High Impact Hardrocker: Frank Aplan

Frank Aplan, one of the most influential leaders of the mineral processing industry and academia for the past 60 years. He was a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at The Pennsylvania State University.

An Appreciation by Douglas W. Fuerstenau and Raja V. Raman

Frank Fulton Aplan graduated from South Dakota Mines in 1948 with a degree in metallurgical engineering and went on to become one of the most influential leaders of the mineral processing industry and academia for the past 60 years. Aplan, was who was also a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at The Pennsylvania State University, passed away peacefully at Berwick, Pennsylvania on Tuesday, November 3, 2020. His association with the mineral engineering profession had many dimensions – an engineer, a scientist, a manager of research, and a teacher to name a few, and his performance in each of these roles, simply outstanding.  Most of all, Frank was an outstanding human being, brilliant, dedicated, gritty, hardworking and demanding. He expected excellence from himself, and from everyone else. All his friends have learned many lessons to accept and deal with adversity from Frank's four difficult but successful campaigns against cancer. He was a warm and friendly person who assuredly provided wise counsel and a helping hand.  Frank often said that “no man is an island. There is a half dozen or more people that probably helped you along career. I guess that my philosophy is that often you cannot pay back but you can pay forward…. that is why I've gone out of my way to recommend all kinds of people for awards and honors and so forth and I try to give generously to charity and education.” Frank practiced what he said and will be missed.

  • He was extremely proud of his wartime service. He served as an infantryman in a rifle company of the 69th Infantry Division carrying a mortar across Europe during World War II where he received the Combat Infantrymen's Badge and Bronze Star Medal. Discharged as a T/Sgt., in 1946, he re-entered South Dakota Mines where he earned a BS degree in Metallurgical Engineering in 1948. Subsequently, he received a MS in Mineral Dressing Engineering from Montana School of Mines, later known as Montana Tech (MT) in 1950. During the 1948-51 period, Frank worked in Homestake, Day Mines, and Climax Molybdenum and from 1951-53, as an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington (Seattle).  He joined The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a graduate student in Mineral Engineering (Metallurgy) and received his ScD in 1957 for a classic piece of work on the thermodynamics of the adsorption of hexyl mercaptan on gold. While at MIT, he met and married Clare M. Donaghue of Dorchester, MA on July 30, 1955.  

  • After MIT, Frank joined the research in Salt Lake City as a Senior Scientist but soon accepted an offer from Union Carbide as research engineer in the Research Laboratories of Electrometallurgical Company in Niagara Falls as he felt “they had an excellent laboratory…there were close to two hundred people there…It was the best post graduate school in the field."  By 1968, Frank had risen to Group Manager and was closely involved in the development of processing a wide range of ores for Carbide’s  domestic and international production of a multitude of metals and non-metals that led him to justly claim “you name the commodity, and I have probably worked with it one time or other.”  During this period, he traveled to many of these operations, and particularly in their development and early operational stages, gaining the skill for which he later became an acknowledged leader – integrating theory with practice in the processing of coal, ores and industrial minerals

Frank Aplan 2Frank joined Penn State in 1968 as Professor and Head of the then Department of Mineral Preparation and moved quickly to enlarge the research program on the science and technology of mineral processing, particularly in the area of coal flotation because of the importance of coal mining to the state of Pennsylvania. In addition, he initiated new programs in particle technology, applied surface chemistry, chemical processing and mathematical modeling of processes.  By the time he retired in 1992, he had also served as the Chairman of Mineral Processing and Metallurgy programs and a guiding member of the newly formed Environmental Systems Engineering program in the Department of Mineral Engineering.  The growth of the Penn State Mineral Processing program to a pre-eminent status was primarily attributable to Frank’s own breadth and depth of academic and industrial experiences and his outstanding leadership in attracting and fostering young faculty to be leaders on their own.  Frank was a world authority on flotation processes, especially known for his fundamental studies of the wetting of solids and their control through the adsorption of surfactant films, and for his work on the effect of atomic defects on the properties and behavior of solid-liquid interfaces. His contributions to the areas of gravity concentration, suspension rheology, industrial mineral processing, and environmental pollution control are substantial. At Penn State, he supervised about fifty MS and PhD candidates, and developed and taught several new undergraduate and graduate courses to literally hundreds of students from several other programs.  A demanding but master teacher, undergraduate students loved attending his classes and listening to insightful stories of plant experiences that he sprinkled in his lectures. In directing graduate students, his principal aim was to develop in them self-reliance and independence, qualities he knew from his own experience as essential keys to success and a task in which he excelled. Penn State recognized his outstanding performances with the Mathew J. and Anne C. Wilson Excellence in Teaching Award in 1977 and naming him to the first class of Distinguished Professors in 1990.  At the national level, his outstanding teaching was recognized in 1992 with the AIME Mineral Industry Education Award.  Even after retirement, he remained active for more than a decade, teaching classes, directing students and attending technical meetings. At the time of his retirement, Frank F. and Clare M. Aplan Centennial Scholarship in Mineral Engineering was established and endowed at Penn State to celebrate Frank's contributions and encourage future generations to follow his lead.  At Mines, Frank had established The Frank F. and Clare M. Aplan Native American Fund in Metallurgy to support a scholarship for native Americans to attend Mines.

