13 March 2013

New processing method to deliver huge benefits to global nickel industry

An environmentally friendly processing method that uses and recycles nitric acid could unlock 70 per cent of the world’s nickel supply.

Nitric nickel - a new environmentally friendly processing method

Show transcript

[CSIRO logo and title appears: resourceful, bringing CSIRO research to the minerals industry]

[Text appears: Nitric nickel a new environmentally friendly processing method that uses and recycles nitric acid could unlock 70 per cent of the world's nickel.

Narrator: Nickel is an important global resource that's strength and resistance to corrosion make it ideal for use in stainless steel.

[Image changes to a blurred city scape with people walking the streets and an operating tram]

Naturally found in two forms, laterite and sulphide deposits, the majority of nickel currently mined is nickel sulphide, because it is easier and cheaper to process.

[Image changes to a pile of manufactured nickel rods and then to a rock of nickel sulphide ore]

However, the majority of the world's reserves, around 70%, are laterites.

[Image changes to a factory scene with two men operating some machinery]

Current sulphide deposits are depleting, and the industry is looking for more environmentally friendly and cost effective ways to process the world's abundant store of nickel laterites.

[Camera pans out on the factory and then zooms in on individually pieces of equipment]

CSIRO has teamed up with Sydney Company, Direct Nickel, to tackle this challenge.

[Image changes to show Graham Brock, Direct Nickel and Dr Dave Robinson, CSIRO seated at a table]

Dr. Dave Robinson: Well we're looking for a step change in technology to enable us to convert low grade nickel laterites we've got a lot of in Australia into economically viable resources that we can process. So the difference between the process we're developing with Direct Nickel and conventional processes is primarily built around the fact that we use nitric acid instead of sulphuric acid. That gives us a very high efficiency leach, and it leaches to a low overall consumption of nitric acid because we can recycle the nitric acid and also recycle the base in the process.

Graham Brock: And because we operate at atmospheric pressure and lower temperatures our costs are about half of the alternative processes, and also our materials of construction are simpler, so again our capital costs are reduced.

[Image changes to outside of equipment in a factory setting with the following text: Direct Nickel Process 1. Leaching, 2. Solid/liquid, 3. Iron hydrolysis, 4. Aluminium precipitation, 5. Mixed nickel/cobalt hydroxide precipitation and 6. Reagent recycling]

Narrator: With only a few kilograms of nitric acid used per tonne of laterite, compared to at least half a tonne of sulphuric acid per tonne, this new method offers a more environmentally sustainable and cost effective processing option.

[Image changes to show a core sample]

Graham Brock: And if all goes well, by 2014 we would hope to be designing the first commercial plant. So by 2016 we could be in production.

[Image changes back to workers in the factory]

Narrator: If CSIRO and Direct Nickel show that this new method of processing is viable, it could significantly boost laterite mining in Australia, increasing the lifespan of mines, and continuing investment in Australia's mining industry.

[Image changes to fully laden truck driving through a quarry]

Australian minerals, our future.

[CSIRO logo appears with the following text and website: Australian minerals, our future – www.csiro.au/MDU]

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Full-scale testing of the process has commenced at a A$3.5 million pilot plant at CSIRO in Perth. The process, developed by Sydney-based company Direct Nickel, could deliver a huge boost to the global nickel industry by making millions of tonnes of untapped nickel laterite reserves economically viable to mine.

Russell Debney, Managing Director and CEO of Direct Nickel, says with the increasing demand for nickel, which is a key component of stainless steel, the future of the world's supply lies in laterites.

"Many of these reserves remain untapped due to the difficulty and expense of extracting the nickel. Technical difficulties and the high costs of existing processing methods are massive and continuing roadblocks," Mr Debney said.

"There is a desperate need for a solution to the laterite processing problem that is threatening world supply. Other forms of nickel reserves, such as sulphides, are running out and there are few new discoveries."

Traditional processing techniques use large quantities of sulphuric acid at high temperatures and pressures, resulting in expensive treatment and disposal of chemical waste.

Dr Dave Robinson, leader of mineral processing research at CSIRO, says the new process uses nitric acid, over 95 per cent of which can be recycled and reused making it more environmentally friendly and lower in cost.

"This process has the potential to revolutionise the global industry. Australia has an abundance of nickel laterites, so it would provide a significant boost to our economy," Dr Robinson said.

"We have been working in partnership with Direct Nickel for over three years and the pilot plant is an important step in understanding the process. It will provide the engineering data to validate our technical and economic predictions."

Mr Debney said the set up and operating costs are less than half those of existing processes, and their process is more efficient in extracting the nickel from the laterite ores.  It is also believed to be the first process capable of treating all laterite ores, which are inherently difficult to process.

"Initial full-scale testing has provided positive results. If we continue on this path, our processing method will be ready to roll out to industry as early as 2016," he said.

Additional resources


  • Fiona McCarthy working in the Direct Nickel in the pilot plant Download image

    Fiona McCarthy from Direct Nickel in the pilot plant at CSIRO in Perth. © Damien Smith Photography

  • Thickener tanks in the pilot plant Download image

    Thickener tanks in the pilot plant at CSIRO in Perth. © Damien Smith Photography

  • Machinery in the nickel processing pilot plant at CSIRO in Perth. Download image

    Nickel processing pilot plant at CSIRO in Perth. © Damien Smith Photography


  • Mr Roger Nicoll

    Communications Manager, Business And Infrastructure Services · Communications

    • Phone:
      • +61 2 6276 6660
      • +61 404 213 801 (Mobile)

    Email: Roger.Nicoll@csiro.au

  • Dr Dave Robinson

    Research Leader Base and Precious Metals Hydrometallurgy · Mineral Resources

    • Phone:
      • +61 8 9334 8913
      • +61 409 334 801 (Mobile)

    Email: Dave.Robinson@csiro.au

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