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What is ANSTO? Why Does It Matter for the Rare Earths?

Posted by admin at 10:45 AM on Feb 9, 2010

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By Clint Cox

G’Day from the land Down Under!

ANSTO is the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. What follows below is a brief description of my trip to this facility and what they offer the rare earth community.

There will be no pictures to accompany this posting, which is unfortunate, because they would be some of the most interesting I can imagine regarding the intricacy of processing rare earth ores.

ANSTO is the home of the only nuclear facility in Australia. Here they collect isotopes, conduct experiments, and most importantly for us—process minerals.

I was graciously invited to ANSTO by Ian Chalmers of Alkane Resources to see their pilot plant facility. When we arrived we had to check in our cameras, phones, etc. received our badges, and passed through a secure entrance. We were then driven to the ANSTO Minerals division within the compound.

From the ANSTO Minerals website:

ANSTO Minerals is a mining consultancy group with expertise that covers chemical engineering, metallurgy, mineralogy, chemistry, geology and radiation safety.

ANSTO Minerals specialises in knowledge of uranium ore processing and has a 20-year track record of providing practical solutions and innovative technology in ways that deliver financial and environmental benefits to the mining and minerals processing industries. The unit has the expertise, experience and tools to provide process design and problem solving solutions to issues across the entire mining life cycle.

They have large facilities, including offices and labs, and employ 50-60 people. This is quite significant. This means that they have 50-60 people with a variety of expertise focused on mineral processing in one place. There are also a variety of ages—from just out of school to seasoned veterans.

Although founded in 2004, the ANSTO Minerals team has been working on mineral processing projects as far back 1991, when it worked on processing Mt. Weld ore–so their experience is extensive. Other Australian rare earths exploration companies have had work done for them here as well, but the project I came to see is that of Alkane’s Dubbo Zirconia Project (aka D-Zed-P).

We met with some senior staff before we visited the plant. We learned about ANSTO, its capabilities, personnel and history.

The pilot plant is impressive—with the complexity of processing the rare earths on full display! A very smart and capable gentleman named Adrian Manis walked us through the current demonstration plant, where they are able to put ore (ground to specification) in one end of the circuit and get multiple products out of the other end. In the most basic of terms, the flowsheet sounds something like this:

  1. Crushing & Screening
  2. Milling
  3. Sulphation
  4. Repulping
  5. Leaching
  6. Filtering
  7. Solvent Extraction
  8. Precipitation

The chemical & physical details involved of each of these steps is often beyond my current comprehension, so I must leave it at those basic terms so as not to mislead! Keep in mind that there are multiple products, and thus multiple flowsheets for the demonstration plant.

Also, in several steps of the process they are experimenting with one or more options for that step, so there are different routes the ore can take, but the end result is various products including zirconium (Zr) hydroxide, Zr sulphate, Zr carbonate, Zirconia, Nb oxide, LREE double sulphate, and HREE fluoride concentrate. It has yet to be determined what the final end products will be for the process, as customers will dictate their demands, but there are multiple possibilities.

Mr. Chalmers will be the first to tell you that Alkane still has to determine their costs on producing the various products, and that they are still working on the REE portion of the circuit. If they get to production, they would be producing somewhere between 1290 and 3225 tonnes per annum (tpa)—not enough to relieve the world’s reliance on China, but probably offering an alternative source to one or more end-users. But it usually comes down to economics — can they compete with current world sources in each of their potential markets?

Also, this is first and foremost a zirconium project. That means that its success or failure will be determined in a large part to the Zr market (which, admittedly, I don’t understand at all).

As I left ANSTO, there were several thoughts on my mind. First, ANSTO Minerals is working proof that Australia is committed to its resource community. Resources are such a substantial part of Australian economics that they recognize this and try to assist companies in the best way that they can. Second, having such facility allows for companies to learn how to deal with radioactive issues safely and effectively to minimize impact.

More coming on my visit to Dubbo soon…

Special thanks to Ian Chalmers, Dudley Kingsnorth of IMCOA, Gavin, Alister, Adrian, Karin, and Bob.