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13 August 2021 4 min read

Of all the items on Mick Wade’s wish list in his job at CSIRO, he says there is one that would, on its own, virtually ensure a win for the organisation and its clients in mineral processing.

It can be captured in two words... industry standard. That is Mr Wade’s commercial aspiration for SWIRLFLOW®, a piece of CSIRO technology already used in mineral processing across three continents and counting. He believes that soon, those in mineral processing who don’t have it will wish they did.

The Queensland Alumina Limited refinery in Gladstone has been integral to the SWIRLFLOW® commercialisation success story ©  Queensland Alumina Limited

Agitating for commercial success

Mr Wade, who is based in Melbourne, swears by the technology. SWIRLFLOW® replaces traditional agitators inside mineral refineries’ large mixing tanks with a short shaft system that generates a tornado-like vortex flow.

Its novel impeller design addresses a scourge of mineral processing: agitators getting bogged in settled solids. It is a problem that routinely leads to shutdowns, expensive clean-ups and dangerous repairs.

Mr Wade is a Business Development Manager with CSIRO Mineral Resources. He focuses on corporate realignments called 'spinouts', start-up companies and licencing CSIRO’s mineral processing technologies.

Large scale  SWIRLFLOW® deployment has started with licensing to the worldwide alumina industry. SWIRLFLOW® has been shown to ramp up efficiency and decrease refineries’ eye-wateringly costly downtime. The industry can now upgrade mixing tanks using CSIRO’s laboratory-developed mixing technology.

“One of our goals is to increase that part of the business because it generates more sustainable revenue through licensing,” says Wade.

“But our bigger goal for SWIRLFLOW® is for it to become the desired industry standard for alumina refineries and beyond. That in a nutshell would be it, because all those other benefits such as saving energy, reducing refineries’ costs, generating money for CSIRO. All those things will flow on from that.”

Close up fo swirl flow mixing rotor
Close up of swirl flow mixing rotar

Many mineral processing procedures rely on keeping solids in suspension in tanks.

Helping clients find their flow

Dr Jie Wu, CISRO Mineral Resources Technical Director Fluids Engineering, estimates that there are about 80 alumina refineries worldwide each with many mixing tanks.

CSIRO has now installed SWIRLFLOW® in about 30 tanks and momentum is building as the industry has praised the technology and its commercialisation.

Dr Wu cites the estimated five-to-ten million dollars a year saved in capital and production costs by Queensland Aluminium Limited (QAL) over a decade as an example of the impact delivered.

“[SWIRLFLOW®] has delivered improved yield through higher operating factor and reduced scale growth, improved resuspension ability, reduced maintenance cost and lower risks to maintenance personnel,” QAL has reported.

“Damaged draft tubes in cone bottom tanks are being routinely replaced with SWIRLFLOW® agitation. The agitation upgrade is less expensive, requires a shorter outage and delivers ongoing process benefits."

Similarly, a joint paper by CSIRO, QAL, LKAB Minerals, Energy Resources of Australia and Rio Tinto notes that, “SWIRLFLOW® technology has attracted attention from processors of other minerals and is now being rolled out across applications including those in the magnetite, uranium and gold industries, on top of growing alumina sites worldwide”.

With the scope of SWIRLFLOW®’s commercialisation about to expand outside Australia, Mr Wade and Dr Wu are keen to explore other use cases.

Mineralogical and Elemental Analyser - a new measurement system to enable real-time elemental and mineralogical analysis

It’s pronounced like “Mia”

MEA stands for Mineral and Elemental Analyser.

It’s a CSIRO tool that Sydney-based research scientist Dr Yves Van Haarlem believes is 99.9 per cent ready for commercialisation using patented CSIRO X-ray diffraction and X-ray fluorescence analysers mounted to an 80-litre slurry delivery tank, the MEA is a real-time analysis system for process stream slurries.

In mineral processing, stream minerology, chemistry and particle size have a critical impact on operations.

Being able to monitor these properties at key points in the processing chain enables optimisation of mineral processing based on stream composition and maintaining high plant efficiency.

MEA perfectly meets the requirements for process control.

MEA can quantify the grade of commonly mined elements such as copper, nickel down to low levels.

In addition, MEA can also measure a range of mineral phases, such as talc or other problematic gangue minerals and report on average particle size using a newly developed method using X-rays.

CSIRO’s new analyser sits within a ‘toolkit’ of online mineralogical tools for advanced process control developed by CSIRO.

Each was developed, says Van Haarlem, in line with the commercial needs of prospective clients. It is a balance that a CSIRO research scientist is frequently called upon to strike.

“What these technologies have in common is that they’re all online and can enable real-time process monitoring and control, so they’re not as accurate as working in the lab but they are fast and relatively inexpensive,” says Dr Van Haarlem.

“To commercialise the technologies, we bring them together in a common platform, up to a point of an advanced prototype, but as simply as possible so that it can be easily adapted for the market by commercial partners to fit their standards and needs.”

As with much of the CSIRO technology that has preceded it, the story of the CSIRO MEA’s commercialisation success will come down to its ability to meet market needs. 

CSIRO is looking to both trial and commercialise MEA and other process monitoring systems with interested partners.

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