Copper pyrometallurgical process
Prior to pyrometallurgical, the ore (which often contains less than one percent copper) is crushed and ground with water and placed in a concentrator. The rock/water slurry is subjected to physical and chemical actions (i.e., air sparging and hydrophobic chemical reagents) inside a flotation tank. The chemical reagents assist the flotation process by acting as frothing and collector agents. Methylisobutyl carbonal (MIBC) is a typical frothing agent, and sodium xanthate, fuel oil, and VS M8 (a proprietary formulation) are typical collector agents. As a result of the physical and chemical actions, the copper value rises to the surface of the flotation unit as froth. The material remaining on the bottom of the flotation tank (“gangue”) is partially dewatered and then discharged to tailing ponds for disposal.
The concentrate resulting from the flotation circuit contains approximately 30 percent copper and, in some instances, may also contain significant recoverable concentrations of molybdenum. If molybdenum is readily recoverable, the concentrate is sent to the molybdenum plant for recovery; otherwise, the concentrate is ready for subsequent pyrometallurgical operations. Alternatively, the concentrate can be dewatered and the dry product may either be stored for further processing or shipped to another facility for processing. The collected water is usually recycled in the milling circuit.
Copper processing or pyrometallurgical processes employ high-temperature chemical reactions to extract copper from its ores and concentrates. Generally, these processes are used with copper sulfides and, in some cases, high-grade oxides. Depending on the copper mineral and the type of equipment, pyrometallurgical recovery may take as many as five steps:
- • Roasting
- • Smelting
- • Converting
- • Fire refining
Roasting – Roasting dries, heats, and partially removes the sulfur and volatile contaminants from the concentrated ore to produce a calcine suitable for smelting. Modern copper smelters generally have abandoned roasting as a separate step and have combined this function with the smelting furnace. In older systems using multiple brick hearths, however, the copper concentrate moves from the top of the hearth towards the base while air is injected counter-current to the concentrate. The roasted ore leaves through the bottom brick hearth and sulfur dioxide (2-6 percent) exits through the top.
Smelting – Smelting involves the application of heat to a charge of copper ore concentrate, scrap, and flux to fuse the ore and allow the separation of copper from iron and other impurities. The smelter furnace produces two separate molten streams: copper-iron-sulfide matte and slag in addition to sulfur dioxide gas. The smelter slag, essentially a mixture of flux material, iron and other impurities, is a RCRA special waste. Special wastes are excluded from the RCRA statute. The slags from some smelting furnaces are higher in copper content than the original ores taken from the mines. Therefore, they may be sent to a concentrator for copper recovery. Tailings from flotation of copper slag are a second RCRA special waste.
Traditionally, reverberatory furnaces have been the most common furnaces used for smelting, however, they are being replaced by electric or flash furnaces, which are more energy efficient. Reverberatroy furnaces also produce large volumes of low concentration SO2 gas, which is difficult to use in sulfur recovery. The gases produced by electric smelting are smaller in volume, lower in dust (less than one percent) and have a higher SO2 concentration, which allows better sulfur recovery in an acid plant. Gases from smelting operations contain dust and sulfur dioxide. The gases are cleaned using electrostatic precipitators, and are then sent to the acid plant, which converts the sulfur dioxide-rich gases to sulfuric acid (a useable and/or saleable product). In the interest of conserving energy and improving efficiency, many companies are now using flash smelting to produce matte feed.
Converting – In the converter (the most common being the Pierce-Smith converter, followed by the Hoboken converter and the Mitsubishi continuous converter), a high silica flux and compressed air or oxygen are introduced into the molten copper matte through pipes called tuyeres. The furnace is rotated so that the tuyeres are submerged and air is blown into the molten matte, causing the remainder of the iron sulfide to react with oxygen to form iron oxide and sulfur dioxide. The furnace is rotated again to pour off the iron silicate slag. Most of the remaining iron combines with the silica to form converter slag, a RCRA special waste. After removing the slag, additional air or oxygen is blown in to oxidize the sulfur and convert the copper sulfide to blister copper, which contains about 99 percent copper. Thesulfur is removed in the form of SO2 gas, which reports to an acid plant where it is converted to high grade sulfuric acid. Depending on the efficiency of the acid plant, differing amounts of SO2 are emitted into the atmosphere.
Fire Refining – Oxygen and other impurities in blister copper must be removed before the copper can be cast into anodes for electrolytic refining. Blister copper is fire refined in reverberatory or rotary furnaces known as anode furnaces. When co-located with a smelter or converter, the furnace may receive the blister copper in molten form so remelting is unnecessary. Air is blown in to oxidize some impurities, while flux may be added to remove others. The residual sulfur is removed as sulfur dioxide. A slag is generated during anode furnace operation. This slag is also a component of the RCRA special waste. The final step in fire refining is the reduction of the copper and oxygen removal by feeding a reducing gas such as ammonia, reformed gas, or natural gas into the copper while it is still in the anode furnace. The molten copper is then cast into anodes for further electrolytic refining. Smelted copper typically retains metallic impurities at concentrations that can interfere with electrical uses.
Electrorefining – Electrorefining purifies the copper anodes, by virtually eliminating the oxygen, sulfur, and base metals that limit copper’s useful properties. In electrorefining, the copper anodes produced from fire-refining are taken to a “tank house,” where they are dissolved electrolytically in acidic copper sulfate solution (the electrolyte). When a DC current is passed through the cell, the copper is dissolved from the anode, transported through the electrolyte and redeposited on the cathode starting sheet, which is relatively pure copper with only trace contaminants — less than a few parts per million for sale and/or direct use. The concentration of copper as well as impurities in the electrolyte are monitored and controlled resulting in a product that is 99.99 percent copper.
Last update: February 20, 2012
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