Monday, 17 December 2018

The importance of mineral processing: the message just isn't getting through

A glance at the Jobs section of MEI Online highlights that the opportunities for young people in the minerals industry are abundant and challenging.
Unfortunately the young people needed to fill these positions are relatively thin on the ground. There are now few mineral processing degree courses in western universities, and of those that remain it has been difficult to attract youngsters into these courses, which are often perceived as a route to a career in an industry run by capitalist mining companies interested only in making money at the expense of the environment. Ignorance of the true value of the mining industry persists, as is evidenced by opposition to new mining projects, demonstrators arriving in their cars to protest, before returning to their cosy homes, every component and item of which has been provided courtesy of the mining industry.
The mining industry is the great feeder, without which no other industry or field of endeavour can exist, and mineral processing is the key to the success of this industry. There is an increasing demand for metals and minerals, and this demand will accelerate as we move towards full use of electric vehicles. The demand on finite resources will be enormous as supplies dwindle and the need to reprocess old mine tailings will increase, as well as the need to overcome the greatest challenge of all in the quest for a circular economy, recycling, particularly of the enormous quantities of metals tied up in WEEE.
There are exciting times ahead for mineral processors, but this message is just not getting through to school leavers and science graduates, due to what I believe is a lack of proactivity by mining companies, mineral processing departments and mining societies.
The International Mineral Processing Council regularly publishes reports detailing the lack of mineral processors in the west compared with, in particularly, China, but nothing is actually done, or suggested, to alleviate the situation. The major societies could also do more to recruit minerals engineers, perhaps by subsidising young enthusiastic people to travel to schools and colleges promoting the gospel. The big mining companies whine about lack of manpower, but in the past they would also send out their young ambassadors to recruit raw graduates from Universities. I was recruited in this way in 1969, having been hooked in by a recruitment talk by an Anglo American engineer extolling the virtues of the Zambian Copperbelt.
The Universities must also do more to recruit school leavers and graduates onto their courses. When Camborne School of Mines (CSM) started its, now abandoned, Mineral Processing Technology degree in the late 1970s I, and a few other members of staff, would visit schools, armed only with a laboratory flotation machine, and it was unusual not to recruit at least one student per school.
Recruiting at a school in the north of England, 1980
This year CSM took in its first students on the new MSc course in Mineral Processing, a total of six! Not surprising as, to my knowledge, the only marketing evident was an advert in the University of Exeter website, which you would be hard-pressed to find. I am sure that numbers would have been considerably boosted if staff had visited universities to talk to final year students in chemical engineering, materials science etc. In fact one of the six students decided at the last minute to register for the MSc after a long talk with me at one of the Cornish Mining Sundowners, on the vital importance of mineral processing.
So, to sum up my rant, if we want a sustainable minerals industry, we need suitably qualified people, and we will get these only by being proactive in our approach to recruitment. Of course I may be generalising here, and many companies and institutes may feel that they are doing enough regarding recruitment. If you feel that you are making real efforts, please do share your experiences and the results of your endeavours.
Twitter @barrywills


  1. With increasing limits on carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and worldwide need to migrate to use of electric cars, surely such an insight could not have come at a better time. Mineral processing engineers have got to realise that our current rate of resource (minerals) consumption has become unsustainable already and hence, the need to develop keen interest in "Green engineering" and "Life cycle analysis". In so doing, we are more likely to extract and process minerals in such a manner to ensure that resource consumption and waste generation do not outstrip resource regeneration capacity of our planet. That calls for mining companies to recruit engineers with coherent skills necessary for a sustainable minerals industry. Additionally, continuous improvement by training of staff should aim to improve productivity whilst sustaining earth's carrying capacity through adoption of genuine business and sustainability frameworks.
    Derrick Mwengula, Plant Supervisor - Commissioning/Operations at Mabiza Resources Ltd, Zambia

  2. Add to the lack of positive messages the multiple negative messages that are constantly communicated about the entirety of the mining industry - the environmental impact, the social impacts, the resource curse, etc. any not least the view presented visually of mining in movies and television.
    Changing this requires much.

