THE BASIC PROCESSES OF GOLD RECOVERY INTRODUCTION
Man has held a fascination with recovering and acquiring gold almost since
the beginning of time. This paper will attempt to put the multitude of recovery
processes into a current day perspective.
An underlying theme of this paper is that the mineralogy of the ore will
determine the best recovery process and that metallurgical testing is almost
always required to optimize a recovery flowsheet.
The major categories of commercially viable recovery processes include the
Refractory ore processing
Cyanidation processes may include the following operations:
Agitated tank leaching
Carbon adsorption recovery
Zinc precipitation recovery
Carbon adsorption recovery may include the following alternatives:
Refractory ore processing methods almost always serve only one purpose, to
treat ores that will not liberate their values by conventional cyanide leaching.
The refractory ore treatment process is then followed by a conventional
cyanidation step. Refractory ore processing methods include:
Autoclaving (pressure oxidation)
Today, cyanide leaching is the method of choice for the recovery of most
of the world’s gold production. There are however, many other chemical
leaching processes that have been sporadically or historically used. In most
instances, cyanide leaching will provide a more technologically effective
and cost efficient method. Alternative lixiviants include:
Bromides (Acid and Alkaline)
Amalgamation is one of the oldest processes available. It relies upon the
contact of ore with mercury to form a gold-mercury amalgam. This process
is strongly out of favor with the major mining companies, due to the extremely
toxic nature of mercury and the processes inferior performance when compared
to the available alternatives. The process is still used extensively by artesian
mines in third world countries and at small “mom and pop” mines, due to its
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Gravity concentration processes rely on the principal that gold contained
within an ore body is higher in specific gravity than the host rocks that
contain the gold. Elemental gold has a specific gravity of 19.3, and typical
ore has a specific gravity of about 2.6. All gravity concentration devices
create movement between the gold and host rock particles in a manner to separate
the heavy pieces from the lighter pieces of material.
The prospector’s gold pan is the most familiar gravity concentration
device. To function properly, the ore must be broken down to particles small
enough to provide a significant specific gravity difference among the particles.
Placer mining has generally been where gravity concentrates have been most
widely applied. In a placer deposit, there has generally been a pre-concentration
of gold made naturally by gravity concentration due to ore particles being
transported by water. Mechanical concentration is used to continue the process
until sufficient concentration is obtained.
Gravity concentration works when gold is in a free elemental state in particles
large enough to allow mechanical concentration to occur.
The number of types of gravity concentration devised that have been used
is almost limitless. Some of the more popular ones are:
In addition to specific gravity differences, the performance of gravity
concentration is also affected by particle shape, as can be imagined by comparing
a falling leaf to a twig falling in air.
The performance of the various categories of gravity separators are as generally
depicted on the following illustration.
The process flowsheet generally consists of conditioning and sizing of the
feed material followed by ore or two stages of recovery.
The flotation process consists of producing a mineral concentrate through
the use of chemical conditioning agents followed by intense agitation and
air sparging of the agitated ore slurry to produce a mineral rich foam
concentrate. The process is said to have been invented by a miner who watched
the process happening while washing dirty work clothing in his home washing
Specific chemicals are added to either float (foam off) specific minerals
or to depress the flotation of other minerals. Several stages of processing
are generally involved with rough bulk flotation products being subjected
to additional flotation steps to increase product purity.
The flotation process in general does not float free gold particles but is
particularly effective when gold is associated with sulfide minerals such
as pyrites. In a typical pyrytic gold ore, the gold is encapsulated within
an iron sulfide crystal structure. Highly oxidized ores generally do not
respond well to flotation.
Advantages of the flotation process are that gold values are generally liberated
at a fairly coarse particle size (28 mesh) which means that ore grinding
costs are minimized. The reagents used for flotation are generally not toxic,
which means that tailings disposal costs are low.
Flotation will frequently be used when gold is recovered in conjunction with
other metals such as copper, lead, or zinc. Flotation concentrates are usually
sent to an off-site smelting facility for recovery of gold and base metals.
Cyanide leaching is frequently used in conjunction with flotation. Cyanidation
of flotation concentrates or flotation tailings is done depending upon the
specific mineralogy and flowsheet economics.
Cyanide leaching is the standard method used for recovering most of the gold
throughout the world today. The process originated around 1890 and quickly
replaced all competing technologies. The reason was strictly economical in
nature. Where amalgamation plants could recover about 60% of the gold present,
cyanide could recover about 90%. Because of the improved recovery, many of
the old tailings piles from other processes have been economically reprocessed
by cyanide leaching. Cyanide is as close to a “universal solvent” for gold
as has been developed. Other leaching reagents will only work on very specific
types of ore.
The standard cyanide leach process consists of grinding the ore to about
80% – 200 mesh, mixing the ore/water grinding slurry with about 2 pounds
per ton of sodium cyanide and enough quick lime to keep the pH of the solution
at about 11.0. At a slurry concentration of 50% solids, the slurry passes
through a series of agitated mixing tanks with a residence time of 24 hours.
