The field of raw material processing is a vast one. While
many industrial minerals can be treated in a similar fashion
– such as filler minerals like wollastonite, talc and
calcium carbonate – others require treatment specific
to the mineral and its end applications. Graphite, for example,
can be processed to a greater or lesser degree depending
whether the material will end up in a battery or a brake
Despite these differences, there are a number of trends
which are seen repeatedly across sectors regardless of end
market, such as the drive for lower processing costs when
commodity prices fall or a desire to reduce waste and adhere to
more environmentally friendly practices as customers scrutinise
their supply chains.
Ahead of POWTECH 2017, held in Nuremberg between 26 and 28
September, the event organisers referred to the transition seen
by the chemical industry on a number of levels in a news
"Process digitalisation helps in achieving the goal of
ensuring consistently high product quality, 24/7," the news
release outlined. "The focus is also on curbing production
costs and increasing energy and resource efficiency."
According to Germany-headquartered processing firm Hosokawa
Alpine, which specialises in the development, design and
production of powder and particle processing, customers are
able to expect more from the processing technology they
purchase, a demand facilitated in part by digitalisation and
automation of technology.
The company’s chemicals division operations
director, Sylvia Braunlein, also noted ahead of the conference
that single machines incorporated into an overall processing
system by in-house departments are fast becoming a thing of the
past, with customer needs demanding complete systems that, at
the same time, adhere to the latest safety standards and
guarantee product quality.
"To make this happen, you need a high level of system
automation: only once that’s in place can you
optimise your productivity, ensure stable process operation
and put remote maintenance and predictive maintenance in
place in order to minimise downtimes," she said.
While automation may have hit headlines years ago, it
continues to grow across all industries from IT to oil and gas,
and its growth is by no means over, Dietmar Alber, business
development director for Hosokowa’s minerals and
metal segment, told IM.
"Automation has for sure not reached a stopping point, it
will continue to go ahead," Alber said. Automation and
digitalisation falls under Hosokowa’s service
division and allows plant control panels to be connected
directly to Hosokowa’s staff, enabling
troubleshooting, approvals or improvements to take place
Dietmar noted that, with the increasing costs of labour,
customers are increasingly investing in automation. While it
may have previously been difficult to convince a mineral
producer to implement an automated system – which can
require a 10 or 20 year old plant to be completely overhauled
– according to Dietmar, the long term savings outweigh
the cost of upgrading a plant, and customers see that.
"Basically, if you have more automation the plant works more
efficiently," he said. "If you go from an old-fashioned control
to a modern one you can easily increase production by 5-10%
because you can work closer to the specification."
|Kaolin being sorted using Eriez
While Hosokawa is not involved in the coarse grinding and
excavation of industrial minerals, it supplies technology for
the processing of filler minerals into finer grades in markets
such as calcium carbonate, kaolin, barytes (barite), talc,
wollastonite, silica and quartz for applications like paints,
plastics, paper, rubber and sealants.
A small part of the business supplies technology for the
food and pharmaceutical end markets, which require special
treatment and additional considerations such as sterilisation
and various body approvals. However, around 80% of
Hosokawa’s business focuses on calcium carbonate,
which Dietmar says is a large market that follows the growth of
the population – that is around 3-4% growth globally
and up to 10% growth in ground calcium carbonate (GCC) in Asian
countries such as India and China.
"It’s a huge market and there has been a
general trend for all these minerals to go finer," he told
IM. "People are opting for finer minerals for
the plastic industry and surface treated minerals like calcium
carbonate. The reason for this is finer products mean you can
add more filler."
According to Dietmar, the trend for finer particle sizes is
being led by global players such as Omya and Imerys, with other
customers in the GCC industry following suit.
While finer particle sizes may conjure up an image of dusty
plants, Dietmar noted that owing to negative pressure as long
as a plant is operated correctly and properly maintained,
dust shouldn’t be an issue.
"The plants, if operated correctly, are relatively dust-free
nowadays. Dust is collected automatically, so there is not much
dust. For talc there is no issue at all. The issue is with
silica products and quartz, where dust needs to be avoided," he
Last year, the US Department of Labor’s
Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) broke its
long period of silence on new rules regarding acceptable levels
of respirable silica dust, announcing a final rule to protect
works from exposure to respirable silica dust, which has been
linked to a number of health problems.
The new rule will reduce the permissible exposure limit for
crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic metre of air,
averaged over an eight hour shift. While the new rule was set
to be enforced in June 2017, OSHA announced in April this year
that enforcement of the standard has been delayed to the end of
September 2017 in order to conduct "additional outreach to the
regulated community and to provide additional time to
While the rule has been touted has having the potential to
save more than 600 lives annually and prevent more than 900 new
cases of silicosis, providing net benefits of around $7.7bn a
year, there has been pushback from the industry.
