New processing method to deliver huge benefits to global nickel industry

By March 13th, 2013

An environmentally friendly processing method that uses and recycles nitric acid could unlock 70 per cent of the world’s nickel supply.

Full-scale testing of the process has commenced at a A$3.5 million pilot plant at CSIRO in Perth. The process, developed by Sydney-based company Direct Nickel, could deliver a huge boost to the global nickel industry by making millions of tonnes of untapped nickel laterite reserves economically viable to mine.

Russell Debney, Managing Director and CEO of Direct Nickel, says with the increasing demand for nickel, which is a key component of stainless steel, the future of the world’s supply lies in laterites.

“Many of these reserves remain untapped due to the difficulty and expense of extracting the nickel. Technical difficulties and the high costs of existing processing methods are massive and continuing roadblocks,” Mr Debney said.

“There is a desperate need for a solution to the laterite processing problem that is threatening world supply. Other forms of nickel reserves, such as sulphides, are running out and there are few new discoveries.”

Traditional processing techniques use large quantities of sulphuric acid at high temperatures and pressures, resulting in expensive treatment and disposal of chemical waste.

“This process has the potential to revolutionise the global industry. Australia has an abundance of nickel laterites, so it would provide a significant boost to our economy.”

Dr Dave Robinson, CSIRO mineral processing research leader

Dr Dave Robinson, leader of mineral processing research at CSIRO, says the new process uses nitric acid, over 95 per cent of which can be recycled and reused making it more environmentally friendly and lower in cost.

“This process has the potential to revolutionise the global industry. Australia has an abundance of nickel laterites, so it would provide a significant boost to our economy,” Dr Robinson said.

“We have been working in partnership with Direct Nickel for over three years and the pilot plant is an important step in understanding the process. It will provide the engineering data to validate our technical and economic predictions.”

Mr Debney said the set up and operating costs are less than half those of existing processes, and their process is more efficient in extracting the nickel from the laterite ores.  It is also believed to be the first process capable of treating all laterite ores, which are inherently difficult to process.

“Initial full-scale testing has provided positive results. If we continue on this path, our processing method will be ready to roll out to industry as early as 2016,” he said.

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New nickel processing method
CSIRO’s Dr Dave Robinson and Direct Nickel’s Graham Brock talk about the new nickel processing method.


Dr Dave Robinson : Most nickel laterite operations now run with sulphuric
acid-based processes and they’re either heap leaches or high pressure vessels
generally, and the high pressure vessels are expensive to build and very hard
to operate. They run at about 200-250 degrees Celsius, but both processes also
consume a lot of sulphuric acid at the front end, which ends up being part of
the waste component of the operations.

The Direct
Nickel process that we’re developing here with the demonstration plant is very
different in that it uses nitric acid instead of sulphuric acid and the
economics of the process are based on a very high percentage recycle of nitric
acid back to the front end of the process. So we actually take it through a
series of steps that lead to the regeneration of the nitric acid and the base
magnesium oxide as well.

Graham Brock: We’re working around the clock to make sure the process can
run continuously. That will be one of the criteria that we’ll be judged on and
our recycling of the acid to through to the leach feed and demonstrate that
that recycling system is sustainable.

Dr Dave Robinson: The important part, that Graham just said, of running the ten
day campaigns is so we can get a very good picture of the mass balance, of the
metals performance, but also the efficiency of energy and water consumption and
get all the numbers that are necessary to go into the engineering calculations
and the financial calculations – for the techno-economic feasibility of the
process going forward.

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Video: Nitric nickel – a new environmentally friendly processing method