    Yet young engineers are interested in entering mineral processing roles. The result seen in North America is many new engineers with enthusiasm but lacking the knowledge from university, e.g., chemical engineers, are entering mills. They experience in many cases environments where the community of experienced people who once passed skills on is missing.

    Yes. Many must help change this.

    Robert Seitz, Phoenix, Arizona

  3. I definitely agree the message is not getting through. I'm unsure what needs to be done to counteract this, but your article is a good start!

  4. OK Barry but!! The MP&EM board at IOM3 have been trying to get such courses set up for many years but I am sue you appreciate the restrictions UK and I assume other nations universities are under, funding from Governments depends on student numbers and all the other point systems that the protocols require, a sort of Catch 22, I think Professor Hylke Glass and his colleagues are to be commended for getting something started. I put the responsibility with the majors. They need to be proactive and fund the universities to set up MP&EM U/G courses instead of cutting back on R&D and Exploration. I am convinced the ICMM should be more engaged, sustainability is all well and good but not much use if there are no engineers to run the mining and minerals Industry. Further to your Zambian recruitment story from which I also benefitted with many of my peers ZCCM selected their own nationals to send to appropriate Universities all over the world including China and Russia. Does this continue anywhere? I sincerely hope so. Tony Francis

    1. Thanks Tony. Yes, I am sure that Hylke and colleagues are doing all that they can considering budget restraints. Also good to hear that the CSM Trust are offering scholarships for anyone interested in the MSc. But as you say the responsibility should be with the major mining companies. I am sure that you are aware that when, like me, you were recruited to Zambia in the late 60s it was entirely due to the efforts of the young engineers who gave their enlightening talks around the UK Universities- the 'milk run'. I don't think any of my peers at Nchanga were recruited in any other way.

  5. Barry, I do not think anyone could have expressed so well and in such a subtle manner than you did in raising the issue in a focused manner.
    Being in the profession for about 50 years with an in Ore Dressing from Andhra University(started by great visionary like Prof.Mahadevan), then Pg,D, with Dr.Lynch(another Legend) who understood that mineral engineering R&D should be interlinked with industry and also having started a B.Tech degree in Mineral Engineering at Indian School of Mines (thanks to another visionary ,Director,Prof .Marwaha) i fully share the concern expressed by you.
    It is not that students are not coming and that they are not interested. For me, the Faculty teaching "so called" mineral engineering had no experience and interaction with industry. They do not have fundamental knowledge of different operations (starting from characterisation of ores to different unit operations of mineral processing--so they are not able to connect the systems(I am sure some of them may not have read any book on Mineral Processing, except reading it as Unit operations in a chemical engineering book)They started working on individual operations-may be grinding or flotation etc with no direct relevance to industry. Pure R&D may make a phenomena of operation clear but what would one do by knowing it. The Teacher should tell how to use that understanding to practice(like in medical profession).Teachers moved away (not interested or worried to get them exposed) to interact with industry and teach theory with no connect to practice .
    Hard core Mineral Engineering Teachers failed to convinceor (or not interested to convince) the Chiefs Of educational institutes on the importance of our profession.
    For me the blame is not with the policy makers and Heads of Academic Institutes but with the Teaching community.
    Major professional Organisations get all the support from industry to conduct Seminars /Conferences but fail to articulate what is mineral engineering in totality and how we should plan for the future. Teaching and R&D community have to come out of their silos and interact with industry to make justice to our profession.
    Mineral engineering is the life line to exploitation of mineral wealth and if we do not encourage relevant teaching and R&D, I am afraid we are doing injustice to teaching profession which gave us an identity and recognition.
    Please do not misunderstand on what I said -the above is my perception and let us express more on the point raised by Barry.

    Many may get offended with what I said and may not agree. But this is my opinion.

    1. Good strong points TC, many thanks. You may offend a few, but if it spurs them into action.....

  6. Many mining companies do not invest in R&D, innovation or just sending people to conference to learn. I am sure Barry can speak about how difficult it is for young engineer to get approval to go to conference. Some companies do R&D and innovation and they will be winning over the long term. Unfortunately they are not the majority and budget are lower as a share of income compared to other industries.

