Innovative Extraction Processes Could Unearth Billion of Dollars of Nickel
Australian technology firm, Direct Nickel Limited (DNi) has teamed up with CISRO scientists in Perth to develop a commercially viable method for extracting nickel from low-grade ore.
The project has the potential to impact the industry on an international scale, which could translate to billions of dollars worth of nickel made available for processing.
Traditional sulphate ore bodies are depleting and thus, the focus is shifting to laterite and saprolite ores, which contain approximately 70 percent of the world’s nickel. The new extraction technology has been six years in development since DNi sought the patent for nitric acid recycling. At the same time the firm approached CISRO regarding a collaboration to develop the process for metallurgical processes.
How the process works
The process, developed by DNi and CISRO replaces sulphuric acid with nitric acid during the high-pressure acid leaching process. Nitric acid as opposed to sulphuric acid eliminates problems associated with waste treatment and disposal and therefore is a lot more cost effective.
Furthermore, nitric acid is far more aggressive than sulphuric acid and as such can extract nickel at a much lower pressure and temperature, eliminating the need for expensive titanium lined equipment.
From small scale testing the project has grown to a $5 million pilot plant with the ability to recover 95 percent of reagents for reuse, reducing operating costs while extracting the majority of the nickel and cobalt from the deposit.
The fact that acid can be captured and recycled is a huge plus point for both parties involved owing to the fact that it eliminates the major cost associated with sulphuric acid plants; the neutralization of acid waste.
Dave Robinson, a spokesperson for CISRO Perth says: “There’s probably billions of dollars of nickel in Australia that needs this type of technology to turn it into a commercially attractive proposition. There’s a vast ore body out there that the current cut-off grade for sulphuric acid processing is too high for.”
According to Robinson, current plants such as Murrin Murrin (north-eastern Goldfields) are processing about one percent nickel. “If we can lower that [cut off grade] to 0.7 or 0.75, then there is billions of dollars worth of nickel that’s available for processing,” he says.
The process doesn’t only mean that nickel extraction from low-grade ore will become an economically viable possibility; it will become an environmentally viable possibility as well. During the process all NOx gases are captured and converted to reusable nitric acid and any leach residue is mainly silicates with minor residual nitrate content. Furthermore any nitrates caused by the residue, break down to form usable nitrogen for plant growth and return to the natural Nitrogen Cycle.
Production of saleable magnesia solves the magnesium disposal problem experienced by HPAL operations. According to DNi the mass of waste residues is less than half that of HPAL processes due to minimal disposal of reagent and neutralising agents – and production of saleable co-products. This is a major advantage in high-rainfall tropical environments.
“In summary [the process is] a highly efficient and elegant solution to the world’s nickel supply problems,” states DNi.
As Robinson concludes, “You can change the value of what is in the ground in Australia.”
The next stage of the project is to build a 30,000 tonne per annum nickel plant to demonstrate full-scale production and DNi is currently seeking a partner to develop such a plant. CISRO has spoken out to confirm that it will continue to develop the extraction process for wider application in the mining industry. Watch this space.
Axora launches global challenge for digital technology
Axora is launching the world’s first international competition to discover new cost-saving digital technology for industrial companies, which can produce rapid benefits within a year.
The Metals & Mining and Oil & Gas sectors have recently experienced budget cuts of 20% on average, driven by a variety of factors including the global pandemic, slump in demand and price wars. The Axora Cost-Saving Technology Challenge aims to transform these industries by discovering innovative, digital solutions that reduce cost fast and pay for themselves, whilst achieving the same or improved productivity, health and safety and sustainability standards.
“While digital solutions can help to get work done quicker and more cost-effectively, they typically require a three-year ROI, and if there’s no flexibility in the budget, a full budget planning cycle is needed to get things moving”, said Dr. Nick Mayhew, Chief Commercial Officer, Axora.
“Yet, extra financial cost is often incurred in delaying digital projects, so customers have asked us to highlight solutions that can have an ‘in year payback’ whereby the cost spent on the solution and deployment will be more than recovered within the budget year - this accelerates the timeline and drives positive business impact, quickly.”
The Axora Cost-Saving Technology Challenge
Axora is keen to learn of any digital cost-saving innovation which: meets the 12-month payback timeframe; can be deployed in any part of the value chain including upstream, downstream or midstream oil and gas, metals processing or mining; and is ready for market. The Axora Cost-Saving Technology Challenge is open to entrepreneurs, start-ups, academics and sector leaders across the world. The competition will be judged by a panel of leading industry experts.
“We’re passionate about supporting our industries and customers through all forms of digital transformation and the cost-saving solutions we are searching for could also provide a lifeline to many mining and metals and oil and gas companies in the current economic climate,” added Dr. Mayhew.
Improving productivity, safety and sustainability
Up to ten finalists will be chosen to pitch their solutions at a digital pitch day later this year, after which Axora will validate the ROI models and vet the solutions. The winner will receive the ‘Axora Market Accelerator’ sales and marketing package worth £10,000. This includes a two-hour workshop, promotion through Axora’s thought leadership content and inclusion into its digital demand engines, providing the opportunity for the winning solution to benefit thousands of industrial companies. Entries are open until May 31. Full details of the competition including terms and conditions can be found here.
To learn more about the Axora B2B digital solutions marketplace read our feature in the latest issue of Mining Global magazine.