May 2013

A new plant in the Prairies

Saskatchewan Research Council rolls out pilot processing plant and QEMSCAN service

By Derek Neary

Jack Zhang, senior process engineer with the Saskatchewan Research Council, operates a multi-stage mineral flotation machine at the new mineral processing pilot plant in Saskatoon | Courtesy of SRC

Adding to its robust mining facilities in Saskatoon, the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) launched a $2.2-million mineral processing pilot plant and a $1.4-million QEMSCAN service in April. The latter is an electron microscope that scans minerals and creates data packages based on the ore sample’s chemistry and mineralogy, said Craig Murray, vice-president of SRC’s mining and minerals division. Up to this point, mining and exploration companies had to send samples to either British Columbia or Ontario for a QEMSCAN analysis, making for a longer and potentially costly wait for results.

“We’ve had several of our existing clients ask for it,” said Murray. “It helps mineral processing engineers and scientists understand what’s in the sample and, more importantly, how it’s distributed and what else is in there. That provides some valuable information when they’re developing the process flow sheets and testing the process that they’re going to use to extract the mineral. That will give them a leg-up in terms of knowing what process is going to work the best, which one to try first or what things need to be tweaked.”

Bags of core samples from the QEMSCAN building are taken to the mineral processing pilot plant, a 10-minute drive away. The plant occupies 2,000 square feet (186 square metres), sharing space with an existing diamond lab and pipe-flow technology centre. A portion of the cavernous room is filled with flotation cells, metallic mixers and tubes feeding chemicals and water into the process. The plant will let companies fine-tune and test methods to process extracted minerals, and customers can use the pilot plant services independent of whether they use the QEMSCAN service.

“The mineral processing pilot plant is used to scale up the processes determined in the laboratory to simulate the processes to be used in an industrial processing plant,” said Bryan Schreiner, SRC minerals manager. “Modifications to the processes may be made to improve recovery and plant performance.”

The pilot plant’s throughput varies, but it averages around 100 kilograms per hour and can accommodate a wide range of metals and minerals, such as potash, uranium, gold, base metals, diamonds, coal, oil sands and rare earth metals. Switching from one commodity to another involves cleaning and inspections that require a few days to a week, Murray said.

The first trial for the pilot plant was small scale, but the SRC began a more ambitious project involving rare earth metals in March. Demand will fluctuate, Murray acknowledges, but it is expected to be substantial and could involve international clients. “We anticipate that it will go up and down a little bit with the mining cycle, but there was an unfulfilled need for both [the processing pilot plant and QEMSCAN], so we anticipate that they’ll be quite busy,” he explained. “We’ve already got quite a few interested companies lined up to use the processing plant and that, in turn, drives some work for the QEMSCAN as well.”

“We try to respond quickly to evolving industry demand,” Murray said. “QEMSCAN is a fairly new set of technologies and it’s really just getting a foothold in the industry, and people are starting to see the benefit of it.”

The services are available to industry at competitive rates designed to cover costs and leave enough to reinvest and stay on top of industry trends, according to Murray. It took $930,000 of SRC’s funds supplemented by the provincial and federal governments to make the pilot processing plant a reality. “We’re not trying to be predatory or undercut the industry in any way,” he pointed out.

With these two latest additions, SRC, owned by the provincial government, now offers a range of services that can guide industry from early day s of exploration through to mineral processing.

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