Extraction and separation of cobalt from acidic nickel laterite leach solutions using electrostatic pseudo liquid membrane (ESPLIM)
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Approximately 70% of the western world's known nickel reserves are contained in laterite ores, but only 30% of the world's nickel production comes from these ores. This is due to the lack of economically viable technology to extract the nickel from these ores. However, recent advances in pressure acid leaching technology have resulted in new commercial attempts to extract nickel and its valuable by-product, cobalt, from laterite ores. The commissioning of three nickel laterite projects in Western Australia in the late 1990s represents the first of these new generation nickel operations, with several other projects; in Australia and overseas, in various stages of development. Unfortunately, several technical issues have hindered full production in these new refineries. Some of these problems are directly attributable to the mixer-settler contactors used in the solvent extraction process. This has highlighted a need to develop alternative contactors for industrial use. Electrostatic Pseudo Liquid Membrane (ESPLIM) is an alternative, novel technique to conduct the solvent extraction process. It combines the basic principles of solvent extraction, liquid membrane and electrostatic dispersion into a simple, compact reactor that utilises many advantages of each technique. The aim of this study w as to develop a method of extracting and separating cobalt from an acidic nickel laterite leach solution using ESPLIM. Bench scale tests using synthetic and actual leach solutions have shown that: the design and construction materials of the baffle plate and electrodes have a significant effect on the performance of the reactor; an AC power supply provided better droplet dispersion than a DC power supply; an increase in the applied electric field strength above a critical value resulted in a decrease in the aqueous droplet size and an increase in residence tune.These effects increased the extraction efficiency and the concentration of the loaded strip solution. However, further increases in applied electric field strength decreased efficiency due to excessive levels of swelling and leakage; the known extraction isotherms for cobalt and nickel apply in the ESPLIM technique; salts of soluble organic acids influence extraction efficiency by changing the aqueous pH and interfacial tension; the use of ammonia was found to be effective as a replacement for salts of soluble organic acids; the ESPLIM reactor can cope with large changes in the flow rates of both feed and strip solutions. However, an increase in the feed flow rate should be accompanied by a relative increase in the ship flow rate to maintain high extraction efficiencies; the baffle design has a significant impact on the levels of swelling and leakage; provided the electrostatic field strength is maintained and flow rates are increased proportionately to the size of the reactor, no significant scale-up issues were observed, indicating that the data generated in bench scale studies could be applied to plant scale contactors. The optimum conditions, devised as a result of this investigation, to extract cobalt from an acidic nickel laterite leach solution using the ESPLIM technique are as follows: an applied electric field strength of 5.5 kV/cm. a raffinate pH of 5.5, a solvent containing 10% Cyanex 272 with 5% TBP in Solvent HF diluent, a feed to strip flow ratio of approximately 5 and a 1 M H[subscript]2S0[subscript]4 strip solution. At these conditions, almost complete cobalt extraction is achieved after only two extraction stages. A comparable extraction using conventional mixer-settlers could only be achieved after five stages.
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