When a mine tailings dam burst in Brazil in November of 2015, it unleashed a wave of toxic red mud that traveled 55 miles to the sea, wiping out villages along the way and killing 17 people.
A tailings dam stores wastes from mining operations, and there are at least two major failures of these dams every year, said David Boger (MS, ’64; PhD ChemE, ’66, Westwater). Boger has built his career studying the flow of liquids, and he has done the basic science behind innovative ways to store toxic tailings dam waste safely, going a long way to preventing similar disasters around the world.
Boger is a worldwide leader in rheology, the science of the movement of fluids, and a landmark fluid he developed even carries his name—Boger Fluids. For a career dedicated to safety and science, he has earned a 2017 College of LAS Alumni Achievement Award.
Boger spent his entire career working in Australia, but he grew up in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, where he was much more interested in sports—basketball, baseball, and soccer—than science.
“I grew up in a small town and was lucky if I ever met a chemical engineer,” he said .
However, Boger was good in chemistry, so a high school teacher advised him to go into chemical engineering, which he did at Bucknell University. He went on to receive his master’s in 1964 and his doctoral degree in 1966, both from Illinois. At that time, he said the employment situation for chemical engineers “was perhaps the best it’s ever been,” and he received job offers from all of the companies at which he had applied.
With so many options before him, Boger said, “People thought I was crazy” when he chose to take a position as a professor on the other side of the world at Monash University on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia.
“I thought Australia might just be the last English-speaking frontier, so I went,” he said . It was a dreamland for an outdoorsman like Boger, who describes himself as a “fanatical fisherman.” He also did a lot of hiking in the mountains on the east coast of Australia, where he and a friend from New Zealand “would just walk into nowhere.”
Monash was a new university when he started there, and it had excellent resources for studying rheology, so that’s what Boger wound up researching, even though he didn’t know anything about it initially.
At the time, he said, some of the scientists in rheology were predicting the movement of fluids that no one could observe, while others were observing things that no one could predict.
“So I naively believed we could bridge the gap between the two groups,” he said.
This led him to develop what became known as Boger Fluids, which flow like liquids but also behave like an elastic solid, depending on how stress is applied to the fluid. Boger Fluids, which he developed in the mid 1970s, successfully bridged the gap, becoming a model system for studying the complex flow behavior of solid-like fluids and profoundly impacting the fields of fluid mechanics and rheology.
“Of course, I was lucky enough to have someone famous pick up on this fluid and give it my name,” he said , referring to Ken Walters, a renowned research professor in rheology. “Once something is named after you, they think you’re important.”
Boger left Monash University for the University of Melbourne in 1982 but continued to work in rheology. Meanwhile, friends at Imperial Chemical Industries recommended that he work with the Alcoa Corporation in tackling the problem of red mud. In western Australia, Alcoa was processing bauxite into alumina, which created red mud that they stored in tailings dams—huge aboveground lagoons. However, tailings dams were known to leak and, in catastrophic situations, sometimes failed.
Boger’s team did the basic science behind a system in which the red mud was dewatered. After dewatering, the paste-like material was pumped through a pipeline and spread out on the ground to dry—rather than being stored in liquid form in a dam. This process not only was safer and more environmentally friendly, but it saved Alcoa millions of dollars because it allowed them to recover sodium hydroxide, a reagent.
However, not all mining operations are trying to recover such things as sodium hydroxide, so for them there is less economic incentive to use the dry-stacking approach for toxic waste. Therefore, even though the science and technology is there to minimize the problem of dam failures, the question is who will pay. That’s why the risk of tailings dam disasters continues.
Boger also served as a consultant for BHP, the largest mining company in the world, and this work has taken him to many exotic places, such as Papau New Guinea, where he also found time for fishing in Lake Murray, landing his biggest fish ever—a New Guinea black bass weighing 42 pounds.
Boger has been lauded with all types of awards, one of them being Australia’s prestigious Prime Minister’s Prize. In addition, he is proud of becoming, in 2005, a Fellow of the Royal Society in England, an organization that goes back over 300 years. Most recently, in 2017, he was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in the United States.
Boger is now retired, although it took three tries to do it. His first retirement came in 2007, but the University of Melbourne convinced him to return. He then retired for a second time in 2009, but it was Monash University’s turn to lure him back to work, and he stayed until his third and final retirement in 2015.
But his consulting work has continued because he sometimes still testifies in court cases concerning tailings dams in the United States, Australia, and Canada.
Tailings dams stir up a lot of political controversy over who pays for damages and how to prevent disasters, as well as questions about accounting practices and environmental issues. But Boger sees his role as purely scientific.
As he puts it, “I just put the facts out there and say, ‘Come on, guys, we should do a better job.’”
Written by Doug Peterson
Fluid mechanics pioneer and Illinois alumnus David V. Boger has been elected to the National Academy of Engineering for “discoveries and fundamental research on elastic and particulate fluids and their application to waste minimization in the minerals industry.”
Election to the National Academy of Engineering is among the highest professional distinctions accorded to an engineer.
Dr. Boger is a world-renowned expert in complex fluids and he has made seminal contributions to the field of rheology, the study of how materials flow. His work has changed our understanding of complex fluids through the development of “Boger Fluids” which behave as both liquids and solids. He has worked for decades with mining companies around the world to develop processes that mitigate environmental risks associated with mining waste.
He received his PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Illinois in 1965, studying under Dr. James Westwater. After graduation, he joined the chemical engineering faculty at Monash University in Australia. In 2015 he returned to Illinois to deliver the Distinguished Alumni Lecture.
Read more about David Boger in this alumni profile.
Others elected to the NAE this year with ties to the Illinois Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering include Jennifer Lewis and Michael Strano. Lewis, currently the Hansjorg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, was an affiliate faculty member from 2003 to 2012. Michael Strano, Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a member of the ChBE faculty from 2003 to 2007.
Individuals in the newly elected class will be formally inducted during a ceremony at the NAE’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., later this year.
Academy membership honors those who have made outstanding contributions to “engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature” and to “the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology, making major advancements in traditional fields of engineering, or developing/ implementing innovative approaches to engineering education.”
We are thrilled to announce that David Boger will return to the University of Illinois campus for the Distinguished Alumni Lecture this fall.
Professor Boger earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Illinois in 1965, studying under Dr. James Westwater. He has held chemical engineering positions at Monash University and the University of Melbourne in Australia.
Professor Boger’s talk is entitled, “From Boger Fluids to Environmental Rheology.” His lecture will trace his rheological research starting at Monash University in 1966. He will describe how Boger fluids were developed and discuss suspension rheology as well as new research in environmental rheology and sustainability.
The lecture will be at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, in Room 116 of Roger Adams Laboratory, 600 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana.
Professor Boger currently is an engineering professor at Monash University and was Laureate Professor and Professor of Chemical Engineering at The University of Melbourne. He has held visiting positions at universities around the world, consulted for over 90 companies from 3M Corporation to Tata Research and Development Centre in India and is currently an expert witness in several international court cases. He has received numerous honours and awards, including the 2005 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2007. From 2000 to 2003, he held the position of BHP Fellow, a distinguished consulting position for BHP Billiton.
Highlights of his research include the discovery of constant viscosity elastic liquids (Boger fluids); detailed experimental investigations using such materials to define fluid elasticity effects in important flows; the linking of basic surface chemistry to the continuum properties and the processing of particulate fluids; developing novel methods for flow property measurement; and the linking of the basic research to significant industrial outcomes in the petroleum, food and minerals industries. He is well-known for exploiting rheology for waste minimisation in the minerals.