Hydrometallurgy is part of the field of extractive metallurgy involving the use of aqueous chemistry for the recovery of metals from ores, concentrates, and recycled or residual materials. Hydrometallurgy is typically divided into three general areas:
Leaching involves the use of aqueous solutions containing a lixiviant which is brought into contact with a material containing a valuable metal. The lixiviant in solution may be acidic or basic in nature. The type and concentration of the lixiviant is normally controlled to allow some degree of selectivity for the metal or metals that are to be recovered. In the leaching process, oxidation potential, temperature, and pH of the solution are important parameters, and are often manipulated to optimize dissolution of the desired metal component into the aqueous phase.
The three basic leaching techniques are in-situ leaching, heap leaching, and vat leaching.
In-situ leaching is also called "solution mining." The process initially involves drilling of holes into the ore deposit. Explosives or hydraulic fracturing are used to create open pathways within the deposit for solution to penetrate into. Leaching solution is pumped into the deposit where it makes contact with the ore. The solution is then collected and processed. The Beverley uranium deposit is an example of in-situ leaching.
In heap leaching processes, crushed (and sometimes agglomerated) ore is piled in a heap which is lined with an impervious layer. Leach solution is sprayed over the top of the heap, and allowed to percolate downward through the heap. The heap design usually incorporates collection sumps which allow the "pregnant" leach solution (i.e. solution with dissolved valuable metals) to be pumped for further processing.
Dump leaching combines characteristics of heap leaching and in-situ leaching. In a dump leach, an impervious layer may or may not be used depending on the dump location. Ore is dumped to allow processing similar to heap leaching, but the physical characteristics of the location allow for a valley or pit to act as the sump.
Vat leaching involves contacting material, which has usually undergone size reduction and classification, with leach solution in large tanks or vats. Often the vats are equipped with agitators to keep the solids in suspension in the vats and improve the solid to liquid contact. After vat leaching, the leached solids and pregnant solution are usually separated prior to further processing.
In some cases, special leaching processes are required due to refractory nature of the material. These techniques include pressure or autoclave leaching and concentrate leaching.
After leaching, the leach liquor must normally undergo concentration of the metal ions that are to be recovered. Additionally, some undesirable metals may have also been taken into solution during the leach process. The solution is often purified to eliminate the undesirable components. The processes employed for solution concentration and purification include:
A mixture of an extractant in a diluent is used to extract a metal from one phase to another. In solvent extraction this mixture is often referred to as the "organic" because the main constituent (diluent) is some type of oil.
The PLS (pregnant leach solution) is mixed to emulsification with the stripped organic and allowed to separate. The metal will be exchanged from the PLS to the organic. The resulting streams will be a loaded organic and a raffinate. When dealing with electrowinning, the loaded organic is then mixed to emulsification with a lean electrolyte and allowed to separate. The metal will be exchanged from the organic to the electrolyte. The resulting streams will be a stripped organic and a rich electrolyte. The organic stream is recycled through the solvent extraction process while the aqueous streams cycle through leaching and electrowinning processes respectively.
Chelating agents, natural zeolite, activated carbon, resins, and liquid organics impregnated with chelating agents are all used to exchange cations or anions with the solution. Selectivity and recovery are a function of the reagents used and the contaminants present.
Metal recovery is the final step in a hydrometallurgical process. Metals suitable for sale as raw materials are often directly produced in the metal recovery step. Sometimes, however, further refining is required if ultra-high purity metals are to be produced. The primary types of metal recovery processes are electrolysis, gaseous reduction, and precipitation.
Electrowinning and electrorefining respectively involve the recovery and purification of metals using electrodeposition of metals at the cathode, and either metal dissolution or a competing oxidation reaction at the anode.
Precipitation in hydrometallurgy involves the chemical precipitation of either metals and their compounds or of the contaminants from aqueous solutions. Precipitation will proceed when, through reagent addition, evaporation, pH change or temperature manipulation, any given species exceeds its limit of solubility. In order to improve efficiency in downstream processes, seeding to initiate crystallization is often used.