Frank was a major contributor to the affairs of professional societies and to technical symposia and congresses. The technical societies that he belonged to were several and included American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers [AIME], Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration [SME], The Metallurgical Society [TMS], Engineering Foundation, American Chemical Society, American Institute of Chemical Engineers, and Archeological Institute of America to name some specific ones and his services to each of them, in both trenches and leadership, were extensive.  He was a member of the Board of Directors [SME] and Engineering Foundation, a chair of the Mineral Processing Division [SME] and Hydrometallurgy Committee [TMS], a member of the editorial board, co-editor, and section editor for major books including Mineral Processing Handbook [SME], Froth Flotation [SME], and Solution Mining [TMS] and a program evaluation visitor for the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology [ABET] for mineral processing [SME] and metallurgy [TMS] programs. In addition, he authored, presented and published over 150 research papers in prestigious journals, national and international symposiums that would continue to illuminate mineral processing aspirants with his findings and knowledge. Frank was extremely active in Engineering Foundation conferences, chairing a conference on fine and ultrafine particles in 1967 and serving as a member of their conference committees from about 1975.  He was on the Board of Directors of the Engineering Foundation from 1977 onwards and served as its Chairman from 1987 to 1989. His dedicated and distinguished service as board chairman was recognized by the Engineering Foundation in 1989 by establishing, in his honor, the annual Frank F. Aplan Award as a tribute to his "lifelong productive career in coal and mineral processing research and education"  to be awarded to eminent contributors to the mineral processing field and awarding him the first ever – a distinct honor indeed.  Mineral processing researchers around the world appreciated his role in their lives and in the field of mineral processing by contributing papers to a special volume of The International Journal of Mineral Processing [Volume 17 (3-4), 1998] in honor of his seventy-fifth birthday. In 2003 Frank’s oral history, Mineral Education Generalist, Professor of Metallurgy and Mineral Processing, 1951-1998 was published by the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, as part of The Western Mining in the Twentieth Century Series

Frank’s contributions to the science, engineering and education of mineral processing have been widely acknowledged by his peers with several prestigious awards: Honoris Causa, Engineer of Mines, Montana School of Mines and Technology [1968], Distinguished Member of SME [1978], Robert H. Richards Award of AIME [1978], Arthur F. Taggart Award of SME [1985], Centennial 100 Alumni of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology [1985], Elected Member of National Academy of Engineering [1989], Honorary Member of AIME [1992], Antoine M. Gaudin Award of SME [1992],  Outstanding Alumnus Award of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology [1996], AIME/ASME Percy Nichols Award [1997],  South Dakota Hall of Fame [1998]. Chancellor’s Medallion, Montana Tech [2015], and National Mining Hall of Fame [2016]  

For all Frank's name and fame in the profession, he was a very modest, devoted family man.  He was widely read, an avid photographer and a lover of jazz and theater. Frank's other interests included crawling around most of the old mills and ghost mining camps of the West, mining history of the Western U.S., the U.S. military and the railroad. His keen sense of humor and repertoire of stories and anecdotes were always counted on for an enjoyable time in his company.

Frank was preceded in death by his wife of 55 years Clare and daughter Margaret Anne in childhood.  He is survived by his daughters Susan Bower and Lucy, son Peter, and five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.    


Last edited 4/27/2021 2:54:27 PM

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