Potential Impacts of In Situ Metal Recovery Processes on Microbial Ecology

Additonal authors: . Book title: Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019. Chapter: . Chapter title:

Proceedings, Vol. Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019, 2019

Roberto, F. F.

Sulfuric acid has been demonstrated to be an efficient lixiviant for in situ extraction of copper in the past. It has also been proposed that microbial production (by iron-oxidizing acidophilic bacteria) of acidic ferric solution either in situ or ex situ could provide an economic strategy to generate an effective lixiviant for secondary copper sulfides like chalcocite and covellite. Copper heap bioleaching also takes advantage of this approach. One of the major environmental challenges for in situ copper recovery projects is the containment of acidic solution within the ore deposit, and ultimate restoration of the depleted ore body to its original state. A perhaps overlooked aspect of projected site operations is the possibility that transient acidic conditions and pumping of solutions from surface reservoirs into the subsurface could stimulate the growth of iron- or sulfur-oxidizing species of acidophilic microbes in the ore body, leading to additional generation of sulfate, acid, and ferric iron. This outcome would benefit extraction of copper in mixed oxide/sulfide deposits in the near term, but could complicate restoration activities. Possible impacts of pumping acidic solutions into the subsurface on microbes resident in, or introduced into the extraction zone will be discussed in the context of our understanding of copper heap bioleaching and acid rock drainage. INTRODUCTION As high-grade deposits of metals such as copper continue to decline, conventional mining methods have evolved to mine and process larger and larger quantities of ore. What is currently defined as ore today often contains less metal than the tailings of past operations. The throughput of current-day mines also leads to tremendous amounts of waste rock and tailings that may threaten the environment and communities around the mines, as has recently been experienced by 3 major tailings disposal facility (TSF) dam failures in the past 5 years. Community acceptance of large mine operations thus becomes more difficult to achieve—loss of the social license to operate. In response, the mining industry urgently pursues innovations that can fundamentally change the way in which metals are mined. In situ recovery (ISR) of metals represents one approach to a more sustainable mining industry, by virtually eliminating the need for a pit or underground excavation, eliminating the excavation and transportation of ore to a process plant and the ensuing noise and dust that is generated, and any need for waste rock dumps or TSFs. An ISR mine could have very little visible footprint beyond a network of wells, pumps, and piping to transport pregnant solution to a recovery facility, such as a solvent extraction- electrowinning (SX-EW) plant for copper. Some solid waste streams and/or storage ponds may still be necessary to treat and store bleed streams, PLS and raffinate, or as part of groundwater restoration activities. Thus capital and operating investments would be potentially much lower than that required for a conventional mine. In theory production could also be controlled to adjust to subsurface ore grade and match market demand. A not insignificant challenge of in situ recovery is the requirement for an efficient, low-toxicity, and ideally selective lixiviant for the metal that is targeted.
Keywords: Copper 2019, COM2019