Olympic Dam expansion hinges on new heap leach process

BHP Billiton has revealed it is working hard to develop its Olympic Dam expansion, with CEO Andrew Mackenzie calling it a “phenomenal resource”.

Speaking to The Australian, Mackenzie said the company was working on advances in technology and operational performance which would pave the way for a “careful and steady” expansion at the site.

“We will say more about that as the year unfolds. We have our AGM in Adelaide this year and I am sure that people in South Australia will be expecting us to say quite a bit more,” Mackenzie said.

BHP cancelled its $US20 billion expansion plans in August 2012, blaming weak commodity prices and rising costs.

In announcing the cutback BHP said it was looking at a different plan "involving new technologies" to make the project cheaper.

In November 2012 the South Australian Government granted BHP a four year extension so it can invest more time to plan its Olympic Dam expansion.

BHP reportedly agreed to spend $650 million during the next research phase of the project, of which $110 million has been earmarked for community-related activities.

Mackenzie said work being undertaken on the heap leach process that would remove duplications were going well after the company was granted permission by the federal government to trial the process on site.

The trial involves crushing a day’s worth of ore, stockpiling it and then slowing pouring an acidic solution through the heap to leach out uranium and copper.

BHP plans to leach the heaps for 300 days to test whether it is able to extract more of the valuable minerals from the ore for less money.

Reiterating the company’s commitment to Olympic Dam, Mackenzie said the operation would stay within BHP and not be bundled up into other assets moving over to demerged company, NewCo.

 “This is a phenomenal resource. One per cent-plus copper with associated uranium is a pretty rare occurrence in the world. It is waiting there to be developed,’’ Mackenzie said.

“It is very well in the centre of the BHP strategy. We just need to get the capital productivity working, and the rate of expenditure, so it fits within the overall program of less capital going in to BHP generally, and generating higher returns.’’

BHP recently revealed Olympic Dam has the longest mine life of all its assets, estimated to be 200 years.

The ore body contains copper, uranium, gold and silver worth an estimated $1 trillion. 

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