The Construction Industry Safety Coalition attacked the
economic impact study performed by OSHA, which indicated that
the cost impact of the proposed rule would be in the range of a
couple of thousand dollars for small corporations and less than
$10,000 for large corporations. The coalition said these costs
could be 20% below actual impact. The administrative controls
have meanwhile been criticised as a technology-forcing piece of
legislation, with major costs associated with the institution
of these controls.
|Filler minerals like wollastonite
(pictured), talc and calcium carbonate are
in much the same way, but the way a material is
beneficiated varies depending on its
|Processing operations could benefit from
using a non-traditional approach to
vibrating screens by using more than one type of
screen media, which will extend the
life of processing equipment and enhance efficiency,
according to W.S. Tyler, which
in 2013 developed its 'Pro-Deck’ approach
to vibrating screens using modular screen
media, which allows customers to benefit from the
flexibility of modular panels,
extended screen life and higher production rates.
Growth in energy saving technology and
Meanwhile for Hosokawa, demand for silica and quartz
processing technology is improving.
"High quality and high purity silica and quartz is used in
the IT industry a lot so we have seen a lot of activity and
sales in this field for very fine products like 5 µ and
10 µ, also for special grades for LCD and plasma screens
for making glass," Alber told IM.
In addition to demand for finer material, Alber says the
company is targeting energy-saving technology, as well as
opting for wet processing over dry processing, which allows
Hosokawa to produce finer products using less energy and at
higher capacities – another common requirement for
customers. As investment per tonne of capacity drops, companies
look to production on a larger scale to increase efficiency and
get ahead in a competitive market.
"A typical example is a GCC plant 30 years ago had a
capacity of 1 tph on a 10 µ for example and today that
same plant would have 7 tph – no one is looking for a
1 tonne plant anymore," he said.
But by far the biggest growth area for Hosokawa is
The company is currently working on the modification of
graphite and is in the process of developing machinery for
specific customers. Currently accounting for around 7% of the
business, Alber anticipates this could rise to 10% in the near
future, with equipment sales for graphite processing potential
increasing by 50-100%.
While past forecasts for growth in graphite processing may
have not come to fruition, Alber believes that the industry is
on the verge of a breakthrough and the prophecies of graphite
growth will finally be fulfilled.
|Graphite is seen as one of the largest
areas for processors.
Leading Edge Graphite
Reducing waste in graphite
Alber emphasised the importance of yields in graphite
processing, noting that waste material occurs when reaching
graphite of a certain property.
"Depending on how you work, you have more or less waste and
of course less waste is more interesting, so this is
something we are working on," he said.
Demand for lithium is growing at a CAGR of 15.4% over the
next decade where 201,000 tonnes of LCE were consumed in 2016,
and the battery sector accounted for 35% of the total market,
according to the IM Global Lithium Market:
Five Year Outlook Report.
For graphite, while battery end-use makes up only 10% of the
graphite end-market share, it is the fastest growing market,
particularly for high quality flake graphite. Flake graphite
for the manufacture of spherical graphite for battery anodes is
forecast to grow at a CAGR of close to 30% until 2020,
consuming nearly 360,000 tonnes of flake graphite in 2020, from
a base of 75,000 tonnes in 2014, according to the
IM Research report: Graphite Market Outlook to
Current global capacity for Li-ion batteries stands at around
100 gigawatt hours (GWh) annually, estimates by Lux Research
Inc. show. The company predicts that Li-ion production will
increase to somewhere around 240 GWh with the potential to
hit 300 GWh by 2020.
In January this year, Tesla Inc. began battery cell
production at its Gigafactory in Nevada’s Great
Basin, with plans for an output of 35 GWh of cells for EVs and
energy storage systems (ESS) by 2018. Meanwhile in China, BYD
plans to ramp-up capacity and CATL could potentially increase
output to up to 100 GWh by the end of 2020. By 2025, Deutsche
Bank has estimated that global battery consumption will exceed
535 GWh, with EVs accounting for 55%, e-bikes for 14% and ESS
While much has been made of the importance of Li-ion
batteries in facilitating the growth of green energy
solutions, the "greenness" of Li-ion’s raw
materials is rather more questionable. In terms of raw
materials, lithium and cobalt as used in cathode production
and graphite is a key component for anode manufacturing. With
Li-ion consumption anticipated to continue on its growth
trajectory, raw material producers are gearing up for higher
demand and production.
