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Int. J. Miner. Process.

84 (2007) 51 – 58

Gas dispersion measurements in flotation cells

C.O. Gomez ⁎, J.A. Finch
McGill University, Canada
Received 7 June 2006; received in revised form 30 January 2007; accepted 28 March 2007
Available online 12 April 2007


Progress in science and engineering relies on accurate and precise measurements. Flotation is no exception. It is arguable that
progress in both fundamental understanding (modeling) and plant practice has been limited by the lack of instruments and sensors
capable of functioning in operating flotation machines. The McGill Mineral Processing group has developed instruments and
procedures to measure three variables in industrial cells: superficial gas velocity, gas-holdup and bubble size distribution. This
communication describes advances on equipment and operating procedures, and introduces a protocol for sensor installation and
documentation that makes possible the correction of measurements to bubble-collection-point conditions.
© 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Flotation; Gas dispersion measurements; Gas velocity; Gas holdup; Bubble size

1. Gas dispersion sensors from some 20 sites on 5 continents have been collected
to date. The devices, initially designed for stationary
Gas dispersion is the collective term for superficial installation in flotation columns, were modified for
gas (air) velocity (or gas rate, volumetric air flow rate per sequential measurements in circuits of mechanical
unit cross-sectional area of cell, Jg), gas-holdup machines. The requirements were for compact, robust
(volumetric fraction of gas in a gas–slurry mix, εg), units that could be multiplexed and were adaptable for
and bubble size distribution (Db). The sensors and on-line measurement. The designs have been refined to
devices we have used to measure these variables in a point that continuous (gas velocity and gas holdup) or
flotation machines have been described in the literature relatively high frequency (bubble size) measurements
(Gomez and Finch, 2002). They have been used to are possible within the plant environment on individual
characterize gas dispersion in cells ranging from micro- and multiple flotation cells.
units (e.g. 50 mL Hallimond tube variations) to tank cells
up to 160 m3 in volume. 1.1. Gas velocity sensor (Fig. 1)
The emphasis here will be on developments since the
first review (Gomez and Finch, 2002) including The gas velocity sensor is an automated version of
integration of the measurements, and use of the units the inverted graduated cylinder used by plant engineers
to characterize the response of cells and circuits. Data in the past, i.e., it is based on the collection of bubbles
from the pulp zone into a vertical tube partially
⁎ Corresponding author. immersed in the cell (Gomez and Finch, 2002; Gomez
E-mail address: (C.O. Gomez). et al., 2003a). The sensor is constructed around a piece
0301-7516/$ - see front matter © 2007 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
52 C.O. Gomez, J.A. Finch / Int. J. Miner. Process. 84 (2007) 51–58

of PVC plastic tube of 10 cm diameter which is large et al., 2003). In this case the sensor includes two valves
enough to minimize bubble-sampling biases common in and is operated with valve A closed and valve B open to
small tubes. The collected bubbles rise until they reach direct air to the orifice until a steady state pressure is
the liquid surface in the tube and burst. If the tube is reached (rate of air entering the tube from the cell equals
closed at the top, the gas accumulates, pressure that leaving the tube through the orifice). From a prior
increases, and the slurry (and any froth layer) is pushed calibration of the flow through the orifice the volumetric
down the tube. The signals from pressure sensors are flow of air (and hence Jg after dividing by tube cross-
permanently recorded in a data collection computer. The sectional area) is known. A major advantage is that
rate of descent is related to the superficial gas velocity measurement of bulk density is not required, but practical
and can be monitored by the slope of the pressure limitations are that different orifices are required to cover
change (Gomez et al., 2003a). The measurement begins a range in Jg and sometimes froth builds in the tube and
when valve A (Fig. 1a) is closed to accumulate gas reaches the orifice which biases the measurement of the
within the tube and pressure increases, and ends when steady state pressure. Efforts to solve this latter problem
the tube is full of gas. Simultaneous measurements in are in progress.
many cells are possible by opening and closing
(manually or automatically using solenoid valves) the 1.2. Gas-holdup sensor (Fig. 2)
valves on the tubes installed in each cell.
Calculation of the gas velocity from the rate of Gas holdup represents the volumetric proportion of
pressure change requires the bulk density of the fluid gas in the pulp. The sensor is based on Maxwell's model
(aerated pulp) which provides the backpressure to the that relates the concentration of a non-conducting
gas accumulating in the tube. By including a second dispersed phase to the conductivities of the continuous
tube (Fig. 1a) with its bottom end closer to the pulp/froth phase and the dispersion (Tavera et al., 1996). This
interface and with valve B closed (i.e., second tube is means two measurements, made in two tubes (flow
always full of air) then, knowing the immersion length cells), one that measures the conductivity of aerated
difference between the two tubes, the bulk density can slurry and the second, by inducing a siphon action to
be calculated from the pressure difference measured eliminate the bubbles, measures the conductivity of the
after the first tube fills with gas (this second tube is air-free slurry (Fig. 2). The ratio of the two signals is used
referred to as the “bubbler” tube to distinguish from the to solve Maxwell's model to estimate the fraction of non-
original “sensor” tube). conducting phase (i.e., gas holdup) in the dispersion.
A continuous version of the sensor based on the use of The conductivity cells (note Fig. 2) have 3 concentric
an orifice has been developed (Fig. 1b) (Torrealba-Vargas conductivity rings the two outer at the same polarity to

