Monday, 8 December 2014

Laterite processing will be a major feature of Nickel Processing '15

Laterite ores were the major source of early nickel, the rich laterite deposits of New Caledonia being exploited from the end of the nineteenth century. However, the discovery of the sulphide deposits of Sudbury during the early part of last century shifted the focus to sulphides.
About 73% of the world's known nickel resources are laterites, found mainly in tropical areas such as Indonesia, Cuba, Columbia and New Caledonia. The remaining 27% are sulphide deposits with notable locations in Canada and Russia. Australia and Brazil have both sulphide and laterite nickel deposits. Currently, the majority of today’s nickel is produced from sulphide deposits, as it is easier and cheaper to mine and process than lateritic ore. However, known sulphide deposits, which are large in scale and of high nickel grade, are depleting. As a result a higher proportion of future production is expected to come from laterite deposits, and their processing will be a major feature of Nickel Processing '15 in Falmouth next May.
In his keynote lecture, Dr. Andrew Mitchell, of Wood Mackenzie, UK will discuss the future of nickel production and the outlook for nickel sulphide and laterite resource development. The nickel industry has a chequered history of success in the development of new projects, both from a laterite and sulphide ore perspective.  With a global resource base strongly in favour of laterite there can be no question that the future of nickel production will be predominantly from the laterite sector.  That said, if existing sulphide smelters are to maintain production there is also a need for new sulphide mine development. Protracted delays in start-up from numerous western world laterite projects meant that the boom market of China could not be satiated in its demand for nickel units.  This led to China "going it alone" and the advent of nickel pig iron (NPI) production.  From just 3000 tonnes of nickel in NPI in 2005, production has grown exponentially and Wood Mackenzie forecasts that it will reach nearly 400kt Ni in NPI by the end of the year.  This incredible growth has meant that the market for the nickel only now being produced in the West’s new projects has essentially already been filled by "domestic" supply in China leading to oversupply and downward pressure on prices.
This near term gloom belies the future need for nickel project developments and with a potential ore export ban from Indonesia there is a great deal of uncertainty for nickel supply going forward. In the laterite sector, project developments have been expensive and achieving design capacity has been challenging, which means that there is a general scepticism in the market to the so called "high cost, low grade laterite" sector.  In reality, average nickel grades in the laterite sector are higher than those of the sulphide sector and indeed average operating costs, before by-product credits, are very similar for both ore types.   From a sulphide mine perspective,  average nickel grades of sulphide resources being discovered are generally declining which brings with it challenges in achieving design recovery rates and concentrate qualities.  With lower grades there is also a need for larger scale developments with the obvious increase in capital costs.  So with increasing capital and project risk, sulphide mine developments can no longer be considered the "easy" entry into the nickel business.  The net result is that the technical challenges for both sectors are increasing, as indeed are average operating and capital costs.
Despite their future potential, processing of laterites is inherently energy intensive and expensive as, unlike sulphide ores, they cannot be significantly upgraded, meaning the entire ore needs to be treated in the process. Innovative technologies are being developed that are attempting to address the current processing issues, including some that are in their early stages of development. One of these, which is claimed to have the potential to revolutionise the industry is the Direct Nickel Process, recently reported in MEI Online. The technical director of Direct Nickel in Australia, Graham Brock, says that this is a 'breakthrough' technology, and he will be explaining the process at the conference.  The technology is claimed to  significantly reduce  capital and operating costs compared to current technologies. With the ability to make Ni, Co, Fe and Mg saleable products, the recycling of the nitric acid used to leach the laterite and the use of lower grade resources, the process has high quality sustainability credentials.
This all sets the scene for what is likely to be a small but very highly focused conference in Falmouth, with interesting state of the art papers already having been received from authors in Australia, Canada, China, India, Finland, France and South Africa, dealing with the processing of sulphide, oxide and laterite ores.
If you would like to present a paper at the conference, we invite you to submit a short abstract as soon as possible.

Nickel Processing '15 follows Precious Metals '15 at the same venue, Falmouth's St. Michael's Hotel in front of Gyllyngvase Beach.

Falmouth's Gyllyngvase Beach

1 comment:

  1. It is a good topic; can we a get an idea Approximate range) of values of Nickel in these deposits pl.


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