According to Superior Graphite’s vice president
of marketing, Gerard Hand, this growth will pose a challenge
for graphite producers.
"The problem is that, particularly with natural graphite,
there’s a rounding technology that must be used
and the yield is only around 40%. When you need around 3,500
tonnes of graphite you’re going to need 10,000
tonnes to start with," he told IM.
"That means you’re going to have to find
something else to do with the 6,000 tonnes of material that
isn’t suitable for batteries, and
that’s going to pose a significant challenge to
the graphite industry."
Hand added that, in some cases where natural graphite is
mined, for every tonne of graphite produced, 10 tonnes of ore
would need to be mined and separated.
With demand for graphite set to be driven by battery
onsumption, Hand pointed to the expanding amount of hopeful
"There is probably room for one or two new mines –
particularly with the Chinese cutting back on some of the
poorer performing and polluting mines. I think they will be
able to meet the demand, but it might take some additional
mines to come on stream," he told IM.
"That’s a good thing as long as they are brought
online correctly," he added.
"[Producers] have come a long way in terms of not polluting
the environment – in particular China, who produces
around 70% of all the natural graphite that’s used
around the world," Hand said. "It has cracked down
significantly over the last few years on water pollution, air
pollution, and shut down a significant amount of mines that
weren’t really following protocol, so production
is improving, which is a good thing."
|Leading Edge Minerals, which owns the
Woxna Graphite project in Sweden, has
a graphite processing facility on site so that it
can tailor its output to suit its
Leading Edge Graphite
Energy vs waste
The "greenness" of graphite production depends heavily on
the technology used, raw material, grade requirements and end
application. Natural graphite ranges from 75% C through to 99%
C depending on whether the material is to be used in refractory
applications or batteries.
"The issue with natural graphite – particularly
crystalline graphite – is that it is mined in an ore
zone, then it is crushed and separated through flotation cells.
But after that it has to be leached using a chemical process.
That acidic material isn’t very green at all, and
to a certain extent that’s where our technology
comes in," Hand said. "We can take natural graphite and upgrade
it to 99.9 plus carbon without using an acid at all."
Superior Graphite operates a heat treatment facility in
Hopkinsville Kentucky, US, and a similar facility in Sundsvall,
Sweden. While the company does not mine any of its own
graphite, it purchases material and processes it for use in
applications such as steel production and Li-ion batteries
among others, for customers in the Americas, Europe and
Superior Graphite’s advanced electro-thermal
purification process is a continuous process utilising
temperatures in excess of 2,500°C, resulting in a material
with a high carbon content of above 99.99%. The technology
purifies a range of carbons including natural and synthetic
graphite and coke variants.
According to Hand, while the technology has been fine-tuned
to improve efficiency and cost, in essence the basic principle
has not changed over the years.
"We spent an incredible amount of money making sure that
we’re taking many things out of the graphite and
capturing that, and ensuring that the only thing that comes out
of the furnaces is steam," he told IM. "That
does cost a great deal of money but we care a lot about the
environment and about people. So when we make hundreds of
thousands of metric tonnes of this purified type material
we’re taking care of the environment as well."
Though the process is an energy intensive one, Hand believes
that the energy and higher costs are outweighed by a higher
quality product and the elimination of a need for harsh
chemical leaching technology, which then requires the disposal
"There are a lot of people, particularly the battery
companies, that are interested in our material certainly
because of the performance but also because they feel the
technology is more green and sustainable in the long run," he
As such, Hand anticipates a move away from the chemical
leaching route towards greener technologies: "Where it can be
substituted I believe it is happening."
|Hosowaka Alpine have developed milling
solutions for wet and dry
Researching new technologies
To stay ahead of the competition, mineral producers and
processors are having to invest in research in order to
refine their technology and become the more
environmentally-friendly option customers are placing an
increasing emphasis on.
Superior Graphite is currently working with a number of
universities and customers to perfect new materials and
"We’re working with universities in Europe of
some of the battery technology issues and we work with
customers on technology that might be applicable to their
particular applications. We do devote a lot of time to
R&D," Hand told IM.
In addition to looking at battery technology, Hand says the
company is working on a process to produce a material called
few layers graphite, or FLG, which he believes is a process
that to a certain extent competes with nano technology and
"True graphene is not commercially viable by any stretch
– it would cost tens of thousands of dollars to make
it – so what we’re doing is working on a
material that is multi-layered by much thinner than most
available material," he said.
