Improving Energy Efficiency Across Mineral Processing and Smelting Operations - A New Approach

With their commitment to sustainable development in an increasingly carbon-constrained world, many resources companies are focused on reducing the energy required to create their final products. In particular, the comminution and smelting of metal-bearing ores are both highly energy-intensive processes. If resource companies can optimise the energy efficiency across these two processing stages, they can directly reduce their overall energy consumption per unit mass of metal produced and thus reduce their greenhouse gas footprint. Traditional grinding and flotation models seek to improve the efficiency of mineral processing, but they do not consider the energy used by downstream metal production, eg smelting and refining. Concentrators and smelters individually may be running efficiently, but are they optimising energy consumption of the overall system? A key step towards answering this question is to understand whether it takes less energy to remove an impurity in the concentrator or the smelter. Analysis of the complete concentrator – smelter process chain may show that there are times when the concentrator should use more energy to reduce the overall energy requirements across the mill and smelter. The new methodology discussed here will integrate downstream processing energy with mineral processing energy, to find the overall most energy efficient circuit design and operating strategy. The proposed methodology includes:

  • determining what grade and recovery positions can be achieved in the concentrator by using different combinations and amounts of grinding and regrinding,
  • thermodynamic calculations of the energy used to process the different concentrate grades to metal, and
  • integrating the concentrating and smelting models to find the lowest total energy for the system.

A case study which investigates the effect of increasing regrinding energy on the overall mineral processing – smelting energy consumption is presented. For the copper-nickel sulfide ore investigated the addition of regrinding results in 11 per cent less energy being used in the overall concentrator – smelter process chain per tonne of metal produced. Although regrinding is often seen as an energy-intensive process, in this case study the use of 1 kWh of energy for regrinding reduces the overall energy consumption by 12 kWh. The new mill to melt methodology will allow companies to model energy consumption from mill to smelter with a view to reducing the energy-intensity and greenhouse gas footprint of their processing and smelting operations.