For more than 20 years, metallurgy students from the University of Queensland (UQ) have been organising and attending an annual field trip to explore various industrial sites relating to metallurgy.
In June and July 2018, seven students and one member of the UQ staff travelled to Eastern Canada. Travelling through Ontario and Quebec, the students visited eleven sites including three smelters, four refineries, two research and development centres, a university and an engineering design office.
Smelters and refineries
The trip began in Sudbury, a town in Ontario with a rich history in nickel and copper mining. The students visited two nickel pyrometallurgical plants. At these operations, students had an opportunity to see furnace and converter operations, such as tapping, first-hand. It was most interesting to see the complex evolution of these sites through nearly a hundred years, adapting to address environmental and community concerns following immense environmental damage from industrial processes. Such changes included adding acid plants and Controlled Furnace Atmosphere systems to control sulfur emissions. At the aluminium smelter, in Saguenay, Quebec, students could observe reduction and casting operations of alumina to aluminium. Due to limited smelting operations in Australia, visiting these sites was a perfect opportunity to apply knowledge learnt during the students’ pyrometallurgy course, seeing equipment fist hand and appreciating the scale of operations.
The students also visited four refineries during the two-week field trip. The sites differed in equipment and process design based on commodity, providing a good contrast that validated knowledge gained during the recently completed hydrometallurgy course. The refinery sites included: Vale’s Port Colbourne, processing nickel, cobalt and precious metals; Glencore’s Canadian Copper Refinery in Montreal, Canada’s sole copper refinery; Glencore’s CEZinc in Quebec; and Rio Tinto’s Vaudreuil alumina refinery in Saguenay.
The students were able to appreciate the challenges of running these various scale refineries, particularly with most having a combination of new and outdated technologies. An educational highlight was observing the strong safety-focused culture at sites involving both chemical and thermal processes, particularly at Vaudreuil where caustic is a major concern. Furthermore, in contrast to Australia, these Canadian operations have to consider sub-zero climates and a bilingual culture in their process design and day-to-day operations. However, as with Australian operations, concerns of environmental impact and increased international competition are also focus areas.
Continual operational of the aforementioned sites would not be possible without constant adaption to new technologies and process changes to comply with society values. However, implementation of changes require research, development, and pilot testing. In Sudbury, students visited Glencore’s XPS facility where pyrometallurgical pilot testing equipment is undertaken. In Saguenay, Rio Tinto’s Arvida Research and Development Centre provided insight into how new technologies of the alumina industry are developed. It was particularly interesting learning about economical processing of alumina waste, a topic previously covered by the students at university and equally important in the Australian alumina industry.
University and corporate office
One of the great opportunities of the trip was being able to visit McGill University, which like the University of Queensland, is world class in metallurgy-related research and education. The students were able to see the slight differences between the universities, in both research and teaching focus, as well as culture. Compared to the University of Queensland, the McGill University metallurgy department seemed to have extractive metallurgy focus upon materials science rather than process principles. Despite the slightly different backgrounds, discussing internships and prospective graduate positions with the students from McGill highlighted how metallurgy might one day take the University of Queensland students across the globe.
While staying in Toronto, students travelled to Mississauga to visit the Hatch Headquarters. At Hatch, students gained insight into several major projects. The most rewarding aspect of these presentations was seeing how new technologies are designed and implemented into the industry. Given limited experience, this is something that students did not really consider. Hatch had a strong focus upon driving positive change in the process industries, this was particularly evident in their breakthrough research into lithium extraction process technology.
The annual metallurgy field trip has continued to support the students’ progress through the UQ Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering program, and this year has been no exception. It has provided students with relevant practical knowledge in considerations appropriate for process plant design and a capstone course at the end of the students’ degree. The trip has also supplied an invaluable opportunity to network with students and industry professionals worldwide.
Organising this trip allows students to learn, grow, plan and lead. While travelling overseas the students also gained an appreciation of the cultural and societal differences which they might encounter in the future.
Without the support of the UQ Advantage Scholarship and industry sponsors: Glencore, Rio Tinto, SNF FLSmdith, Newcrest, JKTech, Mineral Technologies, Solvay, and Magotteaux, opportunities such as this would not be possible.