The company is also building on its furnace technology to
develop a new process and material for a compressible carbon,
which is extremely resilient, for use in pressure mitigation or
With traditional markets losing steam – for example
in the consumption of flake graphite, refractory, foundry,
friction products and lubricants has a CAGR of only 0.4-2.2% vs
a CAGR of 15.7% in Li-ion batteries according to Pro-Graphite
GmbH – many companies are opting to pour their
research dollars into this area. And, taking 1,000 tonnes of
graphite to produce 1 GWh of Li-ion battery capacity, the
Chinese car market is anticipated to be the biggest driver for
"The EV craze has been coming for decades now. I think the
forecast for EVs – which I think has been wildly
inaccurate over the years – is actually beginning to
come to fruition," Hand said, adding that with Tesla ramping
up production of EVs on target to an estimated 500,000 by
2018, there is huge scope for growth in the sector with
roughly 35kg of graphite used per EV depending on the type.
Examining the supply chain
Escalating instability last year in the Democratic Republic
of Congo (DRC), where over 50% of the world’s
supply of cobalt is mined, shone a light on the metal and its
supply chain. Predictions of a shortage of cobalt owing to
lower nickel extraction – in which cobalt is produced
as a byproduct – and mounting pressure on companies
such as Apple to find sustainable and ethical sources of raw
material, has led end users such as battery producers and car
manufacturers to identify problem areas in their supply
Which leads us to lithium, the namesake for Li-ion
batteries, and an area where growth in demand took producers by
surprise. Global bank Citigroup has forecast a CAGR in demand
for lithium of 11% to 2020, which would bring global demand to
around 324,000 tpa lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) by the
end of the decade from 212,000 tpa in 2016.
EVs are likely to account for around 40% of global lithium
demand in 2020 up from around 20% now, according to
Citi’s estimates, resulting in a flurry of
activity around new lithium projects and investments.
Among recent newcomers are ASX-listed Galaxy Resources Ltd,
who restarted mining at the past-producing Mt Cattlin
operation in Western Australia (WA) after refurbishing the
site in 2016. By January 2017, the company had shipped around
10,000 tonnes lithium concentrate.
Fellow Australian producer Neometals Ltd was the first real
newcomer to lithium production in Australia. The company has a
minority state in the Mt Marion project in WA alongside Mineral
Resources Ltd and Chinese firm Ganfeng Lithium Co Ltd. The
project made a maiden shipment of 15,000 tonnes lithium in
February and by May 2017 had transported a fourth shipment of
30,055 tonnes lithium concentrate.
Traditional lithium extraction via hard rock mining is
carried out via drill and blast, concentration and chemical
processing. Meanwhile traditional extraction via brine
processing comprises the construction of evaporation ponds, the
movement of bulk salt waste and chemical processing.
However, whether or not the process of lithium extraction is
environmentally friendly is a matter of opinion, according to
"Each operation of course must comply with environmental
regulations that prevail in the operating jurisdiction and
comply with operating licence conditions," the company told
IM. However, it added that absolute standards vary from
region to region.
There are various processing factors affecting the quality
of the final lithium product that will be sold for use in
Li-ion battery consumption. On the one hand, Neometals notes
that geographic and sovereign risk issues coupled with
production and delivered cost economics probably play a greater
role than the selection of raw materials.
"The important issue for battery raw materials are
consistency of specification, reliability of supply and
appropriate chemical analysis," Neometals told
IM. "Provided these attributes are delivered
by a chemical producer and production process, there should be
less importance on the type of mine that produces the lithium
The company outlined that the production of lithium
compounds from hard rock vs salt lakes is relatively
straightforward but difficult to achieve well.
The process of producing lithium hydroxide from hard rock,
the company added, is usually more standard than production
from brines as the chemistry of each brine is different and
tends to require a bespoke flowsheet. The challenge then is to
produce a product consistently and at a competitive cost to
maintain a stable business. Additionally, as with most cases in
mining, success is to a large part determined by resource
grade, mineralogy and location. For processing the location,
logistics and reagent availability and cost are important,
while QA control and process control are essential.
While the output of a high-quality lithium hydroxide or
lithium carbonate depends on a refined and consistent
production process, according to Neometals the benefit of using
lithium hydroxide for the cathode material is a higher
performing battery. The production process for Li-ion battery
cathodes can consist of various chemical combinations and
compositions, potentially using two different routes –
a "wet" and "dry" process.
"LiOH is used as the raw material in the "wet" process type.
The development of batteries into higher power density and
faster recharging is leading to the use of cathode materials
that are made using a wet type process so lithium hydroxide use
is increasing faster than that of lithium carbonate," Neometals
"This puts more need on expansion of suitable grade lithium
hydroxide than it does on expansion of lithium carbonate
capacity although both have to be increased," the company
The ELi process
Focusing on the refining of lithium hydroxide production,
Neometals has developed the ELi processing technology for
applications in both brine and hard rock production with an
aim to reduce reagent consumption, energy costs and
environmental impact, the company said.
