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Bubbles can be worth a lot of money. Ilena Gecan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Wealth bubble: PM’s Prize for Innovation goes to Aussie invention worth billions

There aren’t many scientific discoveries that have boosted our economy by A$36 billion. Yet that’s what Graeme Jameson’s invention has yielded for Australia, along with him receiving this year’s Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation.

And it all comes down to bubbles.

Graeme Jameson. Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science/WildBear

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

His breakthrough started with his PhD in fluid dynamics, looking specifically at bubbles. It was while at Imperial College in London after he completed his PhD that he met with someone who set him on the course to his great invention.

“I met a man there who knew I was a fluid dynamicist,” Graeme says. “He told me there was a big problem in the minerals industry where they can’t recover very fine particles.

"He was a chemist, but he said he didn’t think it was a chemistry problem, it was a fluid dynamics problem. He said I should have a go at that. And that’s what I did.”

The problem was that a lot of material being dug out of the ground was too fine to extract efficiently from the ore. Instead, it was just being thrown away.

So Graeme returned to Australia to see how the industry was tackling the problem. At the time they were using a technology developed in the early 20th century to extract the minerals from the ore. It was essentially a giant flotation tank with bubbles passing through ore in the tank, lifting the minerals to the surface, where they’d be scooped off. But there was a problem with the process they were using: they were using the wrong sized bubbles.

“By that time I’d realised that the theory showed the bubbles should be a certain size, around 300 microns,” he says. “So I went around the country and checked what the industry was doing at the time, and it turned out the bubbles the industry was using were ten times too big.

"So I had to find a way to make very small bubbles, in very large quantities, and in a very reliable and cost effective way.”

Graeme Jameson with his invention in 1992. University of Newcastle

So he invented what is now called the Jameson Cell. It produces vast amounts of small bubbles, which the fine mineral particles stick to, and is substantially more efficient than the old process.

“The biggest application in Australia is fine coal,” he says. “There are now around 85 or 90 Jameson Cells in Australia recovering fine coal.”

Graeme is now working on the next generation of the Jameson Cell, a Fluidised Bed Flotation Cell called the NovaCell. This will use different sized bubbles to efficiently capture larger particles. One benefit of this is that the ore won’t need to be ground to such a fine state, which will lead to substantial savings in energy during ore processing.

According to Graeme, part of his strength as a researcher and inventor is having an engineering background.

“I come from a line of engineers,” he says. “So I was never afraid to think big.

"If you’re a chemist, for example, you do things on a very small scale, and that’s very appropriate. You work with great accuracy and precision. But if you’re an engineer, you think you don’t have to work on such a small scale. You’re never been afraid to work on a bigger scale, and that’s been a strength.”

The 2015 Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science were awarded today in Canberra. The full list of prize recipients is below:

Prime Minister’s Prize for Science
Graham Farquhar
ANU, Canberra

Prime Minister’s Prize for Innovation
Graeme Jameson
University of Newcastle

Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year
Cyrille Boyer
University of New South Wales

Frank Fenner Prize for Life Scientist of the Year
Jane Elith
University of Melbourne

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools
Ken Silburn
Casula High School, NSW

Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Primary Schools
Rebecca Johnson
Windaroo State School, Qld

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