The gold bearing liquid is then separated from the leached solids in thickener
tanks or vacuum filters, and the tailings are washed to remove gold and cyanide
prior to disposal. The separation and washing take place in a series of units
by a process referred to as counter current decantation (CCD). Gold is then
recovered from the pregnant solution by zinc precipitation and the solution
is recycled for reuse in leaching and grinding.
REFRACTORY ORE PROCESSING
The common definition of “refractory” gold ores, are those ores that do not
allow the recovery of gold by standard gravity concentration or direct cyanide
One major category of refractory ores are gold values contained within the
crystalline structure of sulfide minerals such as pyrite and arsenopyrite.
For cyanide to leach gold, the cyanide solution must come into direct contact
with gold molecules. With many sulfide ores, the ore cannot practically be
ground down fine enough to expose the gold particles. The objective of
pretreatment for these ores is to remove enough of the sulfide so that at
least a small portion of all gold particles are directly exposed to the elements.
Processes available for treatment all involve oxidation of sulfur to form
water soluble sulfates or sulfur dioxide. The main sulfur oxidation processes
Bio-oxidation: Bio-oxidation uses sulfur consuming bacteria in a water solution
to remove sulfur.
Pressure oxidation: Utilizes oxygen and heat under pressure in a liquid medium,
to effect oxidation of sulfur by way of a controlled chemical reaction. High
pressure autoclaves are used for the reactors. Reactor operation is under
alkaline or acidic conditions, depending upon the specific process.
Roasting: Roasting uses heat and air to burn away the sulfur from dry ore.
Roasting was the standard method for sulfur oxidation years ago when it was
considered environmentally acceptable to emit large quantities of sulfur
dioxide gas into the atmosphere. Today’s roasting plants employ elaborate
gas scrubbing systems that frequently produce sulfuric acid as a byproduct.
Chemical oxidation using nitric acid at ambient pressure and temperature
has also been used on a limited basis.
Other ore types considered refractory include:
Carbonaceous ores that allow cyanide to dissolve gold but quickly adsorb
gold back onto the active carbon in the ore. Treatment processes include
chlorination for carbon deactivation, roasting to burn away carbon and
carbon-in-leach which introduces competing high activity carbon to preferentially
adsorb gold that can be conveniently separated from the leach slurry.
Copper/gold ores that require uneconomically high quantities of cyanide to
process due to the solubility of copper in cyanide.
A multitude of other unfavorable constituents including pyrrhotite, tellurides,
antimony, and arsenic.
It should be noted that most of the refractory ore treatment processes are
expensive and frequently economical only with higher grade ores and high
Heap leaching was introduced in the 1970’s as a means to drastically
reduce gold recovery costs. This process has literally made many mines by
taking low grade geological resources and transforming them to the proven
ore category. Ore grades as low as 0.01 oz Au per ton have been economically
processed by heap leaching.
Heap leaching involves placing crushed or run of mine ore in a pile built
upon an impervious liner. Cyanide solution is distributed across the top
of the pile and the solution percolates down through the pile and leaches
out the gold. The gold laden pregnant solution drains out from the bottom
of the pile and is collected for gold recovery by either carbon adsorption
or zinc precipitation. The barren solution is then recycled to the pile.
Heap leaching generally requires 60 to 90 days for processing ore that could
be leached in 24 hours in a conventional agitated leach process. Gold recovery
is typically 70% as compared with 90% in an agitated leach plant. Even with
this inferior performance, the process has found wide favor, due to the vastly
reduced processing costs compared with agitated leaching.
The cost advantage areas are largely as follows:
Comminution: Where as heap leaching is typically done on –3/4 inch rock,
agitated leaching requires reduction to –200 mesh. This additional step
is typically done with large grinding mills that consume roughly one horsepower
per ton per day of capacity.
Solids liquid separation steps are not required for heap leaching.
Tailings disposal costs are quite high for a modern agitated leach plant.
Large expensive liquid containment dams are required. By comparison, heap
leach pads can generally be left in place after reclamation.
Disadvantages, in addition to lower recovery of heap leaching compared with
agitated leaching, include:
The stacked ore must be porous enough to allow solution to trickle through
it. There have been many recovery failures due to the inability to obtain
solution flow. This is widely experienced when ores have a high clay content.
This problem is often alleviated by agglomeration prior to heap stacking.
In areas of high rainfall, solution balance problems can arise, resulting
in the need to treat and discharge process water.
In extremely cold areas, heap freezing can result in periods of low recovery.
Operational procedure modifications such as subsurface solution application
have reduced, but not eliminated, this concern.
Ice and snow melting can result in excessive accumulation of leach solutions.
This concern can often be mitigated by use of diversion structures.
Quite frequently, mines will use agitated leaching for high grade ore and
heap leaching for marginal grade ores that otherwise would be considered
waste rock. A common recovery plant is often employed for both operations.