"The anticipated benefits include minimal reagent
consumption, minimum draw on brine water table, minimum loss of
water to evaporation, minimum emissions and minimised waste
generation," Neometals told IM. "We consider
this is where the future of lithium production lies. The ELi
process can also be used in production from hard rock and
minimises reagent consumption and transport."
While the process is in the commercialisation phase and not
currently in use at an operating site, Neometals continues to
develop its technology through pilot testing over the next
six to 12 months, in the anticipation that final product
grade will be better than that from a conventional
carbonation and cauticising process. In addition to higher
customer demand, the development of the process was driven by
the need for lower production costs, an improved competitive
position and a smaller environmental footprint.
Rocketing lithium prices, demand driven up by EV production
and the current supply tightness has begged the question, why
not recycle the lithium from Li-ion batteries?
In contrast to graphite, lithium has experienced a much
steeper price increase (cobalt prices have risen more), making
it an obvious contender for recycling. However, speaking to
IM in January, Linda Gaines, transportation
system analyst at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois,
said that recycling remains uneconomical.
"The price of lithium would have to go way up before it
seriously impacted the cost of the battery," she said, adding
that with lithium accounting for a relatively small proportion
of Li-ion battery, cobalt is a bigger concern to battery
Despite this, in June this year Neometals lodged three US
provisional patent applications associated with its
previously announced battery recycling technology to recovery
high-value materials from spent lithium batteries. The
company said that scoping studies have confirmed that the
technology can recover high-value cobalt at a rate of 99.2%
at potentially the lowest quartile operating cost. Neometals
previously said in May that it planned to build a 100kg/day
pilot plant in Canada to test recoveries of cobalt, lithium,
nickel and copper from NMC-cathode lithium batteries used in
The process will extract metal values from used and off-spec
materials from the battery manufacturing chain, refine them and
return them as new raw materials to the supply chain, the
company told IM.
It will process the most commonly used battery chemistries
– LCO, NCA and NCM – and is anticipated to
be ideal for multiple regional locations close to battery
material production. It is characterised by low opex, small
capex and small operating footprint.
Neometals concedes that so far viable battery recycling for
Li-ion batteries has been very limited, but the forecast for
battery consumption and the resultant demand for battery
minerals makes it imperative that a solution to recycling be
"The start of large scale production of large Li-ion
batteries hastens the day when those large batteries reach the
end of their service life," the company told
"Cobalt is in short supply, is produced as a by-product and
in often difficult locations, so recovery of cobalt into the
supply chain will provide some relief for battery cathode
makers," the company added.
Piloting of the process is planned for Q3 2017, with an aim
to commission the first commercial scale plant at the end of
The future for growth
PricewaterhouseCooper’s (PwC) 2017 mining report
noted the new record lows set by the Top 40 mining companies,
which experienced their first ever collective net loss in
2015, resulting in their lowest return on capital employed
and unprecedented capex containment. In 2016, meanwhile,
Capex fell dramatically again by an addition 41%, to a new
record low of $50bn.
While significant pressure was felt as attention turns to
the next wave of productivity increases – requiring
rethinking of structures, processes, systems, technology,
organisation designs and capability needs – the
industry in 2016 largely played it safe with efforts to repay
debt, innovate and adopt new efficiency measures.
PwC pointed to the new opportunities and hazards on the
"Do we take it seriously when Apple poses the question 'Can
we one day stop mining the Earth altogether?’ or
when Elon Musk puts forward a 100-day guarantee to fix a
state’s energy crisis with battery technology? The
industry [must] more carefully consider how it responds," PwC
PwC previously singled out the potential of the energy
industry, where new developments and technical innovation are
likely to continue, noting the significance of a lithium
company making the top 40 in 2015. Adding that the energy
landscape was likely to pave the way for new world
In its most recent report, the company emphasised increasing
demands by the community for exceptional corporate and social
responsibility, adding that mining players will need to adapt
to these challenges.
"Already well-known is the rising importance of battery
technology and its impact on coal and new world lithium, cobalt
and graphite," PwC said. While the sole lithium player in the
Top 40, Tianqi Lithium Industries, maintained its rank, PwC
noted that the future may be about integration, with emerging
market companies focusing on new world minerals also being
"In the traditional markets, we are seeing new players
seeking to secure supply and even calls by stakeholders for
BHP to get on board the battery train," PwC said, adding that
it remains to be seen if a major will pivot in this
direction. And, if they do, we can expect far more innovation
in integrated production solutions.