Our Stories: Jim Metson
It wasn’t so long ago that ministries didn’t have scientific advisers or if they did, they were in-house appointments, but in recent years such jobs have tended to go to those working outside the building – such as Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister, or Dr Ian Ferguson, the Chief Science Adviser for the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).
Add to that list, Professor Jim Metson, newly appointed Chief Science Adviser for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, who will also split his time between the new role and his research at the University of Auckland. This, he says, makes good sense. “Because within the ministry and within government, you do need the solid connection with the science community.
If you look at the what the Ministry is set up to do, which includes administering a science system, to set a strategy and then to handle grants within that strategy … that needs direct feedback from the community who are being funded and strategised about, on how that is impacting, what works and what doesn’t. That’s not always as clear cut as you might think, looking from the inside out.”
Metson has the kind of CV that would have impressed any interviewing panel, with experience in academic research, working with industry and also with government; he’s the Deputy Dean of The University of Auckland’s Faculty of Science, Associate Director of Light Metals Research Centre (LMRC), a Councillor for the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering, a member of the Australian Synchrotrons Science Advisory Committee, the former chair of the Research Infrastructure Advisory Group (RIAG) for MBIE and a Principal Investigator of the MacDiarmid Institute.
Much of his own research has focused on the surface of things, which is where, he says, much of the action takes place. “A lot of the chemistry that happens in the world around us happens at surfaces and interfaces. So if we look at something as fundamental as adhesion, that comes down to binding at the atomic level and depends on the interaction of materials and surfaces. The other part of it is that [processes] like catalysis, corrosion, the weathering of surfaces are all driven by reactions, which happen in the top few atomic layers.”
Metson has been particularly interested in the surfaces of metals and their oxides, particularly aluminium oxide, although that has now developed into a broader interest in the processes and technologies involved in producing the metal. After all, contemporary civilisation might have come to depend on this malleable material, but its production is still massively energy inefficient and very challenging.
“If we look at the scientific literature on aluminas, 95 percent of it is in the exotic applications in catalysis, in absorption, in semiconductors and various other applications, but in fact that’s less than five percent of the alumina we make. So 95% of the literature is about five per cent of what we make, but there is a tiny and very limited understanding of what we make 80 million tonnes of. So that’s where I get interested, in the 80 million tonnes. That’s a material that consumes about two per cent of the world’s electricity – in the smelting of aluminum – so any incremental improvement in understanding how alumina is made and performs in smelting has major energy consequences across the world.”
At the time of the interview, he was about to travel to Norway as part of a project with the Scandinavians focused on optimising the performance of a large alumina refinery in Brazil. This was in his capacity of co-director of LMRC, a centre that he helped establish in 2002 and which, according to its website, is dedicated to transforming the light metals industry into one “which produces high value outputs using the world’s best manufacturing processes”.
The organisation was set up to harness some of the knowledge and expertise of a local academic community but, unusually, in an area of industry that has a very limited presence in New Zealand. However, during the 90s, when the Tiwai Point aluminum smelter was being upgraded, there was extensive collaboration between scientists at The University of Auckland and Comalco (now known as Rio Tinto), particularly in areas such as dry scrubbing technology for gas cleaning and upgrading the design of the reduction cells.
The LMRC was established to sustain and build on that established expertise, says Metson. It now employs around 30 people, and operates almost exclusively on the international stage. “And it’s one of probably only two world leading research centres of aluminium technology in general, particularly in alumina refining and aluminium smelting — Auckland, New Zealand and Trondheim, in Norway, are the two leading institutions.”
“I have to admit I do really enjoy working at the industry interface,” he adds. “Seeing your science get built and used or even just changing the way people think in industry is very rewarding.”
– Story by Margo White