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The challenges ahead for minerals processing

Metal prices have declined in real terms and this makes it more difficult over time to bring new projects into production, writes Damian Connolly.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) has had a major impact on the mineral industry with a sharp decline in commodity prices and profitability. Banks are more cautious lending to new resource projects following the global financial crisis. They also require better researched and optimised projects with more robust economics before approving project finance.

There is little doubt some form of carbon tax will be introduced and our energy sources will have to change. Carbon Trading will add another $A0.50 to the cost of processing every tonne of ore.

Innovation and the introduction of new technology will be a major challenge required to succeed and overcome some of these issues. Australia’s record of technology innovation in the gold industry for example has been brilliant by any standards because of the need to meet more stringent requirements with off gases.

Energy is a major cost for processing minerals and the comminution processes we use are inefficient and large consumers of energy. The development of new grinding technologies is long overdue.

There will be an increasing trend to hydrometallurgical processing and a decline in pyrometallurgical processes. Desalination as a water source for processing will become more common for projects.

The tougher environmental constraints being placed on new projects will mean that some projects will not be allowed to proceed on environmental grounds. Exploration activities will be curtailed in sensitive areas and even excluded altogether.

Water is going to become a scarce resource and access is going to be difficult with an emphasis on conservation and re-use.

Social and Political issues are impacting on new projects like never before. The common cry “not in my back yard” makes it more difficult to win hearts and minds and gain acceptance for new projects.

Mining companies will be called on more and more to provide schools, hospitals and services where governments fail to do so particularly in impoverished areas.

Mining projects are only now starting to implement sustainability policies and understand the full impact of such policies. The mining industry could become a global leader in sustainable development.

The industry has in the past demonstrated a willingness to better understand and resolve difficult issues at the local level.

[Damian Connelly is an engineer at Minerals Engineering Technical Services (METS).]

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