Wednesday 8th Jul, 2020

ASBSH member profile: Alan Roberts

In each issue, ABHR profiles a member of the Australian Society of Bulk Solids Handling (ASBSH). In this article, we look at the work of Alan Roberts AM, who has played a key role in the development of bulk solids science.

In each issue, ABHR profiles a member of the Australian Society of Bulk Solids Handling (ASBSH). In this article, we look at the work of Alan Roberts AM, who has played a key role in the development of bulk solids science.

Emeritus Professor Alan Roberts AM has been conducting research and consulting in the field of bulk solids handling for more than 60 years. He has been a leading educator and expert in the field who has published five design manuals, 11 book chapters and more than 600 research papers on various aspects of bulk solids handling. Despite having formally retired at the end of 1993, he remains active in his research, consulting and mentoring roles.

The beginning

Alan’s interest in bulk solids handling began when he was a part-time student completing a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical) degree at the University of New South Wales. His final year project dealt with the performance of screw conveyors handling grain. In 1958 he was appointed to an academic position in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Wollongong University College, where he commenced his follow-up research on screw conveyors along with his newfound interest in granular mechanics. That led to his enrolment for a PhD degree which he completed in 1962.

Through his library research he became aware of the pioneering research on bulk solids handling being conducted in the United States by Dr Andrew Jenike. During a sabbatic leave period in 1963/64 at Cornell University in the US, he took the opportunity to invite Andrew to visit Cornell to present a seminar. Alan still recalls Andrew’s comment, “it took an Australian to invite him to Cornell”.

On returning to Wollongong from the US in 1964, Alan was keen to follow his newfound interest and passion for bulk solids. Together with Peter Arnold, a flow property test laboratory was established, and associated research programs and industrial consulting commenced. Bulk solids handling as an integrated research, industrial and professional discipline in Australia had begun.

The University of Newcastle and TUNRA

At the beginning of 1974, Alan moved to the University of Newcastle to take up his Professorial Chair appointment in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He was elected Dean of the Faculty of Engineering in the same year, a position he held for 20 years until his retirement at the end of 1993. He was also appointed to the Board of the University’s research Company, TUNRA, remaining as a Board Director for 31 years.

Following his bulk solids research and industrial consulting interests, Alan established, in 1975, the research and consulting group, TUNRA Bulk Solids Handling Research Associates (TBS). Over the 45 years of its existence, TBS has provided services to the industry and is internationally recognised for its contribution to research and its industrial interactions.

In 1995, the Centre for Bulk Solids and Particulate Technologies, a joint Centre of the Universities of Newcastle and Wollongong with Alan as Director and Peter Arnold as Associated Director, was selected to be one of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) Key Centres of Teaching and Research. While the funding cycle from the ARC was six years, the centre continues to operate in a self-supporting mode.

Professional identity

With the aim of establishing bulk solids handling as a recognised, professional engineering discipline, Alan played a major role in the formation of the National Committee for Bulk Materials Handling within the Institution of Engineers, Australia (now known as Engineers Australia). The first major international Bulk Materials Handling conference was held at the University of Newcastle in 1983. The National Committee was re-organised becoming the Australian Society for Bulk Solids Handling. Alan has remained as a member of this committee to the present date.

Alan has been a regular participant at international conferences, presenting by invitation on a number of occasions. Over his professional career he has been involved in presenting short courses on bulk solids technology to industry groups. Apart from Australia, these courses have been presented in other countries including Germany, the Netherlands, France, Norway, England, Turkey, South Africa, India, US and Canada.

The driving influence of Alan’s extensive consultative experience linked to TBS is the importance of university and industry collaborations.

“There is no doubt that the problems in industry are most often orders of magnitude more difficult than the level of research knowledge to solve those problems,” he says.

“So we apply the research knowledge we have gained, supplemented by practical experience and basic engineering know-how to achieve solutions.”

Honours and awards

Alan holds a Bachelors (Mechanical Engineering), PhD and honorary DUniv and DSc degrees and has received a number of distinguished awards.

These include:

  • The Engineering Applied to Agriculture Award of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (UK) in 1962
  • Institution Award Medal in 1967
  • Sir George Julius Medal in 1982 and AGM Michell Medal in 1989 of the Institution of Engineers, Australia
  • Award of Distinction, International Powder and Bulk Solids Conference, Chicago USA in 1986
  • Trinity Solids Handling Award, Institution of Mechanical Engineers (UK) in 1994
  • ASBSH Award in 2000
  • Lifetime Achievement Award of the British Materials Handling Board in 2007.

In 2010 he was awarded the Peter Nicol Russell Memorial Medal, the highest award of the Institution of Engineers Australia.   

Alan was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1989, Honorary Fellow of the Institution of Engineers, Australia in 1992 and Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW in 2018. He was elected Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990 and awarded the Centenary Medal from the Australian Government in 2003.