With resource shortages and declining ore grades among the chief challenges facing the industrial minerals industry today, more advanced processing technologies are required to maximise recovery rates and facilitate higher throughput.
This was the broad consensus at the annual SME meeting in Denver this week, one of the world's largest exhibitions dedicated to mineral processing.
Speakers from corporations, universities and consulting firms focused on the topic of innovation in processing and the need for constant improvements in technical services to meet increasing pressures in the sector.
Global leaders in the industry such as Outotec and FL Smidth said that processors had shifted from looking at existing technology and working out improvements, to asking themselves what problems needed to be addressed from a users point of view, and developing their technology accordingly.
Dr Patrick Taylor, director of the Kroll Institute for Extractive Metallurgy expert from the US' Colorado School of Mines, said that most advances in the field of resource recovery could be attributed to the need for reduced operating costs through improved productivity.
The need to treat more complex feed materials, plus the requirement to comply with environmental standards were also driving processors to develop their technology, and this was being helped by a better understanding of the fundamental physical chemistry of many elements, Taylor said.
Sorting and separation
Wolfgang Baum, ore characterisation lab director at global technology firm FL Smidth, told delegates that lower grade, finer grained and harder ores along with mushrooming costs for power and construction materials had transformed the view and use of mineralogy during the last 20 years.
"Mineralology has become equally as critical as analytical chemistry and metallurgical testing," Baum said.
In addition to robotic particle separation, automated mineral analysers and increasing use of x-ray and infrared technology, laser spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance were initiating more innovative transformations in ore characterisation and plant control, Baum added.
According to Professor Stephen Grano, director of the Institute of Mineral and Energy Resources at the University of Adelaide, Australia, improvements in characterisation technology over the last 30 years have enhanced understanding of what factors contribute to inefficiency in separation and flotation.
He said that an appreciation of inefficiency had led designers of mineral processing plants to target minimisation of wastefulness, and that this design concept was being applied in tandem with better technologies to improve results for separation and flotation on a global scale.
Independent processing consultant Bo Arvidson said that mineral processing functions such as ore sorting, magnetic separation, filtration and flotation are no longer niche application technologies but broad-based solutions for a wide variety of natural resources.
Entrepreneurial innovation in the second half of the 20th century coupled with commercial muscle power from established engineering and equipment firms meant that ore sorting and separation had become highly sophisticated, multi-billion dollar industries, he said.
He added that mineral processing had overcome misconceptions associated with high costs and the restriction of technology to selected, high value applications to become an entrepreneurial, innovative industry.
The willingness to take risks, and the acceptance that sheer ignorance can play a role in new developments have helped take mineral processing through a generational shift in the last two decades, Arvidson said.
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