How trillions of bubbles earned billions of dollars for Australia: 2015 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation

Media releases, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science 2015

Graeme Jameson_headshotProfessor Graeme Jameson

Graeme Jameson’s technologies use trillions of bubbles to add billions of dollars to the value of Australia’s mineral and energy industries.

He created the Jameson Cell in the 1980s to concentrate base metals such as copper, lead, and zinc.

And it’s all done with bubbles. Graeme took flotation, a century old technology developed in Broken Hill, and transformed it. A turbulent cloud of minute bubbles are pushed through a slurry of ground-up ore where they pick up mineral particles and carry them to the surface.

The technology found many more applications, most profitably in the Australian coal industry, where the Jameson Cell has retrieved fine export coal particles worth more than $36 billion.

Now, Graeme Jameson is working on a newer version of his technology. The Novacell can concentrate larger ore particles, and save up to 15 per cent of the total energy expended in extraction and processing in mining—reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well.

Graeme is Laureate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Newcastle and Director of its Centre for Multiphase Processes.

For his development of flotation technologies that have added billions of dollars to the value of Australia’s mineral and energy industries Graeme Jameson receives the inaugural $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.

Graeme Jameson’s citation in full

Graeme Jameson grew up steeped in engineering.

“My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all engineers, which takes you back to the steam era. They were all practical people.”

By the time young Graeme was deciding on what course his career in the family trade would take, all sorts of new technologies were emerging in the aftermath of World War II. “My imagination was captured by the birth of the plastics industry, and the growth and power of the nuclear industry.” That moved him towards chemical engineering. But his path led not to either of those areas, but to a lifetime working on bubbles—improving the efficiency and application of the mineral processing technology known as froth flotation.

Froth flotation is a process by which water-attracted (hydrophilic) particles are separated from water-repellent (hydrophobic) particles in a container of liquid. The hydrophobic particles are picked up and swept away by bubbles—thin films of liquid surrounding air—which form a froth on top of the body of liquid. The froth eventually bubbles over the lip of the container carrying its load of hydrophobic particles with it. This means that hydrophobic mineral particles containing base metals such as copper, zinc and gold, for instance, can be separated from the hydrophilic particles of waste or gangue material with which they occur.

The process was patented in England in the 1860s, but first commercialised in Broken Hill in 1896.

Graeme had his first close look at flotation working part-time at a tin smelter while he undertook his engineering degree at the University of New South Wales. The company had a flotation machine with which valuable metals had been recovered and used to make bearings for the war effort.

In his final undergraduate year, Graeme undertook a project on the unusual properties of bubbles. And when he went to Cambridge University to do his PhD, it seemed almost a natural progression that he would end up under the supervision of Professor John Davidson, one of the world’s most eminent bubble scientists.

After completing his doctorate and working for two years in the oil industry in California, Graeme went back to academia at Imperial College, London in the mid-60s. A colleague suggested he look at the problem of the recovery of fine mineral particles using flotation.

It was an attractive proposition. Not only did it fit with his prior research, but Graeme also recognised its particular application to the Australian mining industry. In deposits such as Mt Isa, the material being mined, while of high quality, was increasingly finely dispersed, and many of the particles were too small to be picked up by flotation technology of the time where the bubbles were about 3 mm in diameter.

By the time he returned to Australia in the late 70s, after more than a decade of work in London, Graeme knew he had a solution. The bubbles needed to be much smaller, about 10 times smaller, and they also needed to be produced at a rate of billions per second. All he had to do was find a way to generate them.

It was his former supervisor, John Davidson, who inadvertently provided the answer—publishing a paper that included an equation which allowed one to predict the size of bubbles generated under prescribed liquid conditions. On the basis of this work, it turned out that a key factor was the shear rate—and a suitable shear rate for Graeme’s purposes could be established when a jet of liquid plunged into the container to form the froth. “It’s like the froth you get when you squirt a hose into a bucket with detergent when you’re washing the car.”

And that became the heart of the Jameson Cell. A jet of a slurry of mineral particles, together with air it draws in, is injected from the top of the cell through a large nozzle, the downcomer. The result is the production of a turbulent cloud of billions of small bubbles about 0.3 mm in diameter in the cell beneath.

But the invention of innovative technology is only part of any story of commercialisation. The next bit is often tougher—persuading companies to invest the vast amounts of money needed to buy and install new technology. Luckily, in the mid-80s, Mt Isa Mines (now Glencore Xstrata) had a team of highly-qualified and talented research metallurgists at Mt Isa who were prepared to look at, and actively help test Jameson’s new cell. “Those sort of people don’t exist at mines these days.”

