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Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy

On-line version ISSN 2411-9717
Print version ISSN 0038-223X


EKSTEEN, J.J.; VAN BEEK, B  and  BEZUIDENHOUT, G.A. Cracking a hard nut: an overview of Lonmin's operations directed at smelting of UG2-rich concentrate blends. J. S. Afr. Inst. Min. Metall. [online]. 2011, vol.111, n.10, pp.681-690. ISSN 2411-9717.

Lonmin, earlier than any other primary platinum producer, had to deal with the concentrating and smelting of UG2-rich ores and concentrates respectively. Smelting was performed at a fairly modest scale compared to the company's industry peers in the platinum group metals (PGMs) industry, and was focused on smelting concentrates obtained through low mass pulls while still maintaining high recoveries at its concentrators. Lonmin gradually smelted larger quantities of UG2 concentrates. Initially two 2.3 MW Infurnco furnaces were commissioned in 1982, followed by three 5 MW circular 3-electrode Pyromet furnaces in 1991. Deep electrode immersions and moderately high hearth power densities were used in all the designs. Lonmin decided to continue with circular furnace technology when it planned its new high-intensity No. 1 Furnace. Neither Lonmin nor the technology supplier and EPCM company foresaw the challenges that scale-up would bring when applied to the smelting of UG2-rich concentrate blends. Superimposed on the high chromite content, was the low base-metal loading, mineralogical difficulties, and fine particle size that resulted from milling of all concentrates (especially UG2 and recycle materials within the smelter). Through a process of fundamental diagnoses of furnace run-outs and wear patterns observed during repairs, the main challenges operating this high-intensity furnace were identified as sulphur vapour corrosion of the copper coolers, uneven and unpredicted movements of refractory bricks with associated copper cooler lift and matte tapblock movement, the formation of three-phase 'mushy' zones, high refractory and taphole wear rates, uncertainty in matte level and associated insufficient matte buffer height, and high furnace operating temperatures. These factors seldom worked in isolation and will be explored in more detail in the paper. The variability in furnace feed characteristics led Lonmin to redesign Furnace No. 1, to invest in backup furnace capacity, and to invest in improved monitoring and control. These improvements consisted of online and high-frequency off-line monitoring of feed chemistry and mineralogy, online pressure monitoring of watercooled circuits, an alternative matte liquid level measurement in the furnace, and electrode immersion estimation. Improvements were also made at the converters by installing and utilizing optical spectral analysis of the converter flame to characterize converter behaviour and achieve the desired iron end-point for white matte. This paper also briefly discusses the current and future expansion plans, as well as ancillary operations at the smelter such as flue-gas handling and materials handling.

Keywords : pyrometallurgy; furnace; Lonmin; platinum; PGM; UG2.

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