A real oppurtunity

Michael Mills spoke to the Parker Cooperative Research Centre's Dr John Kildea about the past, present and future of hydrometallurgical research.

Mills: Why is hydrometallurgy so important to the industry?

Kildea: Most minerals process ing applications use at least one hydrometallurgical application.

Essentially, hydrometallur gical processes use liquids, such as acids, bases or water, to process, concentrate or extract minerals.

It is one of the major pro cesses used across the whole industry, from alumina, mineral sands and coal right through to nickel, gold and all the base metals.

Mills: What have been the big- gest developments in the field recently?

Kildea: There have been several in the last few years and many of them are still evolving.

One, in particular, has been the use of computer modelling to demonstrate process systems, particularly computational fluid dynamics.

This has really helped oper ators understand exactly what is happening deep inside their pipes and vessels.

Similarly, there have also been improvements to automa tion and analytical equipment, which has provided access to more effective controls and accurate data.

There have also been sig nificant improvements to the regulations and responses to safety issues, while the push for waste reduction and recycled materials is booming.

Mills: Will the new technolo gies be able to handle more complex ores and ‘hard-to- reach’ material?

Kildea: The easily extractable ores are obviously finite.

There are a range of pro cesses being developed at the moment that could help the industry deal with the chal lenges of poorer grade ores and difficult-to-process materials.

There will certainly also be a shift towards the more diffi cult-to-access ores in the near future and there already is a focus on the more complex materials.

For instance, laterite ores were once considered too dif ficult to process, but are no longer an issue, thanks to tech nology.

As we develop better tech nologies and processing systems for the current ores, we may find that they can be used for the more complex ones.

Mills: How has the research and technological development responded to the push for plant efficiency?

Kildea: There are three key areas in which technology can help plants become more efficient; air, water and energy.

Energy efficiency is certainly becoming a major focus of all operators, so the technology has to respond to that.

A number of processes are now more energy efficient than ever before.

Additionally, there is a lot of research in the hydrometal lurgical field at the moment, aimed at improving air quality and emissions levels from the processing plants.

There is also a lot of solid- liquid separation research going on at the moment to remove things like extraneous material from the water used in process ing, so it can be re-used.

Technology is being designed right now to help the mining industry use and re-use the best quality water possible.

Mills: What are the big chal lenges facing hydrometallurgi cal researchers at the moment?

Kildea: After the lean 12 months we have just had, I think the most important challenge will be getting the mining industry to really think about innova tive ideas.

This way, when the global economy does turn around, the companies will be able to really make a difference to their oper ations.

Australia has been leading the world in mining and min erals processing technology for a long time, but we could still be doing things more intelli gently.

It is no secret that the push for environmentally sustain able mining will have a dra matic change on the industry.

Of course, this is already very high on the radar, but it is only going to get bigger and bigger in the coming years.

Mills: How are researchers responding to this?

Kildea: There are a lot of people looking at different and inno vative ways to dispose of or re- use the waste by-product created in minerals processing.

One size does not fit all, so there are a whole range of different technologies for dif ferent processes and applica tions.

The technologies will not only improve the environmen tal footprint of operations but will also have a positive effect on the bottom line.

Mills: There is a lot of mo mentum gathering behind uranium mining, what impact will this have on the hydro metallurgy?

Kildea: As the uranium sector grows, the challenge will be getting the people who are famil iar with the processes or in pos session of the necessary tech nology involved.

The base of knowledgeable and qualified people will have to broaden.

The technologies currently under development for other hydrometallurgical applications may well be applicable to ura nium processing.

The politics of uranium mining is another matter, but the technology to extract uranium is within Australia and has been in practice for some time.

Mills: What are the most ex citing developments that you foresee?

Kildea: In terms of hydrometal lurgy, I think tailings manage ment will be a key area of devel opment.

Researchers will look at better ways to deal with tail ings and sustainable disposal methods, in order to keep the footprint of the mine to a mini mum.

I think Australia is going to lead the world in sustainable mining.

We have a great opportu nity to really show the world how to develop mineral process- es that can operate in a clean manner and are also very profit able.

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