Alumni Contribution

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  • Aug

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Tribute to Professor David G.C. Robertson 

J Bruce See and Phillip J Mackey

A Symposium on pyrometallurgy, ‘Celebrating the Megascale’, was held in honour of Professor David G.C. Robertson, as part of the TMS Annual Meeting from 17-20 February 2014 in San Diego, California.  David graduated with a PhD from the UNSW School of Metallurgy in 1968 and this Symposium was held as a tribute to him for his contributions to education and research in pyrometallurgy in a variety of roles over almost fifty years.  The Symposium formed a part of the TMS Annual Meeting – a large event attended by about 4,300 people (the second highest total attendance for a TMS Annual Meeting in 15 years) from about 50 countries.

David obtained a BSc(Eng) degree in metallurgy from the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College, London, in 1963 before becoming a Teaching Fellow in Metallurgy at UNSW in 1964.   He subsequently became a BHP postgraduate Research Scholar at UNSW and joined the faculty at Imperial College on completion of his PhD.   He became a Reader at Imperial College in the John Percy Research Group and in 1985 accepted the position of Professor of Metallurgical Engineering and Director of the Center for Pyrometallurgy at the University of Missouri-Rolla (now Missouri University of Science and Technology –Missouri S&T) .  He is currently an Emeritus Professor at Missouri S&T.  

 He has devoted his career to the education of highly skilled metallurgical professionals and to research on the physical chemistry and process engineering of all types and sizes of metallurgical processes, particularly those involving molten metals.   His research has involved major contributions in many areas, such as metal-slag-gas reactions, gas injection into melts, atomization of liquid metals by gas jets, ferroalloy production, continuous steelmaking and the modelling of metallurgical processes.  During his research at Imperial College and at Missouri S&T, he has supervised the work of 26 doctoral and 14 masters students and authored or co-authored over 100 publications.  A more detailed overview of David Robertson’s life and career is given in the Symposium proceedings.

The Robertson Symposium consisted of approximately 70 papers presented over four days and the selection of high-level speakers meant that the sessions were well attended by up to eighty pyrometallurgists from all around the world.   The conference sessions included ferroalloys, non-ferrous smelting, iron and steel production, modelling, metallurgical education, and fundamentals.   The symposium proceedings remain as a record of the event and contain a comprehensive list of references to David Robertson’s publications.  (Mackey P J, Grimsey E J, Jones R T, & Brooks G A (Editors), Celebrating the Megascale, Proceedings of the Extraction and Processing Division Symposium on Pyrometallurgy in Honor of David G.C. Robertson, Wiley, 2014, 664 pp., ISBN: 978-1-118-88961-9).

 For us, an interesting personal feature of the Symposium was that this was the first time that all three of us (David and ourselves) had been together as friends and colleagues in the one place in over thirty years.   It was also the first time that we had written a paper together (‘Current and Suggested Focus on Sustainability in Pyrometallurgy’ – refer Symposium Proceedings cited above) even though we had all worked in related areas both during our doctoral programs and in our subsequent careers. 
A Symposium Dinner Cruise was held in San Diego Bay on the evening of Monday 17 February.  The ship we sailed in was the 'High Spirits' – a sister ship to Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential yacht 'Sequoia'.   This was a high point of the Symposium as a number of David Robertson’s colleagues and former students reminisced about David’s life and career with Cam Harris as MC. Art Morris, a long-term colleague of David at Missouri S&T, was notable amongst others in giving an excellent speech as a tribute to David.
This Symposium also presented an opportunity for David to catch up with old friends and colleagues as well as with two former Heads of the School of Materials Science and Engineering at UNSW, Professor Oleg Ostrovski and Professor David Young.  
The photo below from the Symposium shows David with ourselves (left to right: his fellow UNSW postgraduates, Phillip Mackey

and Bruce See) as well as Oleg (right) and David Young (left). 

Oleg subsequently suggested that we should also include in this article some perspectives on our experiences as postgraduates in the School of Metallurgy.   We decided to do so in part because we consider this period of about fifty years ago as our “Golden Age” in the School of Metallurgy.  We also felt we could provide some insights into the School at that time as there has been much change and evolution both within the School of Metallurgy – now of course the School of Materials Science and Engineering – and UNSW as a whole.



