Entre Nous with Roderick Guthrie, Director of the McGill Metals Processing Centre

Rod Guthrie has been on the cutting-edge for most of his professional life. The Director of the McGill Metals Processing Centre (MMPC) is working on equipment that could revolutionize the metallurgical industry. He also began establishing links with industry leaders long before in was in vogue for universities to do so.
Rod Guthrie: "I’m an engineer, and engineers are supposed to do good in the world... That’s my driver." / Photo: Owen Egan

By Neale McDevitt

On Nov. 25, 2010, the McGill Metals Processing Centre, (MMPC) was recognized for its special and long-lasting contributions to Canadian industrial innovation. Director Rod Guthrie and Research Manager Dr. Mihaiela Isac, received the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Leo Derikx Award, in recognition of “an established innovative model of long-standing university-industry partnership in pre-competitive R&D that has improved the general well-being of an industry.”

“The MMPC started working with industry long before it was in vogue,” Guthrie told The Reporter in a recent interview. “Getting this award from the government justifies the vision that helped forge these partnerships and make the MMPC a leader in the field of process metallurgy.”

What does the MMPC do?

The MMPC was formed in 1990, to conduct research for, and in partnership with, industry. Our mission is to be an International Research Centre for studies in the processing and production of advanced metallurgical materials. Our programs focus on the sustainable processing, production and characterization of advanced ferrous and non-ferrous materials for the metallurgical industry.

The Centre is comprised of 11 professors across Canada, with five located at McGill. For instance, my group works closely with some 20 global industry leaders. Dr. Mihaiela Isac and I provide the key human links to connect with these companies.

The beauty is that we bring together people who work with different metals. You have the steel-makers and the aluminum- makers talking to each other and to equipment suppliers and they are all talking outside their own industries. This leads to a lot of collaboration and cross-fertilization of ideas and practices.

Are there examples of some of the work being done here?

Well, one of our big successes was to develop an in-situ method for analyzing liquid metal quality. The sensors we developed are now being used in aluminum smelters around the world, evaluating the quality of liquid aluminum. This is extremely important for products like aluminum cans. In beer cans, for example, the wall thickness is about 80 microns, so it is very thin. Even the slightest imperfection, caused by the presence of a hard inclusion, can split the wall during can production. It took us about five years to develop a commercial sensor for aluminum in collaboration with ALCAN and Bomem, and another 15 to make it work for liquid steel, with the help of Heraeus Electro-Nite, and Sumitomo Metals Industries.

Are there any projects particularly dear to your heart?

The Centre has one of the world’s two pilot-scale horizontal single-belt casters – something I’ve been working on since 1987.

Essentially, you pour liquid metal onto an endless belt that moves between two rotating drums, and then carry out in-line rolling, downstream, so as to reduce the strip thickness down to maybe one millimetre. Compared to the same process on a conventional twin-slab steel caster, in which you’re rolling it down from 250 mm slab thickness, versus 10 mm in our case, this is  much greener and more efficient.

The process has had a long gestation, and Dr. Isac and I have made significant research contributions to its development. Our research was put in the spotlight during the St. Petersburg Off the Record Meeting in 1998, where we presented our fundamental and applied research on strip casting processes, alongside the biggest players in the world, including the successful Castrip team.

Certainly our research contributions to the field have continued and greatly helped in bringing us a CFI award of $2.8 million to McGill for this ongoing project.

At the moment, there is no single-belt caster in commercial operation globally, but Salzgitter, in conjunction with one of our sponsoring companies, CORUS, is currently building such a machine. This type of machine will revolutionize the way mankind casts metal sheets in the future.

Why is the link with industry so important to the MMPC?

Industry helps fund the research being done here, on everything from heat pipes and the environment, to materials characterization or to the rheological properties of light metal casting alloys.

This financial relationship started in the 1990s, when the Quebec government funding of the MMPC was cut, and we had to develop a new model of partnership with industry. This was successful, thanks to the strong input from Dr. Isac, who has developed and kept good connections with our supporters from industry for the past 15 years.

But it isn’t just about funding. There are people in industry who really value their relationship with us. Our International Advisory Board is comprised in part of high-level business executives, the enlightened ones who bridge the divide between business and academia.

Why does industry need us?

Well, we are able to deliver innovative, high-quality, work. We do quantitative analyses and lots of mathematical and experimental modeling. We can provide a first-class environment for students, and this helps them develop into the high-quality people that industry is interested in.

Industry people don’t have the time to fiddle around with the fundamental research details like we do. They are too busy running their plants and operations and trying to make money.

I’m the lucky guy, because I work upstream of all that. I don’t have to fix the caster every time it doesn’t work.  I get to do all the fundamental research stuff, which

is really fun.

How did you develop such strong ties to industry?

Well, I’ve always worked with industry. In fact, I first intended to come to McGill as a post-doc in 1967. My intention was to come for one year, figure out what was happening in North America, and then move out into industry. But before arriving, I was convinced by [Bill] Williams [then Chair of the Department of Mining and Materials Engineering] to come as a professor, with no courses to teach.

But for the first 22 years here in Canada, I essentially had two jobs, teaching first and then working in the steel mills of DOFASCO as a consultant every summer for four months. It was great, because I was able to see what the problems were in industry, and help with them, and then bring back the more fundamental research issues to McGill. That helped define much of my research that I did here at McGill.

What is most rewarding about your job?

Doing the research, learning about new things and proving I’m right – most of the time [laughing]. I have had excellent students and staff to work with, and I enjoy nothing more than imparting the knowledge I’ve gained over 40 years to the undergraduates.

I’m an engineer, and engineers are supposed to do good in the world. I’ve always been interested in making my research be of practical value, so we can improve our processes, and thereby improve mankind’s lot. That’s my driver.