leave in 1976 to work with colleagues at the University of Warwick and the Warren Spring Laboratory in England; simultaneously Corale took a leave of absence from the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and worked at the Royal School of Mines in London. This experience piqued Corale’s interest in getting a PhD degree, which she received in Environmental Science from the University of Texas at Dallas in 1981, after a sabbatical leave from the New Mexico Bureau of Mines.

Following her return from Dallas, Corale was approached by the venture capital community to form a company to develop biotechnology for mining. This company, Advanced Minerals Technology, was founded in 1982 and Jim was hired as the research director. The company was relocated from Socorro to Golden, Colorado in 1985 and employed some 23 scientists and engineers, who developed and patented technologies for bioleaching and metal removal from waste streams. The 1987 stock crash was devastating to the company; with little revenue and even less availability of investment capital, the company let go its employees, including the research director, and sold assets. Newmont Mining Corporation acquired most of the company’s hard assets, hired Jim as Chief Research Scientist and moved the lab and Jim to the company’s research facility in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1988. Jim’s mandate was to develop a biological process for processing low-grade gold ore in which the gold was locked in a sulfide mineral; the objective was to biooxidize the sulfide, exposing the micron-sized gold particles for subsequent extraction with dilute cyanide solution.

Corale followed Jim to Salt Lake City, taking a year off to manage the wind-down of Advanced Mineral Technologies, form a new company, VistaTech Partnership Ltd., to house the patents and co-edit a book, Microbial Mineral Recovery, with a colleague. In 1990 Newmont Mining Corporation hired Corale as Chief of Environmental Process Development. The job involved work at several legacy mine sites to manage acid rock drainage and contaminated waste rock and soils. Just 18 month after being hired the position was abolished when Newmont was forced to lay-off a number of employees during the “Sir Jimmy Goldsmith era of corporate raiding”.

In late 1991 Corale found herself looking for a new job. She was offered positions at several Department of Energy labs; however, her desire was to remain affiliated with the mining sector. Contacts with mining companies always led to the same response: “we aren’t interested in hiring you full time, but we have a strong interest in bioleaching and need some consulting advice”. Mining company and DOE contacts resulted in a steady stream of consulting work – so much work in fact there wasn’t time to look for a real job. Thus began a consulting career and the founding of Brierley Consultancy, which continues today. However, consulting presented a new problem. Jim and Corale had always collaborated on R&D and were long accustomed to bouncing technical ideas off each other. Now Jim was working on proprietary technology for Newmont and Corale was consulting on bioleaching technology, often under confidentiality agreements, for what could be considered Newmont’s competitors. Suddenly, communication between Jim and Corale on technical matters ceased.

In 1996 Newmont moved their research laboratory to the new Malezemoff Technical Facility in Englewood, Colorado where Jim continued with development of the company’s bioheap pretreatment for refractory sulfidic gold ores. This research led to a number of patents and publications and the commercial application of the technology at the Gold Quarry Mine in Nevada.

With the relocation from Salt Lake City to Highlands Ranch, Colorado, Corale continued her consulting work. In the mid-1990s there was strong interest in heap bioleaching crushed, secondary copper ores in northern Chile and Australia and biooxidation of sulfidic gold ores and concentrates, which led to a constant stream of consulting work throughout the world. Teaching short courses in conjunction with mining organizations provided the perfect venue to secure consulting clients among mining companies and financial institutions. Corale was inducted in 1999 as a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering for "innovations applying biotechnology to mine production and remediation". Academy membership is among the highest professional distinctions accorded an engineer and honors those who have demonstrated unusual accomplishment in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology.

Jim retired from Newmont as Chief Research Scientist for Biohydrometallurgy in 2001, joined Corale’s consulting company and was inducted in 2002 as member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering for “recognizing the potential of high-temperature biomining, and for innovative industrial biomining practices”. Once again Jim and Corale were able to seek each other’s advice on technical matters.

Many of the technical papers Jim and Corale published individually and together over the decades became the basis for the bioleaching technologies applied commercially today for copper and gold recovery. About 18-20% of the world’s copper is now produced using heap bioleaching of secondary copper ores and about 3% of the global gold production stems from the bacterial pretreatment of sulfidic-gold concentrates followed by cyanidation of the biooxidized residues.

Jim and Corale have received many professional awards over their long careers and both remain professionally active, providing consulting services to the mining and financial sectors, presenting papers and short courses, reviewing submissions for technical journals, and chairing and serving on committees and boards for the National Research Council and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (NAE). After serving 5 years on the NAE council, Corale was elected in 2014 as NAE Vice-President to embark on yet another professional chapter.

Jim (2nd left) and Corale with Pieter Van Aswegen and Jan Van Niekerk at Biohydromet '14

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1 comment:

  1. Corale and Jim were joint recipients of the 2014 Medal of Merit of the American Hall of Fame, and their interview can be seen on YouTube


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