Monday, 3 October 2016

A remarkable line-up at the IMPC in Quebec highlights the importance of flotation

The photo below was taken at the Lifetime Achievement Awards (LTA) Banquet at last month's IMPC in Quebec. In the centre of the picture are four LTA Award Winners, Profs. Janusz Laskowski (2008), Graeme Jameson (2016), Ponisseril Somasundaran (2016) and Roe-Hoan Yoon (2014), flanked by the IMPC's Prof. Eric Forssberg (left) and on the right Profs. Jim Finch and Cyril O'Connor.
What is so remarkable about this line-up? Well, all the familiar figures in the photo are eminent flotation scientists, highlighting the importance of this technology not only to the minerals industry but to the world in general.
There was much talk at the IMPC about the lack of manpower in the mining industry and the need to recruit new blood (and hopefully to retain these people when times are bad!), but how can we attract young people into this industry, often perceived by the media and the general public to be dirty and environmentally unfriendly?
Well, maybe just by explaining what flotation is and why it is so important.
A good start is to explain why mining is the most important industry. The minerals industry serves society- without it society as we know it wouldn’t exist, as everything we use in our daily lives is either mined or grown. Ask any pre-University student what is the most important branch of technology, and the answers will probably be computer science, electronics, genetics etc. What needs to be impressed on them is that without the minerals industry these branches of science and technology would not exist- they are totally dependent on sophisticated electronic instruments which need metals of every description.
As ores become ever more complex and refractory it can be argued that the minerals engineer, whose job it is to economically extract these metals holds the key to sustaining and advancing modern society. Recycling also plays its part, but again it is the minerals engineer who has the key role, and recycling also presents immense technological problems- for instance how do we economically recover small amounts of elements such as lithium and germanium from used computers?
So although there was much talk, as always, at the IMPC about the need to attract young people into our industry, there is little evidence of direct action to do this.
During my time at Camborne School of Mines I spent a lot of time visiting schools, showing students how their fundamental science knowledge could be utilised in a challenging field such as mineral processing. I can honestly say that I recruited to CSM at least one student from every school that I visited, and it was flotation that really grabbed their attention. It is easy to explain why flotation, essential to producing the metals needed for civilisation, is probably the most important technological invention since the discovery of smelting, which catapulted man out of the stone age into the bronze age, and unlike, say, nuclear fission, is, in terms of its basics, a very easy process to explain- next time you call in at Buckingham Palace, I am sure that Her Majesty will explain the rudiments!
On every school visit I put a flotation cell in the boot of my car, and after describing the basics of flotation to the students I showed them a sample of a finely ground lead ore. All they could see was a white powder with a few flecks of black within it. This was then introduced to water in the Denver cell, and the looks of amazement when the air was switched on and those black flecks of galena formed a rich froth was something to behold- many of them were hooked!
Recruiting at a school in northern England in 1980
So, IMPC, Societies, Universities, if you want to attract students to our industry, let's become more proactive.
Twitter @barrywills


  1. Yes Barry - this is indeed an attraction - let's get to marketing the cool things about our industry - and flotation is right up there
    Steve Williams, Pasinex Resources Limited, Canada

  2. Our undergraduate programme doesn't have too much in the way of mineral processing- but I have made it a point to make sure the students visit mine sites with flotation operations- and indeed lecture on it as part of environmental geology. I think it's fascinating and those students interested in both geology and chemistry seem to agree- internships and summer placements might be a way to further fuel their fire- if there are some I can recommend?
    Anita Parbhakar-Fox, University of Tasmania, Australia

    1. Anita, I know its a bit difficult for Australian students...but we do take on students in the summer- mainly geologists- to get a bit of met work under their belt before going out in to the real world.
      David Goldburn, SGS Minerals Services, UK

  3. It's a great idea. Flotation (surface chemistry and hydrodynamics) caught my interest in the summer of 1972 & fascination with mineral processing grew from there. When linked to all the three-phase systems this knowledge can be applied to as well it could really pull some in.
    Robert Seitz, USA

  4. Bary,
    I feel that we should start looking at mineral industry from a different perspective. We have to integrate geology,mining,mineralogy,mineral processing, waste disposal and above all environment and affects of mineral exploitation on society.The essentiality of mineral exploitation has to be brought out clearly to Society .
    Coming to mineral prcessing, each of us have to step out from our own sub-areas os specialisation(like flotation we are talking about or cyclones) and think of economics also.
    A time has come to identify challenging areas such as fine particle processing(so that we do not allow values to be lost in tailings), efficient and cost affective comminution systems and very efficient dewatering sysems so that minimum water is used etc.
    I might have got a bit carried away ; but the profession is very challenging and I am sure youngsters will take up our profession if we make it challenging. They have to feel that their knowledge and expertise can add value to bottom line of a company in which they are employed.

    1. Yes, I do think you have got a bit carried away, TC. If you read the posting again, you will find that I am talking about recruiting youngsters at pre-University level during school visits. To try to enthuse pupils during such short visits we must keep it simple and visual, and flotation provides an ideal way of doing this.

    2. Great article Barry (as always) and I totally agree with you. To spark the enthusiasm of high school students you must keep it simple, and flotation is a great choice. Trying to explain the whole ethos of the minerals industry at this stage would undoubtedly turn them off.
      Pete Jeffreys, retired, Colorado, USA

  5. I can also vouch that flotation and the surface chemistry interactions caught my interest to pursue PhD. I was fortunate to work with an eminent scientist on a project. And our evening walks around Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Lakes is only and only flotation talks. That get me going that there is so much to learn that I did not knew. I definitely felt fortunate to be part of this community...

