Nickel sources investigated

The eyes of the nickel world were firmly fixed on WA at an event to examine progress at the nickel laterite processing facilities at Murrin Murrin, Bulong and Cawse in the eastern Goldfields.

The recent ATLA Nickel/Cobalt 1999 conference held in Perth and attended by about 300 delegates was rated “the best in the world” by John O’Shea Associates principal John O’Shea. In the past seven years, the event has grown into an important international forum, bringing together top industry representatives and technical experts from 26 countries.

While the five day conference confirmed sulphides dominated as a primary source of nickel, the laterites have many points in their favour.

The next generation of nickel projects will take the pressure acid leach (PAL) route to reduce operating costs essential for a viable project in these times of depressed nickel prices.

In this technology WA is leading the pack. Work by Resolute Ltd raised confidence in the company’s research, which turned to action in 1995 when it committed to the Bulong project. Centaur’s Cawse project and Anaconda/Glencore’s Murrin Murrin project quickly followed suit.

Although all three plants will use PAL, each circuit is slightly different. Murrin Murrin has adopted the Sherritt process. At Cawse, nickel and cobalt is precipitated as a hydroxide slurry, redissolved using ammonia and then refined using solvent extraction and electrowinning.

Bulong decided to bypass the precipitation step altogether and directly remove the nickel and cobalt from the leach solution through solvent extraction. Metal is produced by electrowinning.

After years of testing and due diligence, most analysts are now convinced PAL will work to expectations on the WA laterites.

According to the Sydney-based consultancy group AME Mineral Economics, the WA operations could usher in a “new era of low cost nickel production which may have as big an impact on the world nickel industry in the next decade as SX-EW (solvent extraction-electrowinning) has had on copper”.

However, like all major new mineral processing plants, there will be technical issues to be resolved through the early stages and it may be twelve months before full production levels are reached.

Mr O’Shea said successful commercialisation at these three projects would remove the principal barrier to the development of many of the world’s abundant nickel laterite resources.

Weda Bay Minerals Inc president and CEO Louis Clinton told the conference the new WA nickel operations were acting as a “ free pilot plant” for their own $550 million Halmahera laterite project at Weda Bay in Indonesia.

This has been described as a world class deposit with a potential 400 million tonne resource grading at 2 per cent nickel, with 0.07 per cent cobalt credits. It will commence a full feasibility in September with first production expected by 2001.

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