Monday, 12 October 2015

In Conversation with McGill's Jim Finch

Born in 1947 and educated in the UK Jim Finch graduated from Birmingham University with a BSc in Minerals Engineering in 1969. He then moved to Canada to undertake an MSc and then a PhD in Metallurgical Engineering at McGill University. He obtained his PhD in 1973 and was then appointed to the staff at McGill, where he has remained ever since, becoming a full professor in 1985 and serving as Chair from 1988 to 1991.
I first met him in Falmouth in 1986 where he attended the 2-week NATO Advanced Study Institute “Mineral Processing at a Crossroads.” 

In the CSM Pilot Plant, 1986 with Jim, Derek Ottley, Jim Watson and Wally Kop
We have been good friends ever since; Jim has contributed much to MEI Conferences, being a keynote speaker at Flotation ’11 (posting of 15th November 2011) and a consultant to MEI’s flotation conferences, and we regularly meet at SME Annual Meetings and IMPCs. He is a recipient of the SME’s prestigious A.M. Gaudin Memorial Award, and represents Canada on the International Mineral Processing Council, being chair of next year’s event in Quebec City. Jim was also a natural choice as Editor of the 8th edition of Mineral Processing Technology, which will be launched at Flotation ’15 (posting of 10th August) and as a Canadian representative on the Editorial Board of Minerals Engineering.
Jim has had an illustrious career at McGill, and has done much to rank the University highly in the mineral processing field. Since 1991 he has held successively the NSERC-INCO Chair and Industry Chair in Mineral Processing, renewed for the fourth time (2012) with 7 industrial sponsors. In 2005 he was appointed Gerald G. Hatch Chair of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering. He has supervised 50 PhD and over 70 MEng post-graduate students, authored over 300 journal articles and one book (soon to be two!), Column Flotation, with former student Glenn Dobby.
With Jim and Glenn in Cornwall, 1988
Research funding has averaged over 500k/year for over thirty years, principally through the NSERC CRD (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Collaborative Research and Development) program, which has maintained a team averaging 15 members. His research has ranged from size reduction to magnetic separation and most prominently, chemistry and physics of flotation. His research with Rob McIvor (PhD 1989) led to Functional Performance Analysis, a methodology for analysing grinding systems, the basis of Metcom Technologies, Inc. Rob will present a keynote and a workshop in this area at next year’s Comminution ’16 in Cape Town.
The work on column flotation, recognized by the Alcan Award from the Metallurgy and Materials Society (MetSoc) in 1996 and the Gaudin Award from the SME in 1998, was central to MinnovEX Technologies Inc., co-founded by Dr. Dobby. The investigation of aero-hydrodynamics in flotation systems led to the development of gas dispersion technology, including a set of novel sensors to measure air velocity, gas holdup and bubble size, which was recognized by the Falconbridge Innovation Award (MetSoc, 2007). His latest research effort is in sulphide self-heating, a spontaneous heating problem associated with transport and storage of concentrates. The team has developed a unique facility to test samples and conduct research. Next to column flotation and gas dispersion technology this research into self-heating promises the next major contribution to industrial best practices. As part of his technology transfer activities since 1974 he has led a series of Mineral Processing Systems Professional Development Seminars, the most recent, May 2015, with 30 attendees.
Industrial collaboration has been a hallmark of Jim’s career, culminating in the NSERC Leo Derikx Synergy Award for Innovation (2008). Among other distinctions, he was the Canadian Institute of Mining (CIM) Distinguished Lecturer, 1994, has twice won the award for best presentation from Canadian Mineral Processors (CMP) (1995, 1999) and for services to MetSoc, he received the Silver Medal (2005). His contributions to mineral processing were recognized by a conference in his honour at the 48th Conference of the Metallurgy and Materials Society, Sudbury (2009) (“Advances in Mineral Processing Science and Technology”, Eds. Gomez, Nesset and Rao, CIM), and a special issue of Canadian Metallurgical Quarterly (2010). He was elected a Fellow of CIM in 1989 and of the Academy of Science of the Royal Society of Canada in 2002, his international recognition leading to his nomination as Chair of next year’s IMPC.
Have all these achievements gone to his head? Not at all, he has always been the most modest of men, who young students find very approachable and helpful and I always enjoy our chats over a beer or coffee during our frequent meetings around the world.
With Jim in Chile, 2014
Looking back on his early life at Birmingham, I asked him what were his fondest memories of that time, and which of the staff had the most influence on his career, and what prompted the move to Canada.
