Optimal design of a secondary milling circuit for treating chromite-rich UG-2 platinum ores.
Extraction of platinum group elements (PGE) is a major source of revenue in South Africa and the reserves represent about 75 per cent of world reserves. Most of the remaining Platinum Group Mineral (PGM) reserves are located in the UG-2 chromitite layer of the Bushveld Igneous Complex. Platinum concentrators experience significant losses of PGE in their secondary milling circuits due to insufficient liberation of platinum-bearing particles. The chromium oxide (Cr2O3) content in UG-2 concentrates is typically 3%, which results in operational problems in the downstream smelting process. Ways of improving the design of the secondary milling circuit were investigated, with the purpose of improving PGE recovery and reducing Cr2O3 entrainment in the subsequent flotation stage. Batch-scale laboratory and pilot plant tests were carried out to investigate the optimal design of a secondary milling circuit configuration. The optimal design consisted of a conventional hydrocyclone to de-slime the feed, followed by gravity separation with a spiral concentrator circuit to separate the ore into lights (silicates-rich) and heavies (chromite-rich) fractions. Separate milling of the light and heavy fractions made it possible to grind the silicate-rich fraction finer and to avoid over-grinding of the chromite. The total milling energy was redistributed between the silicates and chromite ball mills with 88% of the energy input to the silicates mill and 12% to the chromite mill thus reducing chromite over-grinding. The effects on the recovery of PGE, and the entrainment of Cr2O3 were measured in combined batch rougher flotation tests. The results indicated a 2% improvement in the secondary rougher flotation PGE recovery for the densifier underflow sample as compared to the standard MF-2 circuit, and most significantly the Cr2O3 entrainment was reduced by over 30% overall. Attritioning of the chromite-rich heavies fraction and ball milling of the silicates-rich lights fraction resulted in a 52% reduction of Cr2O3 in the rougher flotation concentrate and a 0.4% increase in PGE recovery (0.4%) as compared to the standard circuit. The improved reduction in chromite entrainment may be attributed to the lower fines generation with attritioning (52.8%- 106μm) as compared to ball milling with a 12% energy input (83.6% -106μm). Over 50% of the chromite minerals remained in the +106μm of the attritioned heavies product as compared with 21% for the ball milled spiral heavies stream. This accounted for a significant proportion of the overall chromite reduction in the flotation concentrate and supported the motivation for the inclusion of a separate grinding circuit for the chromite and silicate particles. Pilot plant testwork on a VHG (very high grade) spiral concentrator circuit followed by laboratory milling and rougher flotation tests confirmed the above conclusions. A 3.7% improvement in PGE recovery was noted with a 32% Cr2O3 reduction in the secondary rougher flotation concentrate as compared to the standard circuit. The statistical reliability of the laboratory and pilot plant data were quantified at various stages of the testwork due to the heterogeneous nature of the feed material and representative sampling. The repeat analyses on selected flotation tests for the high grade ore revealed that the variances were below 0.5%, 4%, and 7% for the head grades, PGE and Cr2O3 recoveries respectively. The flotation results for the standard and significantly improved milling circuits had variances in the 4E recoveries for the low grade ore and pilot plant ore of below 5.5% and 1% respectively. Low variances (<1%) in the Cr2O3 recoveries were noted for the low grade and pilot plant ores. A preliminary cost estimate was undertaken based on the pilot plant data to determine what value the proposed circuit could add for an additional 3.7% PGE recovery. An additional revenue of approximately R50 000 per day could result based upon the platinum mineral recovery only. The other precious metals, i.e. palladium and rhodium were neglected and would further increase the overall revenue. The minimum payback period for the estimated capital investment would be approximately 4 years. This confirmed the benefit of this improved secondary milling circuit design as a viable option. A closed-circuit operation of the silicates mill should offer more significant benefits compared to the open circuit option; however, this was not considered in the current testwork. This project has confirmed the benefit of separate ball milling and the use of a spiral concentrator as an effective gravity separation device in the secondary milling circuit for a chromite-rich (>50%) UG-2 platinum ore.