Fig. 1. Schematic of the two versions of the gas velocity sensor.

C.O. Gomez, J.A. Finch / Int. J. Miner. Process. 84 (2007) 51–58 53

Fig. 2. Schematics and picture of the gas-holdup sensor showing details of the open and siphon conductivity cells.

constrain the field inside the cell. Some prior knowledge they are exposed under pre-set lighting conditions to be
of the pulp liquid-phase conductivity, which in plants imaged (Fig. 4). Operation follows a sequence of steps
with highly saline pulps may reach 100 mS/cm, is to create a continuous flow of rising bubbles through the
needed to setup the conductivity meter. Fluctuations in chamber. The unit is initially filled with water through
pulp conductivity during measurements are not a the top opening (normally plant process water) to
problem since the technique is one of relative difference provide the liquid column in which the bubbles rise to
between the open and siphon cells, and not absolute provide a clear image (particles in the slurry do not enter
values (Gomez et al., 2003b). The method gives a the unit) for up to several minutes (till particles
continuous signal. dislodged from bursting bubbles cloud the viewing
The key for effective operation lies in excluding chamber). As a consequence of its elevated location
bubbles from the siphon cell. The cell design (a conical above the flotation cell pulp level, the pressure inside the
bottom) is a consequence of this requirement. The viewing chamber remains below atmospheric during
conical opening hinders entry of rising bubbles, and the operation.
cell contents quickly develop a higher density than the Although the accuracy of the technique is hard to
dispersion outside the cell, generating a flow out establish (there is no ‘gold standard’ against which to
through the bottom opening, replenished by pulp from compare) the approach is now widely used, and
the top, which completes the exclusion of bubbles from continues to evolve as improvements dictated by field
the siphon cell. To ensure that no bubbles are entrained experiences are implemented. The characteristic that
into the cell from the top, the pulp velocity entering the distinguishes the technique is the quality of the images
top of the cell must be lower than the terminal velocity
of the smallest size bubble present in the system. This
condition is met by selecting the bottom-opening size.

1.3. Bubble size measurement (Fig. 3)

Bubble size (Db) measurement is a full characteriza-

tion of the entire size distribution made from images
collected using McGill's unique bubble-viewing cham-
ber (Hernandez-Aguilar et al., 2002). The viewing
chamber (and camera and light source) is mounted on an
aluminum frame to facilitate installation and operation
(Fig. 3). In operation, bubbles are collected via a
sampling tube and directed into a viewing area where Fig. 3. Schematics of bubble viewer depicting main components.
54 C.O. Gomez, J.A. Finch / Int. J. Miner. Process. 84 (2007) 51–58

Fig. 4. Bubble viewer in operation.