The traditional method for gold recovery from pregnant cyanide solutions
is zinc precipitation. Originally, solutions were passed through boxes containing
zinc metal shavings. Gold and silver would precipitate out of solution by
a simple replacement reaction procedure. Around 1920, zinc shaving precipitation
was replaced by the Merrill-Crowe method of zinc precipitation.
The Merrill-Crowe process starts with the filtration of pregnant solution
in media filters. Filter types used include pressure leaf filters, filter
presses, and vacuum leaf filters. Generally, a precoat of diatomaceous earth
is used to produce a sparkling clear solution.
Clarified solution is then passed through a vacuum deaeration tower where
oxygen is removed from the solution.
Zinc powder is then added to the solution with a dry chemical feeder and
a zinc emulsification cone. The reaction of the special fine powder zinc
with the solution is almost instantaneous.
Precipitated gold is then typically recovered in a recessed plate or plate
and frame filter press.
CARBON ADSORPTION RECOVERY
Granular coconut shell activated carbon, is widely used for recovery of gold
from cyanide solutions. The process can be applied to clean solutions through
fluidized bed adsorption columns, or directly to leached ore slurries by
the addition of carbon to agitated slurry tanks, followed by separation of
the carbon from the slurry by coarse screening methods.
Gold cyanide is adsorbed into the pores of activated carbon, resulting in
a process solution that is devoid of gold. The loaded carbon is heated by
a strong solution of hot caustic and cyanide to reverse the adsorption process
and strip the carbon of gold. Gold is then removed from the solution by
electrowinning. Stripped carbon is returned to adsorption for reuse.
The major advantage of carbon-in-pulp recovery over Merrill Crowe recovery
is the elimination of the leached ore solids and liquid separation unit
operation. The separation step typically involves a series of expensive gravity
separation thickeners or continuous filters arranged for countercurrent washing
or filtration of the solids. For ores exhibiting slow settling or filtration
rates, such as ores with high clay content, the countercurrent decantation
(CCD) step can become cost prohibitive.
Ores with high silver content will generally suggest that Merrill-Crowe recovery
be used. This is because of the very large carbon stripping and electrowinning
systems required for processing large quantities of silver. The typical rule
of thumb states that economic silver to gold ratios of greater than 4 to
1, will favor installation of a Merrill-Crowe system, but this decision can
be altered if the ore exhibits very slow settling rates.
There are several variations to the carbon adsorption process including:
1. Carbon-In-Column (CIC): With carbon-in-column operation, solution flows
through a series of fluidized bed columns in an upflow direction. Columns
are most frequently open topped, but closed top pressurized columns are
Carbon columns are most commonly used to recover gold and silver from heap
leach solutions. The major advantage of fluidized bed carbon columns is their
ability to process solutions that contain as much as 2 to 3 wt% solids. Heap
leach solutions are frequently high in solids due to fine particle washing
from heaps. Down flow carbon columns are rarely used for gold recovery, because
they act like sand filters and are subsequently subject to frequent plugging.
2. Carbon-In-Pulp (CIP): Carbon-in-pulp operation is a variation of the
conventional cyanidation process. Ore is crushed, finely ground, and cyanide
leached in a series of agitated tanks to solubilize the gold values. Instead
of separating solids from the pregnant solution, as in the traditional
cyanidation process, granular activated carbon is added to the leached slurry.
The carbon adsorbs the gold from the slurry solution and is removed from
the slurry by coarse screening. In practice, this is accomplished by a series
of five or six agitated tanks where carbon and ore slurry are contacted in
a staged countercurrent manner.
This greatly increases the possible gold loading onto the carbon while
maintaining a high recovery percentage. Carbon is retained within the individual
CIP tanks by CIP tank screens. The opening size of the CIP tank screens is
such that the finely ground ore particles will pass through the screens,
but the coarse carbon will not. Almost every imaginable type of screen has
been tried for this application, with some types being much more successful
than the rest.
3. Carbon-In-Leach (CIL): The carbon-in-leach process integrates leaching
and carbon-in-pulp into a single unit process operation. Leach tanks are
fitted with carbon retention screens and the CIP tanks are eliminated. Carbon
is added in leach so that the gold is adsorbed onto carbon almost as soon
as it is dissolved by the cyanide solution. The CIL process is frequently
used when native carbon is present in the gold ore. This native carbon will
adsorb the leached gold and prevent its recovery. This phenomenon is referred
to commonly as “preg-robbing”. The carbon added in CIL is more active than
native carbon, so the gold will be preferentially adsorbed by carbon that
can be recovered for stripping. The CIL process will frequently be used in
small cyanide mills to reduce the complexity and cost of the circuit.
There are several disadvantages to CIL compared with CIP. Carbon loading
will be 20 to 30% less than with CIP, which means more carbon has to be stripped.
(This disadvantage may be overcome by a hybrid circuit, incorporating a cross
between CIL and CIP.) The CIL process requires a larger carbon inventory
in the circuit, which results in a larger in-process tie up of gold. The
larger carbon inventory can also result in higher carbon (and gold) losses
through carbon attrition.