The future of copper production

Researchers at The University of Queensland have developed a new approach to copper production. It is widely applicable and suited to around 70% of all copper reserves. Processing the copper ore onsite avoids the CO2 emissions and other costs of transporting the ore for smelting – instead this is carried out at the mine site to produce a higher value copper intermediate product.

The technology is based on an electrowinning approach but runs at higher efficiency with lower energy usage compared to traditional electrowinning. The power required for the electrowinning can be provided by onsite renewable energy generation.

The technology provides the following value to its users:

    • Reduced OPEX: Significant energy savings versus conventional electrowinning as more than half the energy for Cu EW is associated with oxidation of water.
    • CAPEX savings: Simpler hydrometallurgy process flowsheet (Leach-SX-EW) versus (Slurry EW) and no need for high temperature copper smelter/converter.
    • Clear separations of Cu, Co and Au allowing for efficient recovery of all three metals of interest.
    • Low environmental footprint (Low CO2 if renewable electricity, no smelter gas, largely benign solids residue, opportunities for water recycling).

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Removal of radioactive contamination in mining

Radioactive elements are widespread in a range of mineral deposits and while some mineral processing operations can concentrate these in the ore concentrate and/or the tailings it is problematic for occupational health and safety, regulatory compliance and optimum long-term storage options.

Based on their understanding of the mineralogy, researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) have developed a two-step leaching process to remove radionuclide contamination from a range of ores, ore concentrates and tailings.  Both stages in the UQ process require only mild conditions with no harsh high temperature or pressure processing steps.

The technology is expected to be applicable across a wide range of ores, including phosphates, coal, copper, bauxite, phosphate rock, and ores containing tin, tantalum, lithium, niobium, rare earths and gold deposits.

Key features

  • Reduced radionuclide contamination in a wide range of complex ore bodies and tailings, including those containing lithium, rare earth elements and copper
  • Improved prospects for obtaining mining approvals and export permits
  • The University of Queensland process is low cost and effective when compared to competing processes.

 

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Supercritical C02 turbine

A Supercritical CO2 (sCO2) power block can be integrated with existing or new gas engines to further improve efficiency and reduce per-MWh emissions by capturing exhaust heat and converting it into useful power.  Researchers at The University of Queensland have developed a Supercritical CO2 turbine suitable for power outputs from 1 to 15MW.  When used in an sCO2 power block for optimised exhaust gas heat recovery, efficiency in excess of 20% is achievable, twice the efficiency of a steam cycle at similar scale.

The research team recognised that the key challenges of sCO2 turbomachinery were related to the management of heat flows and thermal distortion. Numerous design breakthroughs identified solutions to these challenges. In 2020 the design was formally reviewed by an independent, US-based research organisation and commended for its innovative features.

Key features

  • Increase power output by 10-30%
  • Heat recovery on the prime mover’s skid
  • No steam economiser or evaporator
  • for reciprocating engines and gas turbines
  • stationary or marine applications.

 

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Bayer process improvement

The Bayer process is the primary industrial method to refine bauxite into alumina, the majority of which is then used to produce aluminium.  During the process, some clay minerals in the bauxite feed and even some fine quartz dissolve.  The removal of these solution silicate species reduces process efficiency through reducing product yield, consuming reagents, scaling issues etc which also have the potential to contaminate the alumina product.

Researchers from The University of Queensland have identified an additive for the Bayer process that can reduce unwanted incorporation of product and reagent by around 70%.  No capex is required for implementation and the additive only requires a modest change to typical process operation.

Key features

  • Improved process efficiency including ~3% reduction in caustic soda usage
  • Environmental benefit due to reduced causticity of waste and reduced energy usage
  • No capex required – process additive only.

 

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A sensor for monitoring flotation recovery

Minerals and coal need to be beneficiated from ore/crudes before being sold into the market. Among the prevalent beneficiation methods, froth flotation is widely employed for fine and ultrafine sized fractions of ore.

Monitoring and diagnosis of flotation performance are increasingly more dependent on real-time measurements, especially in remote areas.  There is a pressing need to develop a low-cost and accurate diagnostic tool to monitor the flotation performance in real-time, enabling instant control of the operational variables to maximise and maintain flotation efficiency.

Researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) have developed a novel sensor to monitor real-time flotation performance by measuring the drag exerted by the overflowing froth onto a cantilever beam.  The team designed a scaled-up sensor design for industrial application and has held successful field trials at a Central Queensland mine.

Key features

  • Inexpensive, simple yet rugged construction
  • Live monitoring and instant, remote feedback
  • High accuracy compared to more expensive comparable measurement methods
  • Easily scalable.

 

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Improved off-the-road wheels

Wheels for off-the-road (OTR) earth moving and mining vehicles typically use multi-piece rims and a lock ring concept.  The lock ring is used to secure the inflated tyre and removed to allow for replacement of the tyre.  Over the last 70 years a variety of designs have been developed and used commercially but typically these have promoted more rapid tyre changing at the expense of increased safety.

A researcher from The University of Queensland (UQ) has developed a wheel rim configuration that does not utilise a lock ring, removable bead seat band nor rim groove, ie the design has no parts that could fly off and cause injury.  The design is based on simple robust side rings, similar to those used in the fixed end of existing rims.

Key features

  • Enables a safer tyre-changing procedure
  • Fail safe – designed to leak air safely in case of failure
  • Compatible with existing tyres and wheel hubs.

 

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High voltage pulse power separation system

The mining and minerals industry face challenges of declining ore grades and increasing ore competence.

Researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) have discovered that high voltage pulse (HVP) energy is attracted to mineralised particles and when applied to an ore stream HPV has been shown to selectively break high grade particles while keeping the barren particles intact. This finding has led to the development of a novel HVP enabled ore pre-concentration technique whereby ore particles can be broken as a function of their grade and then separated by screening into high-grade and low-grade streams.

To enable this operation to be conducted, the Julius Kruttschnitt Mineral Research Centre (JKMRC) at UQ has developed an integrated HVP and separator system in a device that can be operated continuously.

Key features

  • One step ore concentrator and separator
  • Increased circuit capacity and reduction in ore wastage
  • Reduction in downstream comminution energy requirements
  • Reduction in costs of ore haulage.

 

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High frequency/low voltage pulsed power for dewatering mineral tailings

The use of tailing storage facilities often requires extensive plant equipment and large areas of land, as well as risk management plans should a tailing dam rupture leading to pollution of surrounding areas. There is a need to develop an alternative method for dewatering of mineral tailings whether for storage in a tailings dam or via dry stacking.  There is also a need for in-situ recovery of water from deposited tailings in water stressed areas.

Researchers at The University of Queensland (UQ) have invented a method for dewatering mineral tailings using high frequency and low voltage pulsed power.

Key features

  • Methods and/or systems for dewatering mineral tailings that comprise a mineral component with water bound within
  • Subjecting mineral tailings to a pulsed electric field to liberate the water bound within or to the mineral component of the mineral tailings
  • Utilises high frequency and low voltage pulsed power to separate water from mineral tailings such as copper, coal, red mud and diamond slime.

 

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Solaris AI

In large scale PV farms, monitoring systems are mostly built into the inverter to prevent anomalies on the utility side and reporting the PV status.  However it is extremely difficult to detect any malfunction in any string/module with inverter level monitoring.  UQ researchers have developed technology to provide real-time fault detection, fault location and identification for PV monitoring.

Key features

  • Solar Farm Fault Detection and Diagnosis (Solaris AI) is an all-in-one system that automatically detects and locates faulty/underperforming photo-voltaic (PV) panels
  • Solaris AI is capable of automatically identifying the cause of PV panel underperformance
  • Solaris AI can predict PV panel soiling levels so that cleaning can be targeted where it is needed
  • Applications in PV operations and maintenance of solar farms, industrial solar applications, commercial solar installations and residential.

 

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Record efficiency QD solar cell

Researchers at the University of Queensland (UQ) have had a recent breakthrough on low-cost emerging generation quantum dot solar cells (QDSCs) that achieve a world record stabilised efficiency.

Key features

  • Novel synthesis procedure for quantum dot ink for solar cells with record low loss
  • Fast rate of synthesis
  • Fabrication method results in superior stability and optoelectronic property compared to the current best in class QDSC
  • Tuneable bandgap and narrow emission peaks
  • Printable technology on flexible substrates.

 

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