Metallurgical Advances and Their Impact on Mineral Exploration and Mining
Karin O. Hoal, Terry P. McNulty, Roland Schmidt, 2005. "Metallurgical Advances and Their Impact on Mineral Exploration and Mining", Wealth Creation in the Minerals Industry: Integrating Science, Business, and Education, Michael D. Doggett, John R. Parry
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Revolutionary advances in extractive metallurgy and mineral processing and their evolutionary application have significantly altered the processing operations of mining companies over time by increasing productivity and reducing costs. Some developments have had such an impact on the industry that new types of mineral deposits can be developed and waste becomes ore. Historically, it has taken years, in some cases decades, for metallurgical developments to affect exploration strategies, largely because of limited communications between geologists and metallurgists. Seven significant advances in the extractive sciences are viewed as having the highest impact on mineral exploration and mining. These are solvent extractionelectrowinning, leach processing, bioprocessing, flash smelting, geometallurgy, energy-efficient fine grinding, and underground processing. Developments in these fields have resulted in commercialized or piloted processes that demonstrably reduce capital and operating costs and thereby increase shareholder value. Two process developments with the potential to significantly affect the industry in the future are breaking rock in tension and in situ leach of metals. The benefits of metallurgical advances to exploration include reduced processing and capital costs, as well as elimination of repeat characterizations through improved analytical instrumentation and data transfer capabilities. New ore deposits are less likely to be overlooked or underappreciated when metallurgical and processing developments are integrated into team-based exploration planning. An example of new target generation is zinc oxide ore, such as that from Skorpion, Namibia, that has been made economic by hydrometallurgical techniques. As exploration targets and discoveries become increasingly deep, the successful development of orebodies will depend in part on the ability of metallurgists to develop innovative processing methods, such as pressure leach and bioleach hydrometallurgical technologies, or developments in mineral processing. To some extent, the ore geology of a deposit may predetermine the processing methods to be applied. However, the complex relationships of mineralogy, grade, and location, plus energy, capital, and other costs make the development of new extractive techniques a virtual necessity for exploration success.
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Global political and economic developments shape both the demand for minerals and primary metals and their supply. Overall, demand has moved broadly in step with economic activity over the past 30 years. Notwithstanding the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, demand grew more rapidly in the second half of the period than the first. The performance of individual products within this general trend largely reflects the specific nature of their main end uses. The geographic center of demand has shifted away from the mature industrial economies of North America, Western Europe, and Japan toward the newly industrializing countries of the Pacific Rim, China, and India. Mine production rose with demand, but not always in precise step. New capacity was required not just to meet demand, even where that was static, but also to offset the continuing effects of ore depletion. There were also changes in the location of production in response to geopolitical forces, the depletion of ore reserves, and the changing economics of extraction and processing. The number of mines contracted, especially during the 1990s, and the scale of mining operations was increased in order to achieve the requisite cost savings. Prices fluctuated in response to changing balances between supply and demand, trending downward from the early 1970s until the early 2000s. Most products witnessed at least one sharp price spike during the period, usually with continuing repercussions. Prices picked up from 2003, but generally not back to their earlier peak in real terms. Profitability varied according to the products concerned. In many years the average rates of return on capital employed have been insufficient to cover the risks involved.