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The challenge

Most nickel laterites are uneconomical to mine

Around 70 per cent of the world's nickel reserves are found in the form of laterites, which are soils rich in mineral ores. Many of these reserves remain untapped due to the complexities of extraction from laterites.

Australia has abundant nickel laterite reserves but until now extraction of nickel from these laterites has been challenging, and expensive, resulting in the generation of large amounts of waste chemicals.

Traditional nickel laterite processing techniques use large quantities of sulphuric acid at high temperatures and pressures, resulting in expensive waste treatment and disposal of the chemicals used in the extraction process.

Nickel laterites are becoming a priority for mining companies as traditional nickel sulphide reserves are depleted. In 2010, global nickel production from laterites exceeded nickel sulphide-based production for the first time.

[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 –]

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Our response

An environmentally friendly processing method

In collaboration with the Sydney-based SME Direct Nickel, we are testing a new extraction process that could make millions of tonnes of untapped nickel laterite reserves economically viable.

CSIRO and Direct Nickel have carried out full-scale testing of the process in a pilot plant at CSIRO Perth. ©  Damien Smith

Direct Nickel has developed a more cost-effective and efficient way to extract nickel from laterites using small amounts of nitric acid.

About 95 per cent of the nitric acid can be recycled and re-used as a processing reagent, which vastly reduces the amount of waste produced and avoids the costly neutralisation and disposal of used acid.

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

To facilitate the transition from laboratory-scale to industrial-scale processing a mineral processing CSIRO invested in a pilot plant at our Waterford site (Perth), for large-scale testing of the new method. The new process has been successfully demonstrated at pilot scale.

The results

Helping Australian SMEs break into a global market

Direct Nickel is working to significantly improve the efficiency and economics of nickel laterite processing in order to unlock the world's nickel laterite supply.

This is an example of how CSIRO is working with Australian SMEs to increase their global impact and deliver benefit to the Australian economy through improved export potential.

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