Monday, 16 March 2015

In conversation with Sandy and Elizabeth Lewis-Gray: true mineral processing innovators

Sandy and Elizabeth Lewis-Gray are perhaps the most well-known and respected husband-and-wife team in minerals engineering. They are the co-founders of Gekko Systems, which is a world leader in gold processing technology, as well as the design, construction and operation of energy efficient modular plants.

Elizabeth and Sandy at Namdeb diamond operations in Namibia, 2008
Prior to her involvement in the mining sector, Elizabeth Lewis-Gray worked in stockbroking and strategic planning and her qualifications include a Bachelor Degree in Economics, and a Masters in Business Management. Romance blossomed when Elizabeth was working in stockbroking in Melbourne and Sandy was managing a gold mining operation in regional Victoria. They married and continued their careers in different locations until the advent of their first child. On finding herself in a small country town with no career opportunities and married to Sandy, who had invented an “amazing” new gravity separation device, Elizabeth decided to take up the challenge of marketing and selling this product - the InLine Pressure Jig (MEI Online).  A small research and development grant was applied for and approved from the government, a mortgage on the house extended, and thus Gekko was created in mid-1995 and now has its head office in Ballarat (Victoria) and offices in Perth, Vancouver, and Johannesburg.

Sandy invented his first jig at 17 years of age in the Curnamona Basin in South Australia’s outback, where he learnt his craft in the field with "a brilliant man", Fred Hughes. With over 35 years of experience in mining and mineral processing operations, Sandy is now Technical Director of Gekko Systems. Since founding Gekko he has rejuvenated the art of continuous gravity separation  and he has become a world leader in low energy and pre-concentration flowsheets (gravity and float), as well as  concentrate leaching flowsheets for the gold and silver sector. He invented Gekko’s patented systems including the InLine Pressure Jig, InLine Leach Reactor, G-Rex Resin Exchange and the Python Processing Plant.  His inventions are breakthroughs in the field of mineral processing, with over 600 installations at mines in 43 different countries. The products and systems are now breaking into the coal and polymetallic sectors.

Sandy continues to invent new products and flowsheet designs. In recent years his main focus has been on improving plant economics incorporating technologies/flowsheets which focus on overall plant productivity improvements in energy, reagents, and maintenance/operations. He feels that to maximise the benefits of the new flowsheets it is necessary to have a completely integrated approach and possibly the most exciting transformation will come through the total downstream benefits of fine crushing up front for optimum liberation ahead of any further process.
Sandy is a recipient of the prestigious Clunies Ross Award, Australia’s pre-eminent award for scientists, technologists and innovators. Other awards he has received include the AusIMM Mineral Operating Technique Award, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award and, most recently, the Victorian Premier’s Design Award in 2010 for the Python low height modular plant.

I asked him what have been the highlights in his career, and it is apparent that one of his most satisfying achievements has been the introduction of intensive cyanidation for the recovery of gravity gold concentrates into the gold industry through the development of the InLine Leach Reactor. This technology is now used in most gold mines with gravity circuits in the world. He is also proud of the design and development of the Python and its installation at Kloof in South Africa  with a commissioning period of only 6 weeks. Another success which he is justifiably proud of is the application of VSI (vertical shaft impact technology ) to improve pre-concentration outcomes through focus on liberation characteristics. This was used originally as a stop gap for HPGR but Sandy now believes it will become a standard metallurgical tool for those trying to optimise liberation.

He also mentioned his ‘hero moments’, meeting Alban Lynch (in conversation 11 August 2014) and the late Arthur Keats, who worked on flotation developments in Australia. Also the late Professor Andre Laplante (MEI Online) from McGill University - a world leader in gravity separation research with whom Sandy “co-presented, fought, agreed, and laughed on many AJ Parker gravity workshops together”.

Elizabeth Lewis-Gray is now Chairman and Managing Director of Gekko Systems and is currently Chair of Austmine, as well as Chair of Austmine’s Strategy Sub-committee.  She was a member of the Australian Federal Government’s National Precincts Board and after eight years, recently retired from the Innovation Australia Board.  She was inducted into the Australian Businesswoman’s Hall of Fame in 2000, is a Fellow of the Financial Services Institute of Australasia (FINSIA), and has won several awards including the Warren Centre’s Innovation Heroes Award. More recently Elizabeth was appointed by Industry and Science Federal Minister to Chair the METS Industry Growth Centre in Australia.

