May 2009

A breath of fresh air

CIM Distinguished Lecturer Jan Nesset speaks of his passion for acquiring and sharing knowledge

By R. Pillo

CIM Distinguished Lecturer Jan Nesset is not only an engineer of unquestionable accomplishment but also a man of indomitable spirits. His appetite for life and his zest for mineral processing are reflected in his presentation “100 Years of Blowing Bubbles for Profit.” Nesset keenly breathes fresh air into a century-old story — the evolution of froth flotation.

The spirit

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in metallurgical engineering from McGill University, Nesset put his part-time earnings to good use by spending the next six months backpacking across Europe. Returning with a reinforced passion for the great outdoors, he entered graduate school at McGill and soon completed his master’s degree. It was his love for the open air that drew him to metallurgical engineering and mineral processing, in particular. “In this industry, you do not need to be buried behind a desk and weighed down by pecking orders,” said Nesset.

In 1979, he landed a job with Noranda Inc. at their Brunswick (Cu-Pb-Zn-Ag) mining operation, which, at the time, was involved in a gamut of projects and operations — the perfect choice for an eager engineering graduate. Nesset remained with Noranda for the next 23 years, tapping into abundant opportunities and working with single-minded dedication and substantial talent. Following 15 years at various mining operations, his keen mind, drawn by research, led him to the R&D sector. He took up the position of program manager in mineral processing at the now-closed Noranda Technology Centre in Montreal.

Nesset refused to be defeated when he was diagnosed with pseudo xanthoma elasticum (PXE), a rare genetic disease similar to macular degeneration that causes loss of vision in the central area of the retina. He got straight to work, tackling this hurdle like “any other engineering project.” He contacted the Montreal Association for the Blind to register and get information, training and the required tools before he fully needed them.

The story

Froth flotation, a great revolution in the minerals industry, radically changed the fabric of mining and the global economy at the turn of the last century. Through his presentation, Nesset captures the pivotal moments in its history, threading together the stories of the countries and individuals that were instrumental in its development. He guides us back in time, to the late 1800s, where the supply of metals could not meet the boost in demand, due to the emerging automobile industry and the developing electrical distribution system. The centuries-old methods used to upgrade good-quality ores were highly inefficient and, according to Nesset, “the world was crying out for improvement.”

Nesset then takes us on a journey from flotation’s early inception in Australia through its evolution into the vital process we know today. He piques our interest with intriguing facts and unveils buried connections, such as the pivotal roles played by Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States, and his brother Theodore, and Ralph Diamond, the Canadian metallurgist who unlocked the enormous potential of the Sullivan deposit for Cominco.

The motive

In addition to his consulting practice, Nesset recently returned to McGill to pursue his PhD, working in the area of flotation cell hydrodynamics. He has also taken over teaching a required course on mineral processing that was on the brink of cancellation. “I wanted to ensure that the class would not disappear from the mining and materials engineering program. It teaches material that I consider essential for every process engineer.”

His thirst for knowledge sharing has driven Nesset to join the Distinguished Lecturer program. “I believe everyone should try to give something back to this wonderful industry. If I can get people interested, especially students, then this story will transcend another 100 years.”

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