"The choice of Birmingham University started in my senior year at grammar school" he said. "I had taken an optional course in Geology taught by an enthusiastic young teacher and it was during this year I also became aware of the Minerals Engineering program at the local university through a flier that was circulated. In the UK the choice of program was through a national admissions system and I selected several possibilities, including both Geology and Minerals Engineering at Birmingham. The next step was to be interviewed. I remember going to Royal School of Mines and Leeds, as well as Birmingham. Two things persuaded me to go to Birmingham, even though it was usual to go to a non-local university. The first was the interview. I first went to the Geology Department. Here the interviewer pointed out that I would most likely be ‘traipsing the Arabian desert looking for oil’ (and me with feet that blistered easily in the heat), and that the Minerals Engineering course had substantial Geology content but I was more likely to get a job! Of course the interviewer may have had his own motives for suggesting I go to another department, but I have always appreciated the advice. Immediately after I went to the Minerals Engineering Department. I was interviewed by a lecturer in one of the labs. He was everything a scientist should look like to my young eyes, a shock of hair and such intense concentration while he was performing an experiment that I was rather secondary to the exercise. I was fascinated, watching these bubbles overflow a tank. I later of course realized he was doing a flotation test, and the interviewer was Dr. Les Adorjan. This informality made an impression. And, incidentally, Les and I became good friends over the years".
"The second reason was financial. Having included Birmingham among my selections, I was invited to another interview, this time for a possible Open Entrance Scholarship. This interview was conducted by a university-wide committee who wanted to know something about me outside the classroom. I cannot remember much of the conversation, other than we did spend some time discussing lawn bowling, a sport my father had introduced me to (along with snooker and darts) and that seemed to intrigue the committee that I as a youngster would take up a sport associated with retirement (I continued to play when in Canada). Anyway I was offered the scholarship (100 pounds/year) which included a place in halls of residence, something otherwise a local student could never hope to have. So there you have it, Birmingham selected though a combination of a scholarship and apparently a program, Minerals Engineering, preparing me for a good job".
Enjoying life in Queensland, 1968
"The program was 3 years long. It covered many subjects but my favourite was mineral processing, taught by Les Adorjan. Some lectures were in other departments, including a first-year unit ops course in Chemical Engineering. Here I noted there were over 100 students in that department, while our program started with just 24. I liked the small number that promised a closer connection with the lecturers, and this turned out to be the case. In the final year we would be invited by some of the staff for a beer (or two). Three in particular, Tom (Brereton), Frank (Garner) and ‘the Doc’ (Dr. Bailey), made an impression listening to their experiences from literally around the world. The program also took us on field trips to operations in Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall, and we were found summer jobs. For me the job summer 1968 at Mount Isa Mines in tropical Queensland was a life-changer and cemented my choice of mineral processing as a career. When I returned I had a hard time with the idea of staying in England. I thought I’d like to try North America, possibly through a post-graduate degree. The staff were most encouraging".
Graduation 1969
"I graduated with first class honours in 1969. (I mentioned there were 24 of us who started but only 14 finished, a testament not only to the hard slog of the program but also, it must be said, to some pretty hard partying by some. I enjoyed their company but managed to keep a balance.) I applied to several universities (or ‘schools’ as I learned they were often called) in the US and Canada, but only one replied with a personal letter from the Head of Department, McGill University. Professor Williams wrote saying they were building the Mineral Processing section of the Metallurgical Engineering Department, and I appeared to be just the sort of graduate student they were looking for. This was followed by an interview by one of the staff who was in the UK for a conference. On top of this attention I was offered a generous stipend plus a place in hall of residence. I accepted".
"Next in the process was the interview at the Canadian Consulate in Birmingham. I passed the medical, and was then asked what status I wanted, either to come on a student visa or as a landed immigrant. On being told that the student visa had to be renewed each year, I chose to be a landed immigrant. It was 1969, and it was as simple as that!"
The young Professor in the early 80s
"Professor (Bill) Williams continued to be a major influence. I managed to finish the MSc in 1971, and the PhD in 1973 and Bill noticed not only the timely progress but also that I had had four papers published. He offered me a lectureship which he converted to an assistant professorship in 1975, setting me on my career path. To provide some practical industrial experience he arranged a summer job at Pine Point Mines in 1974, which I followed up with summer stints at the Sullivan Concentrator (1975) and Pine Point again in 1977 and 1981. This mixing with my academic background has always stood me in good stead, opening opportunities for collaboration with industrial partners which has been the mainstay of my research".
Wedding day 1973 with Lois and his mother