    For me (early career engineer) this lack of R&D and investment in their employees development is one of the source of the problem of attracting young engineers. Engineers like to follow inspiring technological leaders. But those are now very rare in the mineral processing world. But if there is no skills development and opportunity for R&D position, none is becoming one.

    I believe there is plenty of opportunity for mineral processors in the long run (we are not even building infrastructure on other planets and Space yet, imagine). It is just really difficult to get the budget to build a team of even 3-4 technical people.

  7. Point taken. However I was always concerned by IP restrictions when I was a researcher. These restrictions ensured that 'the message did not get through' as you put it. It is my opinion there needs to be huge cultural change particularly with respect to University/Industry relations. I wanred mineral processors some 5 years ago in the LinkedIn group Mineral processing innovation that Mineral Processing would become obsolete if it kept on the same pathway (without modernising). Indeed I made the same comment at Mill Operators Conference. My viewpoint was correct although mineral processors are living in a world of delusion. I can expand on my viewpoint if people wish.

    1. Yes, it would be interesting to hear more Stephen

    2. Mineral processing represents one of the most interesting subject areas, combining engineering, chemistry and mathematics. My main perspective of mineral processing is mathematics (and computing). I was a researcher at JKMRC for some 15 years, mainly in the area of mathematical modelling (comminution, mineralogy, flotation, separation). My view remains that lots of good work was done at JKMRC; however the University and Government perspective was that JKMRC should be industry-funded. This strategy (that industry research should be industry funded) makes perfect sense on paper, but little sense practically. The industry quite rightly wanted to get the benefit of funding research, yet wanted a strong say on how this should be done; in particular wanted to ensure that non-contributing competitors did not reap the benefits. Again, good on paper, and totally impractical. I am unsure at what length to discuss IP management, however it was my belief (the whole time I was at JKMRC) that the process was not working. Basically if someone came up with a good idea, before too long it became 'protected'. In practise 'IP protection meant IP could not be disclosed based on the misguided belief that it would somehow be commercialised in a manner that was to the advantage of the sponsors. Indeed one of the major difficulties is that University lawyers can become involved, and frankly University lawyers are not a lot of fun to deal with.

      Let me give an example (recognising I cannot name Companies). I was very proud of my work I would deliver to sponsors. I once asked a Company representative how they would utilise the knowledge gained from the project. He responded quite sincerely that he would summarise the 300 report into a 2 paragraph email that he would send to his boss; and that would be far as far as it went. If this were an isolated example we could argue that that particular Company lost an opportunity, but when we recognise that this behaviour is common, the problem is systematic.

      There have been various researchers who were and are aware of the issues and some of these try to work around the problems. They attend conferences etc. doing their best to try and advocate new methods. Many of such conferences are poorly attended by industry; so I doubt this approach is necessarily the best. For me personally I found it difficult to get approval to attend conferences, in some cases I attended without University support, and indeed there are many cases where others do the same. That is industry may fund research but not general technology transfer, again with some presumption that the money for researchers to attend conferences will appear out of thin air.

      In contrast if one studied philosophy or even mathematics there would be less expectation of requiring industry funding, hence there are mechanisms where 'pure academics' can attend conferences and there is limited (if any) IP protectionism. I once spoke to an economist who made the comment " I regard it as a my moral duty not to let my Dean know that my work is of value".

      In other words once work becomes buried it becomes effectively buried.

      Hence my thesis is that 'the message is not getting through' is an unintended consequence of University, government and industry policy. Any one of these groups could break the cycle; yet none are doing so. They effectively justify their strategies on the basis that every so often a University project does indeed provide benefit to industry. In my opinion I would tend to think that only 1% of University research provides useful outcomes.

      If I had to make any specific recommendation it would be that Govt. (noting that I am from Australia) conduct an honest review on how to maximise the benefit of university research.