Reminiscences on the 1960s School of Metallurgy

We both began our undergraduate studies at the beginning of the 1960s.   In 1961 one of us (JBS) can remember being addressed as a first year metallurgy student by the Foundation Professor and Head of School,  Professor Rupert Myers, who was beginning his climb to become Sir Rupert and Vice-Chancellor of UNSW.   UNSW itself was a comparatively young university having had its aegis in the Sydney Technical College at Ultimo and was led by a powerful and visionary Vice-Chancellor, the chemical engineer Sir Philip Baxter.  We can both also recollect some of our earlier undergraduate subjects such as chemistry practicals and engineering being held at the old Sydney Technical College at Ultimo.  One noteworthy feature of our student years that has changed dramatically in the past fifty years is the vast increase in the numbers of women students in MSE as we both remember the first female graduate of the School, Ilse Uhlenhut.
It is a tribute to the vision and leadership of people like Philip Baxter and Rupert Myers that the 1960s School of Metallurgy then, as now, possessed a strong and internationally recognised academic staff especially given its early struggles in the late 1940s and the 1950s to develop infrastructure and strong degree courses, to achieve recognition and to grow the professoriate .  This period has been documented by a former Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Emeritus Professor A.H. Willis, in The University of New South Wales. The Baxter Years (UNSW Press 1983) and his book covers the period up to 1969 when the Foundation Professor of the School of Metallurgy – the now Emeritus Professor Myers – became Vice-Chancellor.
The metallurgy degree was then a general one incorporating both physical and chemical metallurgy. and the academics specialising in physical metallurgy and materials science included luminaries like Hugh Muir, John Bowles, Max Hatherly and Greig Wallwork.   Chemical metallurgists like ourselves remember struggling to develop some understanding of topics such as martensitic transformations, textures, fracture mechanics and the like, although both of us subsequently found such exposure valuable.  
Academics specialising in high temperature chemical metallurgy and pyrometallurgical processing included Alex Jenkins, Noel Warner, Bruce Harris, David R Young and Les Baker.   All of these men made significant contributions in their own right with, for example, Jenkins and Harris pioneering the use of the levitation melting technique and Noel Warner applying classical chemical engineering concepts to the analysis of high temperature metallurgical processes.  Noel had used this approach in his 1958 UNSW PhD thesis on the absorption of zinc vapour into molten lead which to this day remains a brilliant experimental and theoretical study.
Dave Young helped develop our background in thermodynamics whilst the background provided by Noel Warner in chemical engineering concepts has proved invaluable for both of us.   Just one example of the various tours de force by the UNSW pyrometallurgical academic staff was the 1966 Hunt Outstanding Paper Award from The American Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME) given to Les Baker, Noel Warner and Alex Jenkins for their landmark paper, “Kinetics of Decarburization of Liquid Iron in an Oxidizing Atmosphere Using the Levitation Technique” and which was published in the December 1964 issue of The Transactions of the Metallurgical Society of AIME.
Our recollection is that there was an average of about twenty or so postgraduate students in metallurgy at UNSW during the 1960s.  There were many able physical metallurgists and materials scientists like Druce Dunne, Bob Every, John Croll, Peter Krauklis, Ron Blombery, Graham Thompson, Geoff Stevens, John Watson, Dick Jago, Bill Sheppherd, John Eady, Don Dautovich and Kevin Brown and the pyrometallurgists included Ian Clarke, David Robertson, ourselves, Steve Algie, Clive Roberts, Diony Regozo, John Wright and John Edwards.  Steve and Clive were both university medallists, all the students had Honours degrees and many were fully and well supported as Commonwealth Postgraduate Scholars.   
The pyrometallurgical group was very close knit as we both worked and frequently socialised together with this closeness being enhanced by our location within the School in what became known as ‘The Postgrad Hole’.   This was an enclosed space on the mezzanine floor in the process metallurgy building and, in today’s parlance, was essentially an open plan office containing about eight desks.  As it was then accessed by steep ladders, not well ventilated, out of the way and contained a number of young and frequently boisterous postgraduates it was frequently not an ideal environment for serious academic study.  In addition, as we all lived off campus, a feature of social life was parties at our flats but some of the more interesting social events were in the Roundhouse or at Metallurgical Society functions.  
There was one very unique feature of our postgraduate work that merits some comment as it played a  particularly large role in shaping the career of one of us (PJM).  Noel Warner is a very innovative chemical engineer and we worked with him and others on a large pilot plant that was housed in a corner of the process metallurgy building nearest to the main building of the School of Metallurgy.                                         