attained by photographing bubbles against backlighting axes are determined for every object discriminated. The
(i.e., the bubble shadow is imaged) as they slide up a 15- processing requires the selection of threshold (maximum
degree sloped window. This window spreads the bubbles grayscale intensity value of a pixel to discriminate objects
into a near monolayer, providing both an unambiguous from background), and up to six bubble selection criteria
plane of focus and reducing bubble overlap and ‘ghost’ (e.g., minimum major and minor axes size, aspect ratio
images of bubbles in the background. range, and shape factor) to establish what objects are
The measurement involves three steps: image collec- bubbles. In industrial measurements, as the collection of
tion, image processing, and data analysis; progress in images advances, solid particles released when the
each area has been substantial. In image collection, the bubbles burst at the surface of the liquid in the viewing
latest cylindrical bubble viewer design and the support chamber progressively reduce the background light in-
structure automates integration with the video-camera tensity, and the threshold needs continual adjustment. The
and light source while facilitating transportation, instal- software includes an option to process with a threshold
lation and cleaning of the unit between measurements. automatically calculated for every image utilizing an
Safety issues related to window integrity have been algorithm based on the picture intensity histogram.
addressed by incorporating a pressure relief valve and Processing starts by creating a binary image when pixel
using tempered glass. Software has been developed to intensities are compared to the threshold (pixels with
drive the camera for collecting, naming, and storing values below or equal to the threshold are given a value of
images at a user-defined rate and directly in the format 1, while those with higher values are given a value of 0).
necessary for image processing (lengthy image transfer Groups of adjacent ‘1’ pixels are considered objects. Two-
and digitization are no longer required). Parameters to dimensional properties of individual objects are derived
consider during image collection are magnification from the pixel arrangement and converted to sizes using
(normally 25 pixels/mm in plant work), and image the magnification. Objects complying with all selection
number and frequency (normally five hundred at a rate of criteria are accepted as bubbles.
two every second). Experience has demonstrated that the Use of a magnification of 25 pixels/mm means
most effective way of operating the camera is using a minimum bubble sizes of around 0.2 mm (smallest
fixed shutter speed (1/1000 or 1/2000 of a second, circular object is considered to be 5 pixels in diameter).
depending on the intensity of the light) in auto-iris mode. As the number of bubbles counted is normally between
In image processing, software developed at McGill five and ten thousand, the information generated in a
drives Northern Eclipse, a commercial image analysis single test is massive (an eighteen-column Excel file
program, to automatically handle all images collected in with as many rows as bubbles counted). To facilitate
one measurement. For every image (for the camera examination of the files, software was developed to
currently in use, a set of positioned pixels in a matrix of calculate, analyze and display size distributions from the
720 × 535 elements each representing light intensity files stored in a Windows subdirectory. The program
through a grayscale value from black 0 to white 255), retrieves the data and, based on the equivalent diameter
properties such as area, perimeter, and minor and major (diameter of a circle with the same area as that exposed
C.O. Gomez, J.A. Finch / Int. J. Miner. Process. 84 (2007) 51–58 55

in the image), sorts the bubbles into frequency mass of gas depends on its pressure and temperature, gas
distributions with bin sizes (arithmetic or geometric dispersion measurements will be affected by the location
intervals) defined by the user. Frequency and cumula- and geometry of the sensors. At the same time, as the
tive size distributions are displayed in plots with both conditions existing at the measurement points are not the
linear and logarithmic size scales, and average diameters same for the three sensors (and are different from those
such as D10 or D32 are calculated as well. A useful prevailing within the flotation cell at the bubble-
option for comparison purposes is the simultaneous collection point), corrections are necessary. In bubble
display of up to five size distributions, in frequency or size determination, for example, diameters are measured
cumulative form. from images of bubbles in the bubble viewer which
operates under vacuum; bubbles are larger than their
2. Sensor installation sizes in the cell. A similar situation occurs with the
measurement of gas velocity where a volume of gas is
The literature includes several reports of measure- accumulated under variable pressure at conditions
ments performed during the development stage of the different from those existing at the location where
sensors. As the sensors became more robust and reliable bubbles enter the tube. Corrections to common condi-
for use in industrial cells, simultaneous measurements to tions are straightforward for bubble size and gas velocity
characterize gas dispersion demonstrated that an instal- by applying Boyle's law, given that air behaves as an
lation strategy was necessary. Because the volume of a ideal gas under flotation conditions.

Fig. 5. Location of the sensors and relevant lengths and distances for calculation and correction of gas dispersion parameters.
56 C.O. Gomez, J.A. Finch / Int. J. Miner. Process. 84 (2007) 51–58

Installation of the gas dispersion sensors during cell our practice to use an average of the distance before and
characterization exercises requires careful documenta- after images are collected.
tion to be effective; integration of the gas dispersion
results with metallurgical data requires information 3. Calculation and correction of gas dispersion
collected at the same time under strictly controlled measurements
conditions. An adequate response to the non-homoge-
neity of gas dispersion in industrial cells is to locate all 3.1. Gas velocity
sensors as close together as possible.
Respecting the inevitable restrictions imposed by Operation of the double-tube sensor provides the data
local situations, it is recommended that sensors are for calculating gas velocity. The data, pressure vs. time
operated through the same sampling port, to collect in both tubes, is processed to derive the slope dp / dt
bubbles from the same radial position at the same depth (normally an average of five values) and then to derive
(Fig. 5) to facilitate correction of measurements to cell the average of pressures p1 and p2 when both tubes are
conditions. In general, similar results are obtained at the full of air. The bulk density is first calculated from
same radial distance, but relative distance to baffles or to averages of the pressures p1 and p2, and the immersed
the feed entrance, or different impeller rotation direction length difference between the sensor and bubbler tubes
in two cells may lead to different values. In the case of (HBD):
depth, installation must be carefully selected consider- p1  p2
ing that there will be only one position where the three ρb ¼ ð1Þ
gas dispersion parameters will be known (reference
plane in Fig. 5 at the middle ring of the gas-holdup open The gas velocity calculation is based on the following
cell). Although gas velocity and bubble size can be equation relating this variable to the slope of the pressure
easily corrected to different depths our current inability vs. time curve when the gas is accumulating in the tube.
to do the same for gas holdup makes this reference depth This equation was obtained applying a mass balance to
unique. No method has been found to correct a gas the tube volume filled with gas (a cylinder with variable
holdup resulting from the flow of a swarm of different volume and pressure), and using the ideal gas equation to
diameter bubbles. relate mass to pressure and volume, and the weight of a
To try to have all sensors sampling the same bubble column of fluid to relate pressure to volume:
population, the gas velocity sensor and the bubble
viewer are installed with the bottom end of their Patm þ ρb HL dp
Jg;L ¼ ðcm=sÞ ð2Þ
sampling tubes immersed to the same depth as that of ρb ½Patm þ ρb ðHL  HO Þ dt
the open cell of the gas-holdup sensor (Fig. 5). The
second tube (bubbler) used to measure the bulk density Distances (defined in Fig. 5) are measured in cm,
(required for the dispersion above the bottom end of the while pressures pi are manometric and Pi are absolutes,
gas velocity sensor tube) is installed at about 0.25 m both in cm H2O. The calculated gas velocity Jg.L
below the interface (or about 0.5 m below the cell lip if corresponds to that entering the sensor tube at a depth
froth depth is unknown), with a recommended minimum (HL − HO). To correct the measured gas velocity to a
immersed length difference (HBD) of 0.5 m. different location (different hydrostatic pressure) Boy-
Calculations and corrections of the measurements le's law is used. To calculate, for example, the gas
require some of the distances indicated in Fig. 5: 1) total velocity at the reference plane (Jg,ref) the following
length of the Jg sensor tube (HL); 2) length of the sensor equation is used:
tube above the cell overflow (HO); 3) immersed length PL Patm þ p1
Jg;ref ¼ Jg;L ¼ Jg;L ð3Þ
difference between the Jg sensor and bubbler tubes Pref Patm þ p1  ρb HE
(HBD); 4) distance between the middle ring and the
bottom end of the open cell in the gas-holdup sensor In plant measurements, gas velocities at the reference
(HE); 5) total length of the bubble viewer collection tube plane are typically about 3% larger than the values
(H1); 6) vertical distance between camera focal point obtained from Eq. (2).
and bottom of bubble viewer (H2); 7) vertical distance
between camera focal point and water level in the 3.2. Gas holdup
bubble viewer (H3); and 8), froth depth. There is a small
variation (a few cm) in H3 during measurement as more Gas holdup is calculated utilizing Maxwell's equa-
bubbles accumulate at the top of the bubble viewer; it is tion (Eq. (4)) with averages of the conductivity k over
C.O. Gomez, J.A. Finch / Int. J. Miner. Process. 84 (2007) 51–58 57