      (I here have intentionally limited my comments to Universities as this what I am most familiar with. the issues of Govt. funded organisations such as CSIRO represent a whole new can of worms).

    3. As a secondary set of comments, I would at least like to add that I am at least individually trying to do my best to advance mineral processing ( at least my understanding of mineral processing from a mathematical viewpoint).

      I have decided that over the next 2 years I will be providing a set of online courses. The online courses are split into 3:

      1. Mineral processing
      2. Professional use of Excel
      3. General mathematical concepts.

      These are of course all related to each other. However on the mineral processing front, I simply wish to focus on mass-balance driven optimisation and simulation.

      Originally I would have liked to say 'application of machine learning to mineral processing' rather than mass-balance driven optimisation and simulation, but machine learning is now such a confused topic (led largely by IBM, Microsoft and other software companies) that I think mass-balance driven optimisation and simulation maintains an engineering and mineral processing focus. That is my concept of machine learning includes mineral processing knowledge; whereas the more general use of machine learning largely discards domain knowledge.

      There are many issues surrounding my courses. Firstly whilst maintaining an engineering approach I quickly approach mineral processing from a probabilistic perspective. In general the approach of using probability theory to mineral processing is not taught to graduates. Hence I tend to argue that mineral processing is not utilising fundamental maths applicable to its subject area. I tried valiantly to advocate this approach to Universities and Industry, but once again found myself in the position of having to get industry funds which simply were not forthcoming. So I have effectively recognised that practical application of maths (that has been around for over 100 years) was nonviable to the collation of online courses will be my end-legacy to mineral processors (whoever is interested).

      Therefore my position here is that mineral processing requires strong mathematics and the failure of industry and universities to truly utilise this link has left mineral processing somewhat irrelevant. Hence alternative machine-learning and AI approaches are being applied with little or no mineral processing knowledge. Unless mineral processing rises to the challenge of modernisation (at least from a mathematical perspective) it will become increasingly irrelevant.

      Most people I talk to (researchers, industry and Govt) tend to agree with me, and recongise that our culture is fundamentally destructive.

      It would be great if someone proved me wrong.

  8. If industry has a need, now or in future, it must fit the bill. Plenty of people out there who can gladly be recruiters. Take it to the Sundowner or other event? They will listen I feel. Most Mineral Processing Engineers and Mineral People would agree totally with this. It's your responsibility to take the rant into action, maybe conduct a survey (or two) among your followers, and to industry in general (go through the AIM mining companies list perhaps) and pull people together. You are very highly respected in the business. Folk WILL listen.
    Steve Canby, Plymouth, UK

    1. I hope people do listen when I take my rant to sundowners etc. I also highlight these points at MEI Conferences, but I suppose I am talking to the converted there. As Tony Francis said, it is really up to the major mining companies to put some cash into sending dynamic young people out to Universities. Students are probably more likely to listen to these rather than to 73 year old BOFs such as me

  9. Glad we are all expressing our concern. I found that funds are not a problem.If any Professor goes to one or two plants, have detailed discussions about their operations at depth(including on how to calculate the circulating load in a comminution circuit/get screen efficiency done with his group of students etc) and improves yields and or capacity of operations even by one percent(do back of envelope calculations for any plant and the returns would be mind boggling), the concerned plant authorities would bend backwards to tell everyone and money pores from different plants--go and talk their language/do some small things to improve performances, the students will get excited and Teachers get whatever they like, By doing the above only I could start a B.Tech. Programme in Mineral Engineering(four years of basic degree) , got funds from Dept of Mines, ran the programme for the first four years with no funding from education Ministry because they did not feel such a course was important,
    Dear all, Please note that above is not to blow a trumpet but just to show a case study. I am sure more are doing and I am sure the profession would prosper.
    Teach basics and application--make it exciting and challenging to students ; I am sure rest would follow.
    Good linkage with mining and metallurgy persons is important to bridge the knowledge gap. In this chain of mine to metal, mineral engineering is less expensive and adds maximum value to a company.
    All the best to all and I hope Barry will soon come up with a more encouraging Blog. Barry ,pl keep reminding us.