This pilot plant (named the ‘GDZ’) shown on the left had been designed by Noel and built under his direction to examine a concept for the gaseous dezincing (=GDZ) of lead as an alternative to vacuum dezincing.  The GDZ was meant to operate by stripping zinc from molten lead by countercurrent contacting with nitrogen in a packed bed of Raschig rings.
The operation of such a large pilot plant in the School placed extraordinary demands upon the resources and finances of the School and its workshop facilities.   Both of us at different stages assumed responsibility for the overall operation and servicing of this comparative behemoth in a university environment and our trials and tribulations are documented in our PhD theses.
The preparations for and execution of pilot plant runs were especially gruelling and required a large group of plant operators and long days – especially for an actual run.   As one example of the time and effort needed it would take hours for the lead pipelines to heat up sufficiently to allow molten lead to flow through them and this preheating phase required constant monitoring and recording of a large number of thermocouples on the pipe itself – all this and many other measurements without online computerised data acquisition and analysis.
The pilot plant team was under Noel Warner’s overall supervision but it included ourselves and Diony Regozo, Bill Hayes as electrician, Bill Jenner as rigger and Dave Hall as technical assistant.  It was an incredible team building exercise and helped us both greatly in learning how to work together with a range of people with different skills and abilities.  Other postgraduate students became very accustomed to seeing us both wandering around or working in grimy overalls plus respirators and other safety gear performing interesting manoeuvres like unbolting large flanges and changing nitrogen cylinders.  
There were many interesting characters in our team and in the School at that time such as Bill Jenner and Jim Monteith.  Bill Jenner was a Welshman who had been in the British Merchant Navy in World War II and, in addition to often puffing bemusedly on a rather obnoxious pipe and acting as a form of mentor to tired and discouraged students, showed great skill in rigging in often difficult, hot and awkward situations.   Jim Monteith was the fearsome guardian of the supply store and often intimidated those who dared to request some of the stores.
Little did any one of us fully appreciate it at the time, but this work – in addition to gaining our PhD degrees – was ideal training for new process development.  It was during a visit to the School of Metallurgy in 1968 by Dr. N.J. Themelis, Director of Engineering Research at the famed Noranda Mines Limited of Canada, being quite impressed with this work at the School, offered one of us (PJM) a position with the Canadian Company.  More details of our subsequent careers are given below in the biographical notes.
In common with our fellow postgraduates like David Robertson both of us owe a great deal to our ‘Golden Age’ in the School of Metallurgy at UNSW and to inspirational academics like Professors Noel Warner and Alex Jenkins.  Noel Warner is now an Emeritus Professor in the University of Birmingham and has continued to publish numerous articles on alternative concepts for smelting processes whilst Professor Jenkins, as one of the first PhD graduates in metallurgy in Australia, has had an especially interesting life as he completed his PhD after his wartime service as a Pilot Officer in the RAF Bomber Command.  Details of his career are available on the Internet and one of the most recent newspaper articles in 2014 describes his piloting of a bomber near Calais on D-Day.
Given this history we are pleased that the current School of Materials Science and Engineering has an outstanding and diverse academic staff including internationally recognised pyrometallurgists and chemical metallurgists like Professors Oleg Ostrovski, Veena Sahajwalla and David J Young and that the School will therefore continue to provide the type of education and training from which we have personally benefited.

Biographical notes

Bruce See  worked as an academic and government researcher overseas in the USA and South Africa for eleven years after completing his PhD in 1970 in the positions of Assistant Professor of Metallurgy and Materials Science at MIT, Chief Scientist and Research Group Leader of the Pyrometallurgy Research Group of the National Institute for Metallurgy (now MINTEK) within the University of the Witwatersrand and Associate Professor of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering at the University of Nevada – Reno.   He subsequently worked for about 20 years in industrial research and research management for CRA (now Rio Tinto), Pasminco (now Nystar) and the University of Western Sydney before leaving the profession to pursue alternative interests and studies in economics, history, business management and tourism and hospitality.   He has a Graduate Diploma in Economics from UNE and has authored or co-authored over forty publications and numerous published reports on iron and steelmaking, ferroalloy production, atomisation of liquid metals, non-ferrous pyrometallurgy, galvanizing and the properties of lead-acid battery alloys.
Phillip Mackey  took up a position with Noranda Research Centre in Montreal, Canada in 1969 after completing his PhD at UNSW.  His work included a stint as Supervisor of the new 100 t/day pilot plant for the continuous smelting and converting of copper concentrate, later called the Noranda Process. He was involved in all aspects of the project, including development of data for the full scale commercial plant which commenced operations in 1973.  This process is now recognized as one of the significant developments in copper smelting of the last century. He later became Smelter Superintendent at the Noranda Horne smelter in Rouyn-Nornada, Quebec, Canada and was later involved in licensing the technology at plants round the world, including Canada, USA, China, Chile and Australia. Phillip is a Past-President of The Metallurgical Society of The Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy; was instrumental in establishing the Copper-Cobre world conferences and has received a number of professional awards for his work. He now runs his own company and consults for mining companies worldwide.