August 2012

It takes time and teamwork

Vale Medal winner reveals road to success

By Crystal Chan

Inspiration may come in a flash, but Alfonso Grau knows it takes years of hard work to lead you to it. Over a nearly 30-year career with QIT-Fer et Titane, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Iron and Titanium, based in Sorel-Tracy, Quebec, he became one of Canada’s mining industry innovators by working on one groundbreaking project after another, many of which took over a decade to complete. His fruitful career was recognized with the Vale Medal in May. The prize follows the Airey Award that Grau received from the Metallurgical Society of CIM in 2003 for his contributions to the development of non-ferrous pyrometallurgy in the country.

Grau was a University of Toronto post-doctoral fellow working in Halifax with the National Research Council when QIT hired him in 1976. He proved a valuable member to the QIT R&D team, contributing to numerous finds and improvements in the fields of mineral exploration, ore beneficiation, electric furnace smelting, ladle refining of iron and oxygen steelmaking.

One development, the invention of a new hydrometallurgical process for the upgrading of titanium slags, won QIT the Xstrata Innovation Award from the Metallurgical Society of CIM in 2002. “It was the project that gave me the most satisfaction,” he says. Its main use was the production of titanium pigments, and since, as he puts it, “everything that has colour has titanium oxide,” it opened the doors to a huge new market.

Grau is proud of his contributions to the development and the refinement of the QIT smelting process. The main gain is the company is now able to operate very high-powered electric smelting furnaces in a safe environment. “I recall when I started with the company that some of the biggest furnaces would operate at around 51 megawatts. Now, the company can operate furnaces at 75 megawatts,” he explains.

Through his many years with the company, where he served as director of research, as vice-president of technology and, finally, as senior vice-president, business development, Grau’s work has helped QIT meet evolving demand. “You have to be constantly adapting to the requirements of the marketplace,” he says. “You have to understand what your customers need.”

Grau is quick to deflect praise, however. He emphasizes the collaborative approach that is essential to his profession. “In the end your success is the success of the people that work with you,” he underlines.

Since retiring in 2003, Grau has balanced consulting work with world travel. A native of Santiago, he spends several months each year in Chile but also makes time to explore Europe by bicycle, enjoy a game of golf and spend time with family and friends.

All the while, Grau maintains an eye on the industry’s ups and downs. And what does he believe will be the hot-topic questions of the near future?

“I think an issue that needs to be addressed is the question of energy: the usage of energy, water, resources,” he says. “Diminishing the impact of the industry on the environment and the community is an area that’s going to be increasingly important.” He also points to intensified interest in the far north, particularly in Northern Labrador and the Arctic. “That will present some challenges. Operating a mine, moving and bringing resources, energy, everything into those locations – I think that this is something which is very important and very unique to Canada.”

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