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The desert Skorpion

Situated in southern Namibia, the Skorpion Zinc operation is part of Anglo American’s base metals portfolio and is now operating at full capacity


Skorpion is the southern Namib desert

KORPION Zinc is located 85 km northeast of Oranjemund and 25 km north of the town of Rosh Pinah in southern Namibia, and stands out from other zinc operations for two main reasons. First, it exploits zinc carbonate and silicate minerals from an oxide deposit, not a zinc sulphide. Secondly, it produces high grade finished zinc metal for sale instead of concentrate, using an innovative solvent extraction electrowinning (SX-EW) metallurgical process. The operation consists of an open-pit mine, comminution, leach, purification SX-EW plants, plus a melting and casting section. Commercial production started in May 2003. The zinc ingots are exported through the port of Luderitz to Asian, European and North American markets in about equal proportions. The production results for the six months to June 2006 saw the mine operating at its full capacity of 12,500 t of SHG zinc per month. However, this was followed by a setback in August 2006, when an impurity excursion caused a severe disruption in the electrowinning plant and a temporary drop in production.


The deposit is situated in the southernmost part of the Namib desert. Weakly metamorphosed clastic sediments and limestone host the orebody, which is covered by a 20 m layer of windblown sand, boulders and calcrete. The deposit is part of the Skorpion belt – a series of zinc-lead and copper-barytes mineralisation, hosted in volcano-sedimentary rocks of the pan-African Gariep complex. The Skorpion zinc deposit itself represents a rifting phase and associated subaqueous, mixed siliciclastic-carbonate sedimentation. The ore-body is unusual in the zinc industry as it is an oxide deposit formed from the weathering of primary zinc sulphides. The zinc occurs in silicate and carbonate minerals such as smithsonite (zinc carbonate), hemimorphite (hydrous zinc silicate hydroxide) and hydrozincite (zinc carbonate hydroxide).


The deposit was originally discovered in the 1970s by Erongo Mining & Exploration (an Anglo plex rial view of Skorpion com Ae American subsidiary) but was not mined at that time due to the metallurgical complexities associated with the unconventional silicate/carbonate ores. The orebody itself was also considered too small to be economic in the market at the time. The UK’s Reunion Mining then entered the picture, forming an agreement with Anglo American under which it could earn a 60% interest in the deposit for conducting further drilling, geological work and producing


“The Skorpion zinc deposit itself represents a rifting phase and associated subaqueous, mixed siliciclasticcarbonate sedimentation”

a bankable feasibility study to develop a mine by September 2000. The study was completed in conjunction with Bateman Engineering by the end of 1998 and the metallurgical problems solved through an innovative hydrometallurgical testing and SX-EW process designed by Spain’s Tecnicas Reunidas and Union Miniere of Belgium. In 1999, Anglo then purchased the entire shareholding of Reunion Mining to obtain 100% ownership of the project. Following additional drilling and bulk sampling for a pilot plant, the decision to proceed was made in September 2000, approving the project at a capital cost of US$454 million. Two new companies were formed – Skorpion Mining Co to run the mine and Namzinc (Pty) Ltd to operate the refinery. Construction commenced in January 2001, with the main EPCM contract awarded to a joint venture between Bateman Engineering and SNC Lavalin. Anglo commenced with full commissioning in early 2003 and the first metal was produced on May 2, 2003. The mine now regularly runs at outputs greater than the design capacity of 12,500 t of zinc per month. The refinery is fed with approximately 130,000 t of ore per month from the open pit (typically from a total tonnage mined of 800,000 t of rock, including limestone. The mine itself is now 1 km long and 800 m wide at the extremities. Mining equipment at Skorpion is dominated by Caterpillar models. The fleet includes two excavators Continued on page 12 February 2007 Mining Magazine 11