Once the technology had been demonstrated, it’s not surprising the company eventually decided to buy and use the technology, which it has now sold on to hundreds of mines in 24 countries. The advantages of the Jameson Cell include the fact that it recovers 95 to 98 per cent of fine particles between 0.05 and 0.12 mm in diameter. There are no moving parts in the cell itself, which means that it can be made tough and involves relatively low maintenance—very important to an industry in which the workplaces are often in remote and harsh environments. The only energy used in the Jameson Cell is the electricity to pump in the slurry jet, and the efficiency of the system is such that fewer cells are needed to do the same job as previously. Not only that, but the technology is relatively inexpensive, with a short payback time, and is easily scaled up.

Mt Isa Mines soon found other applications, primarily at its coal mines where the Jameson Cell could scavenge the high quality fine particles of coal, increasing the yield of mines overnight by 3.5 per cent or billions of dollars. But that has only been the beginning. As the technology has been improved by Graeme, his students and others, it has also found application in Canada extracting bitumen from oil sands, along the Dead Sea recovering potash, and in Australia, cleaning up waste water and removing suspended solids in the food and wine industries.

Meanwhile, Graeme and his students have been busy extending the capacity of the Jameson Cell to pick up particles at both ends of its range—both finer and coarser. Initially, they developed a cell which made use of shock waves to increase the chance of ultrafine particles contacting bubbles. The Concorde Cell has been trialled successfully at a nickel concentrator in Western Australia, a platinum mine in South Africa and a copper mine in New South Wales.

But Graeme thinks his new technology to capture coarser particles, the NovaCell, is much more important—and it’s not hard to see why. The two great costs of base metal mining are those of extraction and of concentration. Each runs at about 43 per cent of the total. All the other expenses—transportation, taxes, royalties—only amount to 14 per cent. And for mining and concentration, by far the greatest cost is in energy. Most of the energy expended in concentrating the ore goes in grinding it to the necessary particle size for flotation. If that particle size could be made larger, less grinding is needed, using less energy and resulting in less wear and tear on the grinding equipment. In fact, Graeme estimates that his NovaCell can reduce overall mining costs by between 10 and 15 per cent. That’s multi-billions of dollars.

Once again, the solution was relatively simple. As usual in innovation, you just had to see it. The problem with large particles is that they are often torn off the bubbles to which they attach by the turbulent mixing established in the Jameson Cell. The solution is a gentler action to generate and agitate the bubbles. It can be achieved by filling a container with mineral particles and bubbling water and fine bubbles gently up from the bottom in the process which creates a kind of liquid, a fluidised bed.

So, once again, Graeme Jameson has the answer. The next step will be commercialisation—convincing industry to adopt his new technology.


1964 PhD (Chemical Engineering), University of Cambridge, UK
1960 Bachelor of Science (Chemical Engineering), University of New South Wales (UNSW)

Career highlights

2015 Foreign Member, National Academy of Engineering, USA
2014 – 2016 Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Outstanding Researcher Award
2013 NSW Scientist of the Year
2013 Delprat Distinguished Lecture Series, Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane
2013 Antoine M. Gaudin Award, Mineral and Metallurgical Processing Division of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration, USA
2007 Australian National Service Anniversary Medal
2007 Australian Defence Medal
2005 Peter Nicol Russell Medal, Institution of Engineers Australia
2005 Officer of the Order of Australia
2005 Laureate Professor, University of Newcastle
2003 Ian Wark Medal and Lecture, Australian Academy of Science
2002 Centenary Medal, Commonwealth of Australia
2002 Chemeca Medal, Institution of Engineers Australia
2000 Honorary Fellow, Institution of Engineers Australia
1999 President’s Medal, Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy
1998 KL Sutherland Memorial Medal, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
1997 – ongoing Director, the Centre for Multiphase Processes, the University of Newcastle
1997 – 2005 ARC funding: ARC Special Research Centre for Multiphase Processes
1996 Fellow, Australian Academy of Science
1995 – 1997 ARC Special Investigator Award
1994 Foreign Fellow, Royal Academy of Engineering, London
1993 RK Murphy Medal, Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1992 Applied Research Medal, Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1991 Clunies Ross National Science and Technology Award
1991 Fellow, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
1990 CSIRO External Research Medal
1990 Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Award of Excellence in Chemical Engineering
1990 Whiffen Medal, Institution of Chemical Engineers, NSW Group
1983 John A Brodie Medal, Institution of Engineers Australia
1961 – 1963 Bachelor Research Scholar, Christ’s College, Cambridge

Further reading

Image: Graeme Jameson (Photo credit: Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear)