Regarding broken ground - Jan Lewis discusses his love of geology and engineering

Materials World magazine
30 Apr 2013

Mining legacies. Dates with the Bedouin. Faulty Kazakhstani ventilation systems. For Jan Lewis, Deputy Managing Director at Wardell Armstrong International, predicting tomorrow isn’t easy. Eoin Redahan reports.

‘Whatever the landscape looks like, it is governed by the geology underneath. The rocks will determine the shape.’ It was the geologist in Jan Lewis speaking, but these words could have been used to describe his own formation – the rocks that determined his shape.

Geology and engineering were with Jan from an early age. As a child he moved all over the country to the tune of his father’s job. He lived in Hull, Oxford, Nottingham and Dartmoor, but the place he remembers best is Bristol. It was where he first became aware of the goings on beneath Earth’s mossy top. He told me, ‘I lived in a place where they had lots of fossils. My school emblem even had an ammonite on it. I could play in the building sites where new houses were being built and go down into the drainage trenches.’

With the geologist in him successfully engaged, the engineer soon followed. ‘I was always pulling things apart and building things,’ he said. ‘No one had taken an O-Level in metalwork at our school before, so I thought I’d give it a go. I built a steam engine.’

A-Levels in physics, maths and geography, and an additional class in geology, strengthened these earlier interests, and when the time came to choose a university course, Jan’s career path was already hardening. Unsurprisingly, he selected Engineering Geology and Geotechnics at the University of Portsmouth, UK.

The degree’s cross-disciplinary approach was useful – so useful that it taught Jan different ways of speaking. ‘It gives you the language. You can talk geology to engineers. Engineers understand building things on rock and digging holes through them, and geologists understand the geology. But it’s a different sort of language. An engineer isn’t going to care about certain parameters of the rock. They want to know its strength and what happens when you dig a hole in it. So it’s about bridging the gap.’

Before university’s end, the engineering and environmental consultancy Wardell Armstrong came courting. When the firm offered him a job as engineer, he was not to know how well this fluency in both Engineering and Geology would serve him in the coming years.

Jan packed his bags. He worked for a year in Wardell’s head office in Stoke-on-Trent, and when they opened an office in West Bromwich, he worked in that, too. With the mining industry struggling in the early 1990s, the emphasis of his early work shifted towards the UK’s industrial mining legacies and land re-use. He said, ‘There were requirements to engineer the soil and rock to rebuild on it. In some parts of this country, the first 10 metres contained man-made spoil that had been tipped out from mining and industrial processes, such as the potteries industry in Stoke-onTrent and the metals industry in Birmingham.’

He was also tasked with tackling contamination issues – using windrowing and insects – and was involved in landfill projects, in which gas was intercepted and diverted into the atmosphere before it reached housing estates. He explained, ‘If the gas was deeper in the strata and it went into the sandstone layer, we drilled large diameter boreholes at certain intervals into that strata. We then used stacks and little aspiromatic cowls (wind-driven cowls) to help draw the gas out.’

After several years’ grounding in Stoke and West Bromwich, Jan was asked to lead the newly opened London office, before becoming Technical Director and then Partner of the company. He is now Deputy Managing Director of Wardell Armstrong International – the company’s mining provision. ‘The mining industry is typically cyclical,’ he said. ‘At the moment, we’ve been in a peak for some time, so I’ve put more of my efforts into the mining side than the UK side.’

The breadth of Wardell Armstrong’s work – from competent persons and initial public offering reports, annual updates or other forms of due diligence to get companies to the next stage of projects – has taken Jan all over the world. He has shared coffee and dates with the Bedouin in Saudi Arabia while discussing a copper mine, conducted gold mine consultancy work in Armenia, and flown more than 1,000km by helicopter in -35°C to a project in far eastern Russia. However, while he has enjoyed visiting rarefied climes, Jan’s keenest memories are of the local people he has met and the expertise of his peers.

‘The more grey hair they have, the more they will have seen. There is no shortcut to get that kind of experience. We were working with one of our associates, driving to a mine in Kazakhstan. We were two miles away from the mine when he said, “They have a problem with their ventilation system.” I said, “How on earth can you tell that?’ He explained, “I haven’t been there before, but I can see the air is coming out of that particular shaft, and it shouldn’t be.” And it was obviously slightly warmer from the ground and it was freezing on the headgear.

‘When we arrive at these mines they try to tell us how wonderful everything is, and hope that you’ll leave well fed and give a good report on it. But my associate didn’t put up with any of that and he was straight in there with difficult questions. They’ve got a hell of a lot of skill, and it’s great that we can tap into that knowledge.’

Even as the grey hairs shuffle off, Jan is excited by the future of the mining industry. ‘It’s much more global. It’s on a much larger scale. The mines are getting bigger and deeper.’

He adds that technology has changed the approach at the cutting face. ‘Heap leaching gold has meant that much lower grade ores are now economical. There are a lot of new mines that are possible that wouldn’t have been thought so in the past. Now we’re talking about mining gold that is in the mass of rock. You can’t see it. It’s in parts per million. Half a gramme per tonne can form an economic mine.’

In light of this, Wardell Armstrong’s mining arm continues to strengthen. The company is involved in projects in Cuba, Russia, Armenia and Kazakhstan. It is also involved with Maaden, the state mining company of Saudi Arabia, to look at gold and copper deposits. ‘I want to get involved in as many projects as possible,’ he said. ‘And I want to build Wardell Armstrong International. I want us to be consistently regarded as one of the main players.’

While he does this, Jan has other plates on the spin. He is involved in the Engineers’ Livery Company, has just finished a two-year stint as President of IOM3. He noted that being President offered him opportunities to test his bounds. One such opportunity was a strategic minerals debate, in which he was asked to argue that global supply was not an urgent concern. It was a plush affair with black suits, small talk over flutes of champagne and a packed auditorium of industry professionals. He spoke well.

‘Personal development is all about being taken out of your comfort zone,’ he said. ‘If you go outside that comfort zone, it extends you as a person.’

Not that Jan needs to worry. His work takes him to new frontiers anyway.