  6. Dear Barry

    Flotation has also been the start of my career path covering process metallurgy to sustainable systems.

    As you may know, the flotation plant optimisation models I had developed for my master thesis, we evolved further to optimise large scale recycling systems as discussed in a recent paper The discussed techniques and methodologies are for me central to digitalising the circular economy, which at its heart includes the minerals and metallurgical processing infrastructure.

    Not only is flotation a key process of our industry, but discussing this with scholars within the circular economy paradigm is of great importance.

    The minerals processing and metallurgical community must play a much more proactive role in these important societal sustainability discussions. These discussions, referring also to the resource efficiency of large scale resource processing and recycling systems in terms of e.g. the physics in flotation cells as well as metallurgical reactors as well as consumer product design, link our industry to the consumer.

    I believe the circular economy paradigm is an important vehicle to discuss the importance of our industry in the bigger societal picture. We in fact have a great circular economy story to tell.

    In summary, flotation system modelling put me on my path of quantifying the sustainability of systems, and therefore exploring the opportunities and also limits of the sustainability of modern society.

    So I can only support your argument Barry with respect to flotation's significant role!

    Kind regards, Markus.

  7. Barry,
    Yes, I might have got a bit carried away but that is my holistic view. We do get some students into Mineral Engn stream at graduate and post graduate level. but the kind of teaching and the topics they work on as projects/deissertations are so routine and dull,the signals from Institutes are not going out that this profession can be challenging and with their knowledge Industry can benefit.
    Mtself and Dr.Lynch also used to go to Schools with flotation cells and operate in the class room; at that time of age, that may be required and enough. Now students want to make themselves employable.
    Let IMPC Council deliberate on this.
    I am happy you triggered an issue.

    1. We also have to accept that times have changed TC. When I travelled around the country in the 70s and 80s armed with a flotation machine there was a definite incentive to recruit students into the mineral processing degree course at Camborne. Now that incentive is almost gone as, certainly in the western world, mineral processing tends to be taught as a subsidiary subject within a wider engineering course, such as chemical engineering. Time is also a factor; in my day at CSM lecturers were primarily teachers, and very little research was undertaken. Now the pressure is on academics to publish, and teaching has in many cases become a secondary role. They are also burdened with more bureaucracy these days, so I suppose in fairness it might be asking a lot for them to tramp around the country in the little spare time that they have. So any ideas on who might be willing to undertake these tasks?

  8. Yes, I agreeBarry. We can go back to excellent Blog you put on Ph,D.s in Chemical Engineering. It was the hard reality. People complete one or two subjects in Mineral Engn but at the end of their degree they do not know "how to calculate circulating load" Who has to be blamed?Teacher or the Student? But they publish papers on Kinetics of ---.
    To me the Academic communities have created too much administrative work for themselves(in which they are not really competent) like Heads/Deans/ etc and say they are all burdened with lots of work. Industrial tours/training is not part and parcel of many top class Engineering Schools.
    A time has come to introspect and Senior Professors should bring changes and convince the one above them.

    1. I won't comment on this, TC. I will leave it for the academics!

  9. I hope some academics would comment.

  10. Prof Niikkam Suresh12 October 2016 at 08:26

    Dear Dr Barry,

    Dr Barry, I have been reading the excellent debating going on your MEI blog, hats off to your MEI platform you created. It is making very exciting and interesting day-by-day to read the views of people from all corners. Now, coming to the points you and Prof T C Rao, made on the Academic Programs on mineral processing, even now I can confidently say that the ISM-Dhanbad’s (presently knows as IIT(ISM) Dhanbad) stands top in terms of its course curriculum and students training. I am saying this because, although the Mineral Engineering is existing for several decades but studying 2 or 3 subjects of mineral processing does not make a person ‘Mineral Engineer’. The academician should dedicate themselves to teach and should not find an excuse with the pretext that they are busy with administrative work. The administrate heads should also take a close note of this.

    ISM’s full-fledged 4 year B Tech program, a 5 year B Tech with M Tech/MBA Dual Degrees and 2 years M Tech Degrees are offered from the Department of Fuel and Mineral Engineering. These courses were prepared after surveying the industries requirements. The tailor-made programs commence from basic geology, common engineering subjects and covering in-depth on all basic unit operations of Mineral Engg and ends up with design issues of processing plants, including their performance auditing, modelling and simulation aspects.

    I do not know why Prof T C Rao forgot to mention the name of ISM. He created this discipline at ISM-Dhanbad (India) and in fact a visionary like Late Prof G S Marwah, the then Director of Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad, who gave his whole hearted support can never be forgotten. The seeds swoon by them are giving fruits today. I am thankful that since then these programs are doing extremely well.

    In this aspect, we are lucky that the present Director of IIT(ISM) Dhanbad, Prof D C Panigrahi, another far-sighted personality, has given his full support to Mineral Engineering programs. Through his efforts the Department is able to uphold the flagship of having its 34 full-time Ph D Students working today in many diversified areas of Minerals Processing.

    I feel proud to be the Head of this Department.

    Dr Nikkam Suresh,
    Professor and Head of the Department,
    Dept. of Fuel & Mineral Engineering, IIT(ISM) Dhanbad, INDIA.


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