Elizabeth and Sandy receiving the Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2005
I remember talking to Elizabeth at the IMPC in Brisbane in 2010. She enthused about a new project that she was initiating on eco-efficient comminution and, to be honest, I was a little sceptical of it ever getting off the ground. How wrong I was proven to be. She created the Coalition for Eco-Efficient Comminution (CEEC) from nothing to bring together information on energy efficiency in comminution. Under her leadership (Tim Napier-Munn refers to her as “one of the great movers and shakers”) CEEC has the capacity to have a meaningful global impact on energy consumption in mining and has recently been awarded the 2013 Mining Magazine Editor’s Award. With board members from around the world, CEEC now highlights important issues and facilitates debate in comminution energy efficiency, and MEI is proud to be involved with CEEC and its role as Industry Advocate to Comminution ’16.

I asked Elizabeth what was the inspiration behind setting up CEEC, and what are the plans for its development. “The inspiration around setting up CEEC was shock and frustration on finding out the scale of the problem and the low level of awareness and response by industry. I discovered how much energy the world was consuming in crushing and grinding (estimated as 3% global electrical consumption, 5-9% in Australia), and despite there being an enormous body of research available on this topic, I could not access it on the internet. Also there was no indication that the mining community was fully informed at senior/board level and/or changing its practises to improve the outcome.”

She said that “change is particularly important in the mining industry because the cycles are so long from test work through to application. Furthermore, it was a classic situation where information was held in “technical silos” and not being rapidly transferred. I would regard high impact, low cost marketing and story-telling as one of my skill sets so I knew I could make a big difference with a small budget. There were many members in the mining and supply community who were equally as frustrated, so I had a great deal of broad based industry support. Many people I spoke to were overjoyed that I was doing something about this.”

CEEC is now in the capable hands of EO Sarah Boucaut and Chairman Joe Pease (posting of 15th January) and is making an appreciable difference in educating the industry, especially at board level, for a very low cost investment. Elizabeth finds this very satisfying and shows why marketing is a skill set undervalued and much required in the mining industry. The establishment and impact of CEEC is an example of how someone with a non-technical background can add value and bring holistic industry change.

Elizabeth was recently named by the Canadian Institute of Mining (CIM) Magazine as one of mining’s top twelve “names to know - 12 characters whose energy, imagination and impact are catalysts for change in a tumultuous year” - for her work in founding CEEC.

Elizabeth’s current project is Austmine where she has taken on the chairmanship of the Australian peak industry body representing the mining, equipment, technology and services (METS) sector. One of the key roles for Austmine has been to undertake a comprehensive survey with the help of the Australian Federal Government which has identified that the industry has a turnover of AUD$90billion or a significant 3% of Gross Value Added in the economy (compared with mining at 10% GVA). The sector has a strong innovation platform and significant opportunities to improve productivity in the mining sector. Improving productivity, mining and supply sector relationships and accelerating the innovation cycle are key areas of focus for sectorial improvement.

I asked Elizabeth what have been the highlights in her short but illustrious career.  She particularly enjoys travelling all over the world to various mining operations and in June 2014 travelling to Canada and the U.S.A. with a small 20-strong Australian delegation led by the Prime Minister, the Hon. Tony Abbott, and Minister for Trade and Investment, the Hon. Andrew Robb. Highlights have also included leading government mining and METS missions to China and Canada.

Elizabeth with Australian Prime Minister, the Hon. Tony Abbott, left and
the Canadian Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, right
She says that she is inspired by mining executives who have the courage to understand the ability of innovation to advance their business and engage in the process from the top down, using strong management and process to deliver results.  She is passionate about innovation and marketing. “There are so many brilliant technical ideas in the mining sector but we are missing the links between concept and application - the capacity for technical people to convert their ideas into meaningful narratives that include addressing financial impacts in a way that speaks to boards and senior executives”.  She feels that Tim Napier Munn (in conversation 12 May 2014) deserves a special mention for his technical brilliance and personal commitment to creating better outcomes for the good of the industry.

Elizabeth with CEEC Directors Tim Napier-Munn and Joe Pease
In 2013, both Sandy and Elizabeth were independently nominated for the inaugural International Mining Innovation Hall of Fame, but in different categories. They are a remarkable duo and I consider myself fortunate to know them so well, and to be able to share our recent conversations.

More Conversations

1 comment:

  1. Great article and inspiration for innovative thinkers
    Karen Chovan, Enviro Integration Strategies, Canada


If you have difficulty posting a comment, please email the comment to and I will submit on your behalf