March/April 2009

Mentor, innovator, networker

A conversation with Professor James Finch, an award-winning authority on mineral processing

By M. Kerawala

Professor Finch (right) with colleagues in the flotation laboratory. To the left are columns of the type that Finch’s early research helped perfect and popularize.

It is often reiterated that Canada’s resources industry retains its position of global leadership through its continuing commitment to innovation. But how do innovative ideas go from the laboratory to the mine or mill? How is the supply of highly trained people required for technology-intensive mining assured?

Few people are better qualified than Professor James Finch to answer such questions. The Gerald G. Hatch Chair in Mining and Metallurgical Engineering at McGill University, Finch has been instrumental in forging partnerships for cutting-edge collaborative mineral processing research. One fruit of the efforts is the annual revenue gain of $25 million that partnering companies derive from resulting process efficiencies.

In recognition of its contribution to mineral processing, the research group and five of its industrial partners, Vale Inco, Teck Cominco, COREM, Xstrata Process Support and SGS Lakefield were presented the 2008 Leo Derikx Synergy Award for innovation by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

In a conversation with CIM Magazine, Finch discussed the scope of his work, his view of the industry and his prognostications for the future.

CIM: You received the Leo Derikx Award in recognition of your research and the partnerships you have built with industry. Would you tell us more about these partnerships and how you went from being “a boffin in a laboratory” to a networker?

Finch: I noticed when I first went to CMP [Canadian Mineral Processors] meetings, that industry people felt that academics’ motives were different from theirs and that we could not help them solve practical problems.

Doing summer work at Pine Point mines in 1974, 1977 and 1981, I came across practical problems that could be addressed by putting science and engineering behind the practice of processing. It was then that as “a boffin in a lab,” I began to appreciate what goes on out there.

In the early 1980s, we started work on a scale-up of column flotation with support from Noranda, whose Mine Gaspé was the first commercial operation to use the technology. One of the graduate students [who worked on the project], Glen Dobby, helped create a business called Minnovex, which marketed and designed flotation columns. I think we did put some engineering into the solution.

Around that time, there was concern about ensuring that mineral processing schools survived and thrived. A route that was opening to do this was the Industrial Research Chair program that NSERC had created in the 1980s. With the help of my former chairman, Professor Williams, the Inco-NSERC industrial Research chair was established in 1991, starting the current model of industry-academic partnership.

The chair has been renewed every five years since. The last renewal was in 2006 with eight partners. It has provided us with the core funding to spin off other projects and maintain a team of 15 to 20 researchers.

Inco’s motive was the supply of highly qualified mineral processors. We have been quite successful on that front. Over 80 master’s and PhD students have graduated under my direction over the last 25 or 30 years. Most of them have gone to work in industry.

CIM: Now that it has been established that industry and researchers can make contributions to one another, are there any barriers to the relationship?

Finch: Companies see the virtue of working in consortia, but occasionally want to work one-on-one. If we get large sums of money from a single corporation, things get a bit blurred as to whether one is doing research or undertaking contracts. That makes me a little uncomfortable. It is not a good environment in which students can thrive.

With mergers and takeovers, the number of companies is decreasing. Without enough companies to go to, we would have to ask for more money from each one. This may prove to be a problem in building and keeping these consortia going.

Another potential barrier is the difficulty of finding the next generation of mineral processing professors. We are all getting a bit long in the tooth. This becomes a barrier in the sense that the partnership needs not only the cash coming in, but also the supply of researchers.

CIM: Could you tell us about some of the research breakthroughs your team has brought about?

Finch: I am very pleased and proud to have been involved in the column flotation work, for which we won a number of awards. To study that technology, we had to develop methods for measuring how gas is dispersed into bubbles. With insights from my colleague, Dr. Gomez, we devised sensors to measure gas velocity, gas hold-up and bubble size. We used these measurements to define the operating range of a flotation cell by looking at the relationship between gas content and the amount of gas being put in.

At Brunswick mine, they used the gas velocity sensor to identify dart valves that were not working properly and flow meters that were not correctly calibrated. Suddenly, the operations people could identify and correct problems. They followed this with pioneering work on distributing air to a bank of cells indentifying a “profile” that maximized performance. In column flotation, if, for example, you want to choose a sparger from among competing technologies, and if you can actually measure the bubble size, you can quickly discriminate between spargers that make narrow-sized bubbles and those that make a wide size range of bubbles.

Several sponsors have used that approach. The sensor technology was recognized in the Xstrata Falconbridge Innovation Award from MetSoc in 2007. So, we have managed to make some improvements and that has been very rewarding.

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