November 2010

An elegant alternative to smelting

Chalcopyrite leaching process leaves a smaller footprint

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

Unassisted chalcopyrite leaching

 Galvanically-assisted chalcopyrite leaching

Galvanically-assisted chalcopyrite leaching

Back in 2003, David Dixon, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Materials Engineering, and then PhD student Alain Tshilombo were conducting research on the kinetics of leaching chalcopyrite, the major source of copper.

“Alain ran some experiments to measure kinetics and to bolster an electrochemical model he was developing,” says Dixon. “And basically the experiments worked way better than we expected. I looked at the data and it was so obvious to me there was a process buried in there.”

By June 2004, the researchers had unburied that revolutionary hydrometallurgical process and patented it as Galvanox™. It was a process they believed could offer an economical and a more environmentally responsible alternative to smelting, something which existing hydrometallurgical processes had not succeeded in doing to date on a widespread basis. As a result, approximately 80 per cent of world copper production is still produced by smelting chalcopyrite concentrates.

“The efficient and easy and convenient hydrometallurgical treatment of chalcopyrite has been called the ‘Holy Grail’ of hydrometallurgy,” says Dixon. “It was viewed as the ultimate goal. There’s a huge amount of research on the subject and most of it has been more tragedy than comedy. We sort of felt we’d found the Holy Grail. It’s so easy, so straightforward and the lowest cost of all the existing hydrometallurgical treatments.”

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