In June-July 2019, seven students, a Master of Philosophy student, and a UQ staff member visited mines, smelters and corporate offices in South Australia.
For more than two decades, metallurgy students from the University of Queensland (UQ) have been organising annual field trips around the world. The trips are themed to suit the final year design project that students complete as part of their studies.
The trip began at BHP’s Olympic dam, a unique processing plant that produces copper, uranium, silver and gold. Olympic Dam was our first big glimpse at the industry, where students gained a huge appreciation for site safety and learnt about the importance of circuit design and energy consumption.
On the first day, we were shown the mineral processing side of the plant, which included comminution, flotation and thickeners. We also saw the solvent extraction section of the plant. For some of us, it was the first time seeing such a large-scale industrial operation and we began to understand the importance of how upstream processing can help reduce the transporting, energy costs and emissions for downstream processing.
On the second day we were given a tour of the pyrometallurgical section of the site. We were fortunate enough to see the tapping of blister copper from the furnace, with the heat being felt even from a distance through our personal protective equipment (PPE). After the tour of the smelter, we were guided through the hydrometallurgy plant where we walked through the electrowinning and electrorefining areas. A huge warehouse housed rows upon rows of acid cells, where copper solution is plated onto cathodes, leaving behind a black slime containing valuable silver and gold. Some students were even fortunate enough to have a small guided tour of the gold room, where the slime from the hydrometallurgical areas is processed to recover the gold and silver.
Port Pirie lead smelter
Day three involved an in-depth tour of Nyrstar’s Port Pirie lead smelter. Upon arrival, we were escorted to the uniform distribution facility and were provided with all the essential PPE, including half face gas masks, overalls, gloves and hearing protection. Nyrstar prides themselves in the safety of their workers and community, which was reflected in their employees.
The smelter was undergoing maintenance, which meant we fortunate to see parts of the operations which may otherwise have been off limits. This was highlighted by a walk (and elevator) to the top of the top submerged lance furnace, 80 m above the ground. The top of the furnace offered a spectacular view of the port and township. On the way down we were able to get close with replacement lances for the furnace.
Day four was a site visit to OZ Minerals’ Prominent Hill site, where students were flown in from Port Augusta in the morning and treated to breakfast in the dry mess. After breakfast, we boarded a bus that took us to the primary gyratory crusher. We had perfect timing, because as we climbed the stairs overlooking the crusher, a load of material from underground was fed into it. From there, we were guided through the rest of the comminution and flotation circuits, boasting IsaMillTM and Jameson Cell technologies incorporated into the circuits. We were also treated to tour of the concentrate stockpiles, where we learnt about the high copper concentrate grade that Prominent Hill produces.
BHP corporate office and research centre
The final day was spent at the BHP head office in Adelaide’s CBD. Here students gained key insights into the importance of the emerging geometallurgy sector and the influence on mine planning. At the office, we took a step back from the individual processes and took a holistic view of certain operations. We were given an insight into one of BHP’s current projects. The amount of research, development and consideration that had gone into the project was astounding. It was fascinating to see the face of the operation, as well as behind the scenes research, planning and implementation.
Throughout the field trip, we were fortunate to meet many knowledgeable metallurgists from different operations. They answered many of the difficult questions we had prepared and provided helpful insights into their upcoming projects. A common theme all the metallurgist displayed was an emphasis on safety. Despite visiting potentially hazardous areas of the plants, major concerns around safety were addressed, and we never felt unsafe. We would like to thank the sites and engineers for generously taking time out of their schedule for us.
This trip has provided us with invaluable knowledge and has allowed us to form connections to industrial professionals. Although this year’s field trip was centred around Australia, many other years have had the privilege to go overseas and gain an appreciation for other various processing methods. It is a tradition which has been engrained in the bedrock of UQ’s metallurgy degree and it is hoped that future years students also partake in this wonderful experience.
These annual field trips would not be made possible without the support of industry sponsors. We would like to thank our sponsors this year: Glencore, SNF, Rio Tinto, Oz Minerals, Newcrest, and JKTech for making this trip possible.