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:: Nickel Processing Technology Spurs Pilot Plant
A new technology promises to improve the economics of processing nickel laterites, lowering the minimum grade that can be profitably treated and increasing the nickel laterite inventory in Australia.
This unique approach could secure major economic and environmental benefits for the global minerals industry by using an alternative mineral acid to leach nickel from rock to solution.
Although 70 per cent of the world’s nickel reserves are found in the form of laterites, currently favoured processing methods have resulted in only about 40 per cent global production to date coming from this source - this is due to, in part, their relative complexity. The balance of global supply comes from nickel sulfides.
Dr David Robinson leads base metals research for CSIRO’s Minerals Down Under Flagship, and he says the new extraction process has the potential to significantly change the economics of hydrometallurgical processing of nickel laterites. “The new option can convert millions of tonnes of low-grade nickel laterite ores into economically attractive materials, which increases the reserves that are economically accessible around the world," Dr Robinson says. “The new technique could help to re-energise the industry, with nickel production from laterites expected to overtake production from nickel sulfides in the next five years."
The new technology for processing nickel laterites is favoured by more efficient recycling of the key processing reagent, compared with the industry’s traditional reliance on large amounts of sulfuric acid.
Traditional processes consume vast quantities of sulfuric acid and involve costly neutralisation of most of it after use, factors which limit the economic ability of conventional hydrometallurgical technologies. “Recycling acid many times is a much more sustainable and environmentally friendly option," Dr Robinson says. “This could mean longer mine lives because lower grade materials can be processed for longer."
Recycling the new acid would allow industry to avoid moving ‘mountains of sulfur’ around the world, with a tonne of ore generally requiring treatment with at least half a tonne of acid. “Reducing the amount of acid that is neutralised and discarded has implications for reduced waste, including fewer evaporative ponds or tailings dumps, which makes the new technology more environmentally friendly," Dr Robinson says.
He says developing the new technology with CSIRO has the added potential to attract industry to Australia, helping to create economically attractive projects and establish mines.
Sydney-based Direct Nickel (DNi) owns and leads the commercialisation of the technology and began developing its applications with CSIRO more than two years ago. “It was a great opportunity to work in close cooperation with CSIRO," says DNi’s project manager Graham Brock. “Their broad based knowledge will be of great value to the project."
CSIRO’s Australian Growth Partnership (AGP) program, which is funded by the Australian Government, has recently provided $1.5 million to construct a pilot plant that will facilitate demonstration of the new processing method. Additional funds from this program will also ensure CSIRO’s ongoing involvement in the design, construction and commissioning of the pilot plant.
The project management team from DNi and CSIRO are currently in discussion with Perth-based engineering companies interested in building the new minerals processing facility at CSIRO in Waterford, Western Australia. This team is also in contact with a number of potential new clients interested in testing this technology with their specific orebodies.
The pilot plant will operate on a continuous basis, recycling the key reagents. The data collected from the facility will be vital in the scale up of the process to a commercial operation.
Six to 12-week test programs are expected to continually process between 500 kilograms and a tonne of ore each day following the plant’s completion in about 12 months. The plant will demonstrate the practicalities and economics of the novel leaching and acid recycling process.
Dr Robinson says the new approach to processing nickel could also generate jobs within the industry, with an average mine site employing up to 1000 people. “Our ultimate aim is to help companies establish economically attractive projects and establish mines in Australia, so there’s a real economic benefit for the country through underlying job creation."
Contact: David.Robinson@csiro.au +61 8 9334 8913; Credit: Daryl Peroni; Article source: Process October 2010 (CSIRO)
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