Kinetic and mechanistic studies on the biological and chemical leaching of nickel from sulphide ores.
The aim of this investigation was to extend the knowledge of the bacterial leaching of copper and zinc sulphides into the area of nickel sulphide leaching. By far the major portion of both theoretical and practical expertise which is available in the field of bacterial leaching is based on the treatment of copper and zinc sulphides. As yet there is little information available on the bacterial leaching of nickel sulphides to meet the growing interest in this field both in South Africa and elsewhere. To a large degree, it was necessary to start from basic principles in this novel extension of bacterial leaching technology so that the work covers a fairly wide field in general rather than one particular aspect in detail. A strain of 'nickel adapted' Thiobacillus ferrooxidans was isolated from the tailings dam of a disused nickel mine. The growth characteristics of this strain were studied in some detail on sulphur using both batch and continuous techniques. This was done as it was considered that growth on sulphur would provide useful information which could be correlated with the mineral leaching results. The mineral pentlandite (NiFeS2) was chosen as the one with which to work because of its economic importance. This was prepared in a highly purified form from a concentrate of the Rhodesian Shangani deposit. Bacterial leaching tests in both batch and continuous operation were then carried out in order to define the effects of various physico-chemical parameters on the leaching of nickel from this mineral. As a preliminary to these tests, a detailed chemical kinetic study in the absence of bacteria of the leaching of nickel was carried out using similar physico-chemical conditions. The results of the bacterial and chemical leaching tests were then compared and used to postulate a mechanism and model for the process. It was found that the rate of leaching of nickel from pentlandite in acid ferric sulphate solutions was directly proportional to the concentration of ferric ions and speed of agitation of the stirrer and to the square root of the oxygen concentration. The form of the rate expression was interpreted in terms of a mixed diffusive and chemical rate controlling mechanism. Bacterial growth rates on flowers of sulphur were found to be controlled by the rate of dissolution of oxygen from the gas bubbles into the bulk solution. When this latter condition was made non-rate limiting, it was found that growth rates were still dependent on the rate of agitation, implying mass transport control by another mechanism. The batch bacterial leaching results showed a linear pattern of nickel leaching and bacterial growth, with a marked dependence on oxygen concentration and rate of agitation. A mechanism in accordance with the batch data was postulated, which proposed that the rate of bacterial leaching was proportional to the concentration of bacteria attached at the mineral surface and to the square of the oxygen concentration. The rates of bacterial leaching were computed by taking the difference between the overall measured leach rate and the chemical leach rate based on the chemical kinetic data. The leach rates in continuous bacterial leaching were higher than those predicted from the batch data. This effect was interpreted in terms of higher specific growth rates being achieved in continuous operation. An economic assessment was made of the process based on the optimum leach rates obtained in continuous leaching and found to show some promise.