"Bill and the rest of the Department were guests at my wedding to Lois, January 1973. Lois was born in the US but had been in Canada since the mid ‘50s. We met at the Post-graduate Centre, a home away from home for the foreign students. I met people from around the world, South Africa, New Zealand, India. For the inevitable series of parties the natural source of female companions were the departments they tended to dominate, nursing and physiotherapy in those days. Lois was a physio, and so there you are. In the summer of 1972 I went to see her in Dallas, where her parents then lived (took me 42 hours on the bus) and that cemented it. I’m often asked how a boy from Birmingham could meet a girl from Dallas, and the answer, graduate school at McGill, then requires further explanation!"
When I suggested to Elsevier that Jim would be the only person that I would like to have in charge of the 8th edition of Mineral Processing Technology, I never expected him to agree. But he accepted with enthusiasm, and maybe a little trepidation, and put together a strong team which has delivered what I consider to be a superb update of the text. I asked him what were the main challenges on undertaking this task and why, as a very busy academic, he agreed to the project when first approached by Elsevier. Also what would be his reaction if he was approached again in a few years’ time for a 9th edition!
"It was a surprise, the email from Elsevier summer of 2012 asking if I would entertain editing Edition 8 of the classic Wills’ textbook" he said. "I did ponder for a few days then agreed. My subsequent rationalization is that after 40+ years of lecturing, research and training post-graduate students, I was planning to retire and had already stopped taking on new post-graduate students (my 50th PhD had just started and would be my last) and this promised to open some time to devote to the book. As part of post-retirement activities I had also agreed to be Chair of the XXVIII IMPC in 2016, so my window was 2013-15, which I thought would be enough. It took a little time to get organized, but two fresh PhDs, Jarrett Quinn and Yue Tan, enthusiastically agreed to help. From our first meetings we realized we needed more help, and started to draw up names. The timing again was right: I still knew lots of people, including former students, and most agreed that updating the Wills’ text would be a service to the profession. I am most grateful for their help (some 17 collaborators in all), which took the enterprise from a seeming impossible task (and it did seem that way on occasions) to a manageable one, provided I literally did nothing else. I was lucky that Lois, who had recently completed her PhD (2008), understood the time commitment. There have been some hints of a ninth edition, but after my first book, Column Flotation in 1990, I said never again, and I am going to repeat that here. Anyway, I think someone from the following generation should take on the task and create the book to take us into the second quarter of the 21st Century exploiting all the media avenues that continue to expand".
Jim, Yue and Jarrett with the new book
The biennial International Mineral Processing Congresses (IMPCs) have been lavish affairs over the last 12 years or so, and Jim has the responsibility of chairing next year’s event in Canada. Has he any plans to make the Quebec City event something really special? What areas of mineral processing warrant special attention?
"It is an honour as well as a challenge to Chair XXVIII IMPC in Quebec City" he said. "The city is the second oldest in North America, recently celebrating its first 400 years. Canada is home to some of the largest and most diversified mineral processing operations, and thus is a natural host for the IMPC for the second time, the first being 1982 in Toronto. Since it is Canada, and the next IMPC will be in Russia, we are planning sessions on the Arctic, along with other ‘frontiers’ including processing in space. The new discipline of phytomining, or agro-mining, where plants can be tailored to uptake metals, will be featured in the Environmental sessions. Downstream processing will have more visibility at Quebec City with symposia on Iron Control in Hydrometallurgy and Electrometallurgy. Already over 600 abstracts have been received, and a large team assembled to review. The cultural events will focus on getting the delegates out to see and experience this beautiful city just entering the fall-colours season, a city small enough to take in by street and river, with numerous first class restaurants inside the walled old town".  
Mineral processing has evolved rapidly this century, as ore grades decrease and the need to reduce energy and water consumption has become more pressing. I asked how he sees the industry evolving over the next few years.
He replied "One fact as we go forward, mining will remain a cyclical business. The last 20 or so years may suggest the cycles will intensify, the experience of the “supercycle” in the first decade of the 21st century and the current retreat. It was not that long ago companies were complaining universities were not producing enough graduates, and the erosion of metallurgy programs in favour of materials appeared to bear them out. Now those arguments are falling away, and again we hear ‘human resources not natural resources’ are the economic drivers. I suspect, therefore, that mining and mineral processing departments will come under renewed pressure, and this time there may be less industry support (no cavalry riding to the rescue) and thus reduced numbers of graduates in the future. This will exacerbate the already steep decline in industry-based research as qualified personnel become scarce. While the sustainability drivers to reduce energy and water consumption will intensify, the ability to innovate could be hampered. One response may be in small and medium size enterprises generating technically imaginative solutions, something we are seeing already in fine crusher designs and coarse particle flotation machines. The fewer university graduates may find careers in these enterprises, and by starting their own, including professional development courses to augment the declining university commitments".
