Additonal authors: O’Malley, Glen P.. Book title: Proceedings of the 58th Conference of Metallurgists Hosting Copper 2019. Chapter: . Chapter title:
Chalcopyrite (CuFeS2) and enargite (Cu3AsS4) are among the most important copper sulfides. At present, many known deposits of these minerals are uneconomic to process because they are of too low grade, insufficient size or too remote to be cost effectively treated with conventional technologies that can deal with their refractory nature. Therefore, developing an effective, low cost extraction process for recovery of copper from them is important. The research presented in this paper will deal with potentially cost effective strategies involving catalysed processing, studied under conditions relevant to recycle heap leach conditions.
The present account summarises some of the main findings from the research program carried out at Murdoch University between 2014 and 2018 that has investigated the effects of the common leaching parameters, major and minor species present in the leach system and additives on the rate and extent of copper extraction from low-grade ores, in which primary copper sulfide minerals such as chalcopyrite and enargite were the dominant copper minerals. The study involved batch leaching tests, detailed structural and mineralogical characterisation and thermochemical modelling under conditions relevant to heap leaching. The results have demonstrated that silver in particular has a strong catalysing effect on the extraction of copper from ore under the leach recycle conditions and, at an adequate dosage, can effectively overcome surface passivation, enabling almost complete extraction of copper from chalcopyrite as well as enargite. The aim of this paper is to present the effect of the studied additives and to briefly elaborate on the mechanism of the silver catalysed leaching process.
In addition, the presence of certain secondary agents was shown to lower the critical dosage of silver and promote extraction. The data from the study allowed the development of a theory for the silver catalysed reaction mechanism, which enables further optimisation and cost-effective application of this strategy in practice.
Researching the extraction of copper from chalcopyrite is important as it is the most abundant copper mineral in the earth’s crust. The majority of ores containing this mineral are processed by flotation to produce a concentrate, followed by smelting and electrorefining. However, most reserves available nowadays are of low grade or limited in size, and therefore not suitable for this conventional approach. Hydrometallurgical processing via heap leaching with or without the aid of bacteria has been shown to be potentially economical. Chalcopyrite is refractory though and suffers from slow leaching kinetics and poor overall extraction, so understanding the mechanism of how it leaches has received significant attention by researchers working in this field over the past 50 years. The refractoriness, which is the main issue with the hydrometallurgical approach, is generally described as passivation of the chalcopyrite surface whereby a surface coating is formed that blocks the reaction interface or wetting of the chalcopyrite, limiting the copper extraction. Exactly what this layer is made of or how the issue could be overcome has been the subject of intense study and debate for many years. One of the limitations of the work to date is that much of the research focus has been on typical initial leaching conditions, while there has been relatively little research into how the leaching is affected under recycle solution conditions where certain metal ions (Fe, Mg, Al) have often accumulated in the liquor. This occurs because the leach solution exiting a heap contains many species from the dissolution of gangue minerals and typically this solution is returned to irrigate the heap, once the copper has been removed, leading to an accumulation of these species.