$25 million annual gains from plant collaboration with McGill
Few NSERC-funded teams have had as great an influence on the mining industry as the mineral processing research group at McGill University in Montreal. Under the direction of Dr. James Finch, the McGill team has collaborated for more than 15 years with Canada’s mining industry giants to significantly improve the purity and recovery of base metal minerals from ore deposits. During this time, their collaborative efforts, cost-shared by NSERC and the companies, have yielded several key improvements, ultimately translating into net revenue gains of more than $25 million annually for industry partners.
NSERC (the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) is a federal funding agency that supports university-industry research partnerships.
“Jim’s group has had a very large impact on our industry,” remarks Jan Nesset, former program manager for mineral processing research at Noranda Inc. (now part of Xstrata Plc). “Many of the companies have realized benefits in the range of tens of millions of dollars, and even those figures are probably conservative in terms of the real payback.”
In addition to Noranda, Finch’s team has collaborated with Consortium de recherche minrale (COREM), Falconbridge Ltd. (now part of Xstrata), Inco Ltd. (now CVRD Inco), SGS Lakefield Research Ltd., and Teck Cominco Ltd.
“Jim’s strength,” recalls Nesset, “is his ability to connect all of us in this pre-competitive R&D collaboration. With NSERC’s involvement and the five companies participating, we received huge leverage for each dollar we invested.”
Finch’s team has focused on flotation cells and systems in mineral processing plants.
The researchers have made breakthroughs in both flotation chemistry and in the physics of gas dispersion used to create bubbles in the flotation cell. These innovations have allowed the mining industry to significantly improve both the amount of mineral recovery from ores as well as the quality or purity of the end product.
In flotation chemistry, Finch’s team has developed techniques to alter and control the surface properties of selected mineral particles. These involve the addition of collector hydrocarbons to change the target mineral from being hydrophilic to hydrophobic (hydrocarbon-coated), so that it will cling to the bubbles.
“Jim’s work on flotation chemistry and gas dispersion is truly world-leading,” observes Nesset. He says the breadth of research and technology covered by Finch’s lab sets it apart from other mineral processing research labs that tend to focus on a narrower range of flotation-related issues.
In the area of gas dispersion, the challenge was to understand the fundamentals of bubble size, gas velocity, and the overall volume of gas in the flotation cell, all of which influence the rate at which target minerals will be collected. The McGill team shed new light on the process by pioneering a set of sensors for measuring the various gas parameters.
“You need to be able to measure the gas parameters to model or simulate the process,” says Finch. “Once you have the measurements, you can make adjustments to the process in a known way to see how the flotation cells respond.”
McGill’s gas sensor instruments, the product of 25 years of research, have now been adopted by leading mining companies around the world, from Australia and Indonesia to South Africa and the United States.
“Controlling the way in which air is distributed in flotation plants pays really quite remarkable dividends,” notes Finch. In one application at Noranda’s Brunswick mine, the instruments were used to make gas dispersion adjustments that contributed to an increase in zinc purity worth $2.5 million per year in net revenue.
The industry’s collaboration with Finch has yielded another important output: highly qualified people. Some 36 postgraduates have emerged from Finch’s work on flotation chemistry and gas dispersion, of which 14 have secured direct employment with industry partners. Another 90 undergraduate students have gained experience in corporate research environments through short-term cooperative placements in the industry.
“Jim is really good at stimulating new ideas out of his students,” notes Nesset.
Noranda hired several students who gained essential experience at the company on summer work terms.
“Part of the attractiveness is that you can test the students on a particular project, and if you really like them and they’re doing good work, then you can offer them a full-time job.”
Finch’s success in exposing students to private sector challenges through research internships is consistent with the policy objectives in the federal government’s new Science and Technology (S&T) Strategy. As part of its goal of fostering and sustaining Canada’s People Advantage, the federal government will strengthen public-private research and commercialization partnerships by increasing support for research internships to expose more students to the private sector; encourage more firms to hire S&T graduates; and increase the number of graduates with research, business skills and know-how.