time (typically 5 min) for both the open and siphon cells, 4. Concluding statements
which measure the conductivity of the dispersion
(bubbles plus pulp) kd, and pulp only kp, respectively: Sensors for measuring superficial gas velocity, gas-
holdup and bubble size distribution in industrial flotation
1  kkdp
eg ¼ ð4Þ machines have been refined to a point that continuous
1 þ 0:5 kkdp (in the case of the gas velocity and gas holdup) or rela-
tively high frequency measurements are possible within
the plant environment on individual and multiple flotation
3.3. Bubble size cells. Hardware and software improvements have simpli-
fied measurement and reduced the time required for data
In the case of bubble size, images are collected at the processing. The techniques will continue to evolve as
point where the focal plane of the camera meets the modifications dictated by use are put into effect.
sloped window (a vertical distance H3 from the gas– As the sensors have become more robust and reliable,
liquid interface in the bubble viewer); at this point the simultaneous measurements were practiced to better
absolute pressure is below atmospheric. To correct characterize cell response to changes in operating
bubble sizes to the cell reference plane, the pressure in conditions. In response to the non-homogeneity of gas
the bubble viewer PBV needs to be measured, or in its dispersion in industrial cells an installation protocol,
absence, estimated from equalizing two hydrostatic which requires careful documentation to be effective,
pressures at the bubble-collection point, namely that was necessary to integrate measurements in one cell and
from the air-water column inside the bubble viewer and to compare with those collected in different units.
collection tube (water density assumed), and that from Gas dispersion measurements are affected by sensor
the pulp and froth column in the cell: location and geometry. Because the volume of a mass of
gas depends on its pressure and temperature, corrections
PBV þ ρH2 O ðH1 þ H2 þ H3 Þ ¼ Patm þ p1 ð5Þ are necessary. Conditions existing at the measurement
points are not the same for the three sensors, and are
The pressure p1 is known (measured to estimate the
different again from those prevailing within the cell at
bulk density) and with distances H1, H2, and H3 the
the bubble-collection point. Corrections are straightfor-
pressure in the bubble viewer can be calculated:
ward for bubble size and gas velocity by applying
Boyle's law, considering that air behaves as an ideal gas
PBV ¼ Patm þ p1  ρH2 O ðH1 þ H2 þ H3 Þ ð6Þ
under flotation conditions. However, no method is
Once PBV is known, measured bubble sizes Db,image available to correct gas holdup to conditions different
can be corrected to reference conditions (Db,ref) again from those existing at the measuring point. This makes
using Boyle's law: the location of the gas-holdup sensor the reference point.
rffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi sffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffiffi Standardization of sensor installation and correction
3 Pimage PBV þ ρH2 O H3 procedures has taken the technique to a stage where it
Db;ref ¼ Db;image ¼ Db;image

Pref Patm þ p1  ρb H3 can be effectively transferred to operations. Units have

ð7Þ been supplied to several groups along with training.
Work will continue towards our long-term goal,
In plant measurements, bubble sizes at the reference establishing a relationship between gas dispersion mea-
plane are about 8% smaller than the values obtained surements, notably bubble surface area flux, and metal-
directly from image analysis. lurgical performance.
Although the volume of gases is also affected by
temperature, no corrections for this variable are nor- Acknowledgements
mally applied because gas temperature differences are
usually not large. If large temperature differences are The effort and dedication of current and former
detected between the gas in the pulp and that accu- graduate students, Dr. Alejandro Uribe-Salas, Dr.
mulated during the measurement of Jg or Db, then a Francisco Tavera, Franklin Cortes-Lopez, Ralph
temperature correction in Eqs. (2), (3) and (7) has to be Dahlke, Marta Bailey, Dr. Jose Hernandez-Aguilar, Dr.
considered. It is recommended that pulp tempera- Jorge Torrealba-Vargas, Helin Girgin, Jason Doucet,
tures be measured in case results from cells in differ- Claudio Acuña and Davin Knuutila in the development
ent banks, circuits and plants need to be compared or and testing of these sensors is gratefully recognized.
related. Funding for sensor development is from two Natural
58 C.O. Gomez, J.A. Finch / Int. J. Miner. Process. 84 (2007) 51–58

Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Gomez, C.O., Cortes-Lopez, F., Finch, J.A., 2003b. Industrial testing
grants; one sponsored by Noranda, Inco, Falconbridge, of a gas holdup sensor for flotation systems. Minerals Engineering
3, 1703–1713.
Teck Cominco, COREM and SGS Lakefield Research, Hernandez-Aguilar, J.R., Gomez, C.O., Finch, J.A., 2002. A technique
and the other by Amira International under the P9N for the direct measurement of bubble size distribution in industrial
project, and is greatly appreciated. flotation cells. Proceedings 34th Annual Meeting of the Canadian
Mineral Processors. CIM, pp. 389–402.
Tavera, F.J., Gomez, C.O., Finch, J.A., 1996. Novel gas holdup probe
and application in flotation columns. Trans. Instn Min. Metall
(Sec. C: Mineral Process. Extr. Metall.), 105, pp. C99–C104.
Gomez, C.O., Finch, J.A., 2002. Gas dispersion measurements in
Torrealba-Vargas, J.A., Gomez, C.O., Finch, J.A., 2003. Continuous
flotation machines. CIM Bulletin 95 (1066), 73–38. air rate measurement in flotation cells: a step towards gas
Gomez, C.O., Torrealba-Vargas, J.A., Dahlke, R., Finch, J.A., 2003a. distribution management. In: Gomez, C.O., Barahona, C. (Eds.),
Measurement of gas velocity in industrial flotation cells. Proceedings Copper 2003. Mineral Processing, vol. 3, pp. 91–102.
In: Lorenzen, L., Bradshaw, D.J. (Eds.), Proceedings of the XXII
International Mineral Processing Congress, pp. 1703–1713.