New technology uses salt or brackish water to process copper concentrate by Barrick

Patented process in use at Saudi Arabia mine and in Chile

Barrick has developed and patented a new flotation process. The process that can produce copper concentrates from copper or copper-gold ores using salt or brackish water. The new process, an air-metabisulfite treatment, does not require lime or cyanide. The innovation, which Barrick hopes to license, could help reduce the mining industry’s use of fresh water, which is significant because many new mineral deposits are located in arid climates where fresh water is limited.

Jabal Sayid Processing Plant, Barrick’s Copper project in Saudi Arabia. image from Barrick.com

“This is a new alternative that could have important economic and social benefits,” says Barun Gorain, Director of Barrick’s Strategic Technology Solutions Group. “It’s cheaper and more efficient than conventional flotation methods. Furthermore because it uses sea water or brackish water, mining companies that adopt this process don’t have to look for fresh water sources and risk coming into conflict with community needs.”

We tried lots of things… nothing worked. Eventually, after a thorough investigation and lots of research, we finally had a breakthrough.

Froth flotation

Flotation is a mineral processing method used to separate and concentrate valuable minerals contained in ore. In the conventional flotation process, which in use for decades, usually finely ground ore is mix with fresh water and chemical reagents to form a slurry. The slurry is move into a large tank. Valuable mineral particles are float to the surface via air bubbles. In the meanwhile, waste particles sink to the bottom of the tank. Cyanide is one of the reagents used in the conventional process, along with lime. The reagents control acidity levels in the slurry and facilitate the depression of some sulfide minerals that contaminate the copper concentrates.

Nearly 10 years ago, Barrick and its partners were evaluating the use of conventional flotation. The evaluation which held at the Reko Diq copper-gold project in Pakistan. The only water source in the area was brackish, and initial testing using this water resulted for the most part in low copper recoveries.

SMBS

Gorain, who holds a doctorate in metallurgical engineering, was tasked with finding an alternative. “We tried lots of things, different chemistries and chemical reagents typically used in the industry,” he says. “Nothing worked. Eventually, after a thorough investigation and lots of research, we finally had a breakthrough.”

Gorain was familiar with metabisulfite, a chemical reagent that is sometimes utilise in the zinc industry. Investigations pointed towards the benefits of using metabisulfite for flotation at Reko Diq.

The air-metabisulfite process consists of two stages. In the initial aeration stage, oxygen is pumped into a flotation tank, which begins the process of separating waste particles, most notably pyrite, from the valuable minerals in the slurry. In the second stage, metabisulfite is infuse in order to accelerating this separation process. The aeration is believe in to oxidize the surface of valuable minerals, increasing their floatability, according to Barrick’s air-metabisulfite patent. The metabisulfite, which is always added to the slurry after aeration, is believed to optimize depression of waste materials, which are sent to tailings.

The process was rigorously reliable to use in a laboratory setting. Gorain and his team found that the process works for various gold and copper ores using sea or brackish water. Of note, testing also found that copper recoveries using the air-metabisulfite process were about six percent higher comparatively on average than the conventional flotation method for the Reko Diq project.

The higher recovery rates, and the fact that the flotation process at Reko Diq would not have required lime and cyanide, would have added significant value over the life of the mine had it proceeded.

“This was a real eye opener,” Gorain says.

Use of SMBS at large scale

The air-metabisulfite process is in use successfully by Antofagasta Minerals at its Esperanza copper mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Antofagasta was Barrick’s joint-venture partner at Reko Diq. In the same way, last year it purchased a 50-percent interest in Barrick’s Zaldivar copper mine in Chile. The companies enjoy a close relationship. Barrick, which owns the rights to the air-metabisulfite technology, agreed to allow Antofagasta to use the technology. They will soon start at Esperanza and other new projects. This will allow Barrick to observe the process in use on a commercial scale.

Last October, Barrick began using the air-metabisulfate process at the Jabal Sayid copper mine in Saudi Arabia. However, because water is so scarce in the region, the operation—a joint venture between Barrick and Ma’aden, a Saudi Arabian state mining company—uses treated sewer water for its flotation process. In fact, It is the only mine in the world that uses treated sewer water for flotation. The mine, which shipped 5.5 million pounds of concentrate for smelting in late December, expects to ramp up its annual production to 100 million pounds by the second half of 2017.

Barrick’s air-metabisulfate process could also have applicability at other company properties. Some properties even are currently in the project phase, such as the Pascua-Lama project. Furthermore the technology is also being investigated for use with Nevada gold ores, Gorain says, noting that the process can also be used with other base metals such as zinc, silver and molybdenum. Some companies have expressed interest in licensing the technology, he says.

Community benefits

Many communities are becoming more assertive about water rights, Gorain says, while government restrictions on the use of fresh water are increasing. Meanwhile, new mineral deposits tend to be of lower grade, meaning they will require more water per ton of ore to mine, he adds.

“Where will that water come from?”

 

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