Life without metals in our daily life is simply inconceivable, be it steel in railway tracks, aluminium in aircraft, uranium for electricity or rare earth metals in magnets and hard discs. Producing metals and non-metals such as silicon, from its ores is the domain of extractive metallurgy. Unfortunately, extractive metallurgy has been mistakenly identified, by students, with inorganic chemistry. In reality, it is hard core engineering! Extractive metallurgy practitioners design complex reactors such as blast furnace (for iron), Hall-Heroult cells (for aluminium), and Siemens process (for silicon) using principles of physics, thermodynamics, reaction kinetics, and transport phenomena. Designing metallurgical reactors also requires skills in high temperature experimentation and computer simulation using techniques such as finite element (volume) methods. Many extractive metallurgy unit operations are used for the remediation of air, water and solid wastes.
In the years to come, extractive metallurgy is set to be extremely daunting. The decreasing ore grade and strict laws to regulate the environmental impact of metallurgical emissions such as CO_2, SO_2, slag, and toxic effluents means that new energy and resource efficient reactors need to be developed. For example, the future iron producing reactor may be very different from the present blast furnace. In fact, the future trend in extractive metallurgy is to recover metals, even in parts-per-million levels, from wastes such as used catalyst and more importantly the ever-increasing volume of electronic wastes.
An extractive metallurgy expert acquires multifaceted skills. Careers may not be restricted to steel, copper or aluminium plants. In fact, they can also design materials processing operations such as casting, powder metallurgy, and heat treatment. Semiconductor and waste processing facilities could also provide job openings. Experts in computer simulation with a sound knowledge of transport phenomena have job opportunities spanning across other engineering branches too. For high achievers, the sky is the limit!