March/April 2011

Taking home the copper

Phillip Mackey’s winning streak is far from over

By Correy Baldwin


Mackey and his wife Angele at CIM Conference & Exhibition 2010 in Vancouver | Credit: Normand Huberdeau/NH Photographers Ltée

It was 1969 when Phillip Mackey moved from Australia to Canada to take a job with Noranda Mines as a research engineer. Noranda nabbed Mackey straight out of the University of New South Wales, where he had just received his Doctorate in metallurgical engineering. They immediately put him to work spearheading development on a project that would become the Noranda Process.

“The Noranda Process was a new technology to treat copper concentrate in an efficient manner,” explains Mackey. “When it began it was definitely a major development. It was probably one of the key developments in copper metallurgy in the last century.”

Not a bad way to begin a career. Mackey went on to supervise the pilot plant of the Noranda Process, and then to oversee the project’s technology sales: a role that would take him and his team all over the world. “The process was installed in China, Chile and Australia. And for every installation there might have been five or ten prospects.” Through these projects and a number of worldwide due diligence studies carried out for Noranda, Mackey gained a unique insight into the world of copper.

It was a major success for Noranda, and a great achievement for Mackey, but he was not finished making innovations to copper smelting. His work in the Noranda Process led him and the team at Noranda to pioneer a new continuous converting process. The continuous converter was developed to produce a final copper product through treating the intermediate material (matte) produced in the Noranda Process.

The continuous converter – which became known as the Noranda Converter – had an enormous impact on copper smelting and subsequently earned Mackey the 1998 Noranda Technology Award.

By this time, Mackey was the chairman of Noranda’s New Ideas and Innovation Committee. It was a well-deserved promotion, given how innovative both the Noranda Process and the Noranda Converter were when they were introduced. “I’ve always had an interest in how new technology can be effectively commercialized,” he says.

The Noranda Converter remains just as important today. “Copper is going through a boom because it’s in demand in China and India and other countries,” says Mackey. “Copper is at one of its highest prices in many years, primarily because of demand from new markets. Different stimulus packages have promoted demand for different materials and metals, so it’s worldwide.”

Copper is also playing a vital role in a greener future. “It’s key for electrical efficiency, and electrical efficiency is key to climate control, so it’s a key metal in the green society,” Mackey adds. “A sustainable industry,” he says, “is one that is efficient, uses minimum energy and has minimum environmental impact, and we’re working towards those kinds of objectives.”

Mackey has written on a wide range of topics on copper, nickel and other metals, including energy consumption and production efficiency for over 100 publications. One of his interests is tracking the development of various metallurgical technologies. “We [the industry] are always thinking a little bit about the future, but it’s good to know how we arrived at the present time in order to discover how things might unfold in the future.”

Mackey is currently co-editing a book with a colleague that will cover Canada’s developments in metallurgy throughout the last 50 years with papers prepared by numerous contributors from across the country. “It will also include a chapter on future directions,” he exmplains. “We are thinking about how mining and metallurgy might look in 50 years.” It will be a commemorative book in celebration of the 50th Conference of Metallurgists, hosted by CIM’s Metallurgical and Materials Society, to be held this coming October in Montreal.

Mackey recently retired from Xstrata to open his own consulting company, a job that he enjoys tremendously, using his experience working on copper and nickel projects worldwide.

The Selwyn Blaylock Medal has been a career highlight. “Blaylock grew up in Quebec, and graduated from McGill. He had extraordinary achievements in Canadian mining and metallurgy and through his vision, helped build Cominco (now Teck),” he says. “To be recognized for developments that I carried out is certainly an honour. I was thrilled to receive it.” He is also emphatic in acknowledging the support of his wife Angele, whom he thanks for years of encouragement. She now helps with the new company.

The Selwyn Blaylock Medal recognized Mackey for his innumerable contributions to the field of extractive metallurgy: his publications, technological advancements and mentorship of several generations of engineers.

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