Continued from page 11 – a 180 t Caterpillar 5130B face shovel and an 80 t 375B backhoe. These load a fleet of five 777D mine trucks. The 80 t backhoe is used mainly for selective mining purposes. Stockpile management and refinery feed is accomplished using a Caterpillar 992 and a Komatsu WA800 front end loader. The main blast hole drilling rig is an Ingersoll-Rand DM45 SP. Additional surface equipment includes two 38,000 l Caterpillar 769D water tankers, two Caterpillar 824G wheel dozers, a 14H motor grader and a 966F tyre handler. The ore is mined in 2.5 m or 5 m benches, depending on the ore variability in the area. Mined ore is stockpiled according to zinc content, with low-grade classified as 4% to 9%, medium-grade from 9% to 13%, and above 13% high-grade. A major issue with the ore is the fact that it is inter-fingered with limestone in what is a very complex body meaning that selective mining is always necessary to maintain grade control. As the process is an acid-leach process, it is essential to avoid as far as possible acid-consuming limestone getting to the plant. Although the SX/EW process has very stringent feed specifications, it does offer three main advantages. There is no ore roasting involved, nor the problem of disposing of excess sulphuric acid that is a by-product of sulphide-ore processing. Additionally, the major impurity is silica instead of iron so a second hot leach after the first neutral leach is not needed. The current mine life only extends to around 2016. A further but as yet undefined sulphide zinc deposit exists below the oxide ore-body but its position may be such that it could have to be mined using underground methods – the economic viability of this has yet to be fully assessed. There are two input streams from the mine to the mill – zinc ore and limestone. Ore and limestone are fed into separate crusher plants from a series of stockpiles. After being crushed to about 12 and 10 mm, respectively, the ore is fed into a stacker reclaimer unit for blending purposes and the limestone into a silo for buffer storage. From there the streams both feed forward into separate ball mills. The milled slurries are then thickened for feeding into the leach and neutralisation circuits. The zinc oxide minerals are not concentrated by flotation as is typical for sulphide ores. The absence of sulphides offers an advantage in that no sulphur or sulphuric acid disposal is required. The ore is leached directly in dilute sulphuric acid to produce zinc sulphate solution. It is not possible to directly win zinc from the sulphate solution due to the high chlorine and fluorine levels and other impurities contained in the Skorpion ore. These impurities cause anode and cathode corrosion and cathode stripping problems. The neutralisation thickener overflow solution containing the zinc is fed to the solvent extraction plant. A copper cementation circuit receives a portion of the pregnant liquor and contained copper impurities are removed through the addition of zinc dust. The solvent extraction circuit, within design limits, provides a buffer against such impurities and through the organic phase effectively prevents impurity carry-over into the pure electrolyte solution. The use of solvent extraction for the refining of zinc provides a viable method for the overall treatment of zinc oxides alternative to the conventional roastleach-electrowinning (RLE) circuits. The residue from the refinery process, being a relatively dry filter cake, is sent by conveyor belt to the

Skorpion 99.995% purity zinc ingots tailings dump some 3 km away. An effluent treatment plant receives plant spillages and precipitates any metals to produce a solution for re-use in the plant. The sulphuric acid plant is a sulphur burning plant, producing two types of acid – industrial and chemically pure. The waste heat generated from the acid plant is used to produce steam and keep the refinery circuits operating at design temperature. Loaded electrolyte, the pure acidic zinc solution from SX, is fed to a modern cell house. A reverse osmosis plant provides demineralised water to avoid impurities from the raw water supply to the sensitive circuits. During electrowinning, electricity is used to plate zinc out of the loaded electrolyte solution and onto solid cathodes. The zinc sheets produced are of special high-grade quality (99.995% pure zinc). These zinc cathode sheets are stripped out and then fed into melting furnaces. From here 25 kg ingots are cast for sale to the international markets. The zinc products are transported by truck to Luderitz where they are stored before shipment.



View of the acid plant, which produces waste heat used as steam in the refinery circuits

12 Mining Magazine February 2007