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.
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.
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.
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.