  10. I am originally from Botswana but I studied for my mineral processing degree at the University of Leeds, and I can tell you from personal experience that there was not a single British student in that course, it was all foreigners.I took up the course partly because mining is the biggest industry in my country hence holds the best career prospects and financial rewards.When I went to school, exploration was at an all time high and new mines were opening at an unprecedented rate. So I was quite confident of a job when I graduated. It has now been five years since I graduated and I have never worked a single day in a mining company. There simply weren't enough jobs when I graduated. I think it is dangerous and irresponsible to lobby youngsters to pursue a particular path, especially if the expert offering the advice doesn't have enough information about the future evolution of the industry. The program in Leeds was eventually terminated, i think mainly out of common sense because the mining industry in the UK is almost nonexistent. I know this because we had very little industrial exposure during my four year stay in Leeds.

    1. Sorry to hear of your career woes Biki, but see, via LinkedIn,that you are now employed as a researcher at Botswana Institute of Technology Research and Innovation. Hope all goes well

  11. MEI is addressing a critical issue that relates to the role of the minerals industry in society as a whole. If you were to ask a young person to name an outstanding leader of the industry today, the question would likely be met with silence, hopefully polite. Yet, if asked who they see as leaders in music, sport, the environment, fashion, the media or politics, there will be no shortage of responses. This is no accident: these fields that are promoting themselves in a positive manner in the public eye everyday.
    Is there something to be learned from this comparison? A need for visible role models? Visionary leadership? Enlightened enthusiasm? Are there any industry rock-stars out there? Pun intended.

  12. Good observation,Franklin.
    Let us go back to main issue.Society needs metals for getting a pin and or a plane.So mineral industry has to prosper.For that we need technically competent professionals who can man and run this industry in the most economical and environmentally acceptable manner.So knowing the unique features of this industry (ore deposits are finite and site specific) we have to convince and give road maps to decision makers to ensure we achieve the goals being raised by Barry.
    So academic and Research institutes have to play a major role.

  13. This past week there have been valuable discussions both on MEI Conferences (Barry Wills’s blog) and from Behre Dolbear’s newsletter (via indicating that there are issues with the education of the mineral processors of tomorrow in Western nations (especially Canada, as is stated in the latter's article).

    The problem may very well be that in many Canadian Universities, Mineral Process Engineering has been positioned in departments other than the Mining Engineering Department. Consider this, there is not a mineral process industry. It is called the mining industry, and mineral processing is part of it. Also, most mine sites in Canada have a mill on the site. Very few mills exist that are not on a mine site. The expert mineral processor therefore cannot do their job well if he or she does not understand mining, because the concentrator’s feed always comes from a mine.

    From working at a major mining company with many mines, concentrators and smelters, in one community, I learned that senior managers of the mining and smelting divisions, really did not understand the purpose of the concentrators. Milling plants were black boxes that somehow were necessary but their purpose was not at all clear to the people who managed the operations and the finances. After many years, supervision of the mills was moved from the VP of Smelters to the VP of Mining.

    Yet when we go back to basics, a new mine needs the milling costs and recoveries to calculate the cut-off grade for mining ore. The ore reserves at a stated point in time, are relative to the price of the contained metals, and are based on this cut-off grade. Without the milling data, mining at a profit is not demonstrable.

    What is missing is strong relevant leadership in industry, academia and government. We all need to reconsider what the mining industry really is, and provide sensible, informed independent leadership in each area respectively. In my view, academia needs to begin by providing relevant instruction in well organized faculties. Then industry needs to undertake more responsibility for training tomorrow’s engineers. Finally, government needs to facilitate and assist in those times when mining economics are poor, as well as providing the rules for conduct, governance and safety.

    John Starkey, Starkey & Associates, Canada

    1. Good points here John. I will talk to you about this next month in Denver at the SME.

  14. Through this Blog, may I request the mentioned IMPC Committee on Education to give a short summary of their views on the subject under discussion for our knowledge.

