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copper ore processing methods

copper ore processing methods

Copper Mining and Processing: Processing Copper Ores

Oxide ores are generally processed using hydrometallurgy. This process uses aqueous solutions to extract and purify copper from copper oxide ores at ordinary temperatures, usually in three steps: heap leaching, solvent extraction, and electrowinning. Heap Leachingis the process of using percolating chemical solutions to leach out metals. Heap leaching is very commonly used for low grade ore, which would otherwise not be economical to send through a milling process. Following mining, transporting, and crushing to a consistent gravel or golf ball size, the crushed ore is piled into a heap on top of an impenetrable layer, on a slight slope. The leaching reagent is sprayed through sprinklers on top of the heap pile and allowed to trickle down through the heap, where it dissolves the copper from the ore. The resulting pregnant leach solution of sulfuric acid and copper sulfate is collected in a small pool. The copper compound can now be seen at conc...

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Sulfide ores are generally processed using pyrometallurgy, the extraction and purification of metals by processes involving the application of heat. This process uses a series of physical steps and high temperatures to extract and purify copper from copper sulfide ores, in four basic steps: 1) froth flotation, 2) thickening, 3) smelting, and 4) electrolysis. Following mining, transporting, and crushing to a consistent gravel or golf ball size, the crushed ore is further processed at a mill using secondary crushers, and reduced to pebbles, and finally to fine sand. After the copper ore is crushed, liquid is added to make it a slurry. The slurry is a mix of valuable copper ore minerals and worthless rock, called gangue . The slurry is placed in a tank and a process called froth floatation is used to separate the copper minerals from the gangue. Chemical reagents called collectors are added to the slurry and bind to the copper particles, making them hydrophobic,...

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In addition to processing copper ores, new and old copper scrap or copper alloys can be melted, re purified, and recycled into new components. It is estimated that such recycling supplies 50% of copper used in the copper industry . In 2010, 770,000 metric tons of copper were recycled, at an estimated value of nearly six billion dollars .

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Copper Mining and Production Processes Explained

The ore is removed from the ground in either open pit or underground mines. Underground  sinking a vertical shaft into the earth to reach the copper ore and driving horizontal tunnels into the ore. Open pit  90% of ore is mined using the open pit method. Ores near the surface can be quarried after removal of the surface layers.

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The ore is enriched using a process called froth flotation. Unwanted material sinks to the bottom and is removed.

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This is where the chemical reactions start. The powdered, enriched ore is heated in air between 500°C and 700°C to remove some sulphur and dry the ore, which is still a solid called calcine.

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A flux is a substance which is added to the ore to make it melt more easily. The solid calcine is heated to 1200°C and melts. Some impurities are removed forming a matte .

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Air is blown into the liquid matte forming blister copper, so called because the gas bubbles trapped in the solid form blisters on the surface.

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The copper is purified to 99.99% by electrolysis. The production route described above shows the progression from a rock containing about 0.2% copper to a copper cathode of 99.99% purity.

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Leaching offers an alternative to copper mining. First, the ore is treated with dilute sulphuric acid. This trickles slowly down through the ore, over a period of months, dissolving copper to form a weak solution of copper sulphate. The copper is then recovered by electrolysis. This process is known as SX EW . Advantages of these processes are: 1. Much less energy is used than in traditional mining 2. No waste gases are given off 3. Low capital investment 4. Ability to be operated economically on a small scale. It can be used on ore with as little as 0.1% copper for this reason leaching extraction is growing in importance. It is estimated that SX EW will represent 21% of total copper refined production in 2019.

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Another important source of copper is recycled scrap, described as secondary copper production. Around half of Europes copper demand is currently met with recycled material, making an important contribution to the circular economy. To read more about copper recycling, click here.

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