"The combination of sustainability and reduced numbers of highly qualified people will force other innovations. More remote monitoring and eventually control “command” centres in comfortable urban settings will be set up. This would attract young people to the profession, seeing it as a modern industry. Underground milling, including in-situ leaching, could increase avoiding unsightly surface operations with their attendant pollution. Ways of matching supply and demand should be a win for all, but appears unlikely. The exception may be shale gas and oil production which apparently is relatively easy to shut off and re-start compared to conventional sources, which could stabilize carbon-based energy price and be a good start".
Manpower is an increasing concern and I asked Jim what his views are on attracting more young people into our industry.
"This is partly addressed above when considering the new entrepreneurial avenues that are opening" he said. "A related question is how I see the role of universities in the future. I see the health of the mining business and min pro university education as intimately linked, a link which may have to be severed. Conventional wisdom is that courses like mineral processing, which are linked to one industry and tend to be small in undergraduate numbers are expensive to maintain, and it is difficult to refute. Other small-number disciplines, such as my wife’s in physiotherapy, have become graduate degrees. In our case, students with a first degree in engineering could either take a one-year coursework masters in mineral processing at a university or it could be delivered remotely. What would be helpful is an internationally-agreed curriculum. The IMPC Education Commission is taking steps in that direction. A survey to determine what topics should be in the course, ‘what constitutes a mineral processor,’ is underway. First steps might be a dictionary of terms, and a book of problems (with answers) that could be organized through the Commission; and maybe the 8th Edition of Wills could be the standard text".
Finally, once the IMPC is over, what are your plans for the future? Would you ever fully retire or do you see yourself always involved with the minerals industry?
"When asked what I planned to do when I retired the obvious initial answer was finish the book and XXVIII IMPC. After that I must say the plan is less clear. Lois and I have moved to the country, a cottage on a lake in a very vibrant community. We have joined the golf club (Lois and I were runners up in the “husband and wife” tournament this year), the canoe club, the glee club, the curling club, and we started a bike club. The social whirl is such we have to get away every so often, especially during the summer, to slow down a bit. I have chatted with colleagues about teaching short courses at mine sites as there is a demand. I would be comfortable doing that. Former students in Chile have asked me to come down and assist in following up some research ideas we had at McGill. That is attractive. I have agreed to be on the technical advisory committee of a small company specializing in plant optimizations who are keen to use some of the concepts we developed at McGill; that is also attractive. Nothing fixed, but selected options I find interesting, including perhaps a couple more MEI Flotation conferences if asked!"
Barbara with Jim and Lois at Flotation '11, Cape Town
You will certainly be asked Jim. As always it has been a pleasure talking to Jim and I look forward to catching up with him at Flotation ’15, and, of course, at next year’s IMPC.


  1. jorge lema patino
    Professor Finch,congratulations for your new book. Here your old friend and student. We are going to supervised the start up of a plant that was design for processing 1.64% Sn , recovery > 76%.(Grade > 55%Sn) . Now the mineral (after 6 years of finishing the project) the mineral grade is around 1.2% Sn, so - after the start up with the new results - we need to calculate the less expected recovery and may be the final grade, adjacent the original, not to be blame to the new plant, but to the changes in mineral. We will make a mineralogical study , etc to get some specific curves, any recommendation ??

  2. It was pleasure reading about Dr.Finch. The contribution of Prof. Finch to various operatios of mineral processing have been significant and any mineral engn benefitted by reading his articles for more ideas for R&D. . Hisviews on the future of mineral processing are very frank and to the point.
    Thanks to Barry and Prof.Finch for the excellent history put together.

  3. It is great to read this very interesting conversation with prof. Finch, my PhD supervisor. Congratulations for the new book and wishing him to keep making valuable contributions to the field as he always did.


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