    1. Not sure what I think of that comment. I give courses and have never had much discussion with members of the committee; although I write to various members from time to time (often without response). Perhaps it may be time to form a new committee which is more active (if one thinks a committee is the best path forward).

  15. I could not agree more with you that a good bit of marketing effort is necessary to attract students to Mineral engineering profession. And just as any sales/marketing effort require information on usability & credibility of the product we need to inform/educate the youngsters about the vital role the profession plays in a nation/country. Youngsters are amazed at the way latest techniques such as AI or Machine learning is applied but they little know about the materials that go into the system to make it work. Electric cars are the latest interest but no one speaks about the huge requirement of purified Lithium or for that matter metals needed to make cars lighter, and by turn the quality of raw materials to make that metal. There is huge scope in recovering values from mine rejects and I know of a few mines in India trying to make good quality sand from them , a material of massive demand but yet to be recognised by mineral fraternity.

    It is a highly innovative profession but only the teaching institutions have to ignite the fire of enquiry besides teaching them the basics. I am in the profession for the last 45 years and while at the end of it I feel that I could have more time to search around for further scope. I wish the institutes would be more proactive and interact with industry to understand their needs, which keeps changing because of the nature of the industry and guide students to search for solutions. This is badly missing and there is only limited interaction. This should change, sooner the better.

    Dr. Arabinda Bandyopadhyay, Chief Technologist, CDE Asia Limited

  16. I personally feel that it is the responsibility of Professional Societies and Teaching institutes involved with disciplines related to mineral industry(exploration to mining to mineral processing to metallurgy and combustion) , who can (and expected to )understand the unique features of our profession to carry the message strongly to decision makers. We must say our discipline can not be compared to other disciplines like software/biological sciences etc). mines are in remote places. So financial and other incentives have to be given to Teachers and students of our discipline. We should not be assessed for promotions in terms of impact factors of papers published etc. Separate criterion has to be proposed. Industry be requested to provide accommodation and site support to Teachers and students when they visit/do projects in the operating plants.
    I am sure Societies like IMPC can come up with some definite implementable ideas as I mentioned. Let us have a document on the importance of exploitation of minerals and what we expect from different sectors like Government/Educational Institutes/Industry.
    Barry raised a "survival Issue" and all of us have to put our thoughts together and give a road map for the future of Teaching and R&D.
    Please keep discussing.

  17. May be the festive season made none of the stalwarts of academic/R&D/Teaching Institutes to be polite and be silent.
    Through this Blog, may I suggest(request) next IMPC to have a full session on this subject-I am an optimist because mineral engineering is the critical link for the growth of mining industry.
    Barry, please keep raising such issues for the good of the profession which is so vital.

  18. Hello again, and thanks again Barry for your friendly and interactive blog.

    I believe that many of the points being raised are highly relevant, and not only within the context of this blog or even professional societies, industrial and government circles, teaching and research institutes. The problem with this forum alone however, even if it were to happen at a much higher level of intensity than appears to be the case now, it that it risks preaching to the converted. The conversation needs to be taken much more broadly to venues such as high schools, environmental forums, and more potently through the media, particularly the use of Op Ed columns in mainstream newspapers, especially those with an online presence. This would not only inform the readership at large, but inevitably attract debate on the role of the industry in all respects: some participants would be adversarial, and some would be supportive, but at least the level of debate would be raised and the constituency broadened. The net result would be to eventually clear the way for enhanced societal recognition of the role of the mineral sciences and the importance of sustainable practices, thereby to attract more young people to it as a positive way forward for their lives. To achieve a strategy such as this, more effective relationships with media leaders (especially at the editorial level) needs to be developed. Industry should have the clout to help make this happen, but relevant leadership needs to step up to make it so. Clearly also, it will need action from the minerals education sector to help change the vision of this critically important field from one that is currently viewed by the public as mostly exploitative to one that as a human endeavour, it is essential to and synergistic with virtually all needs of modern society.

  19. Thanks for your very valued comments Franklin, which I would hope (but doubt) will be taken up by organisations such as IMPC. I will be discussing all the discussions above with various people at next month's SME Meeting in Denver


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