The Impala Platinum Limited Base Metals Refinery in Springs, South Africa, refines convertor matte containing base metals and PGM's (platinum group metals) using a hydrometallurgical process. In addition to a PGM-rich concentrate that is further refined, the Base Metals Refinery produces nickel (in powder or briquette form), copper cathodes and cobalt powder. Five leaching stages are utilized to remove the base metals and impurities from the PGM concentrate. The project described in this paper involves a radical redesign of the second stage leach autoclave with the aim of reducing maintenance costs and downtime, increasing throughput and ensuring a safer working environment.
The second stage leach process at the Base Metals Refinery, produces a PGM-rich residue through the extraction of copper and any remaining base metals from the first stage leach solid residue material. Leaching is performed in an autoclave operating at a pressure of 600 kPaG and a temperature of 140°C to 150°C. Concentrated H2SO4 is added to the feed to produce a solution with a free acid content between 10 and 30 g/L and a pH of less than 2. Oxygen is passed into the 1st and 2nd compartments of the autoclave.
As a result of the aggressive, highly oxidizing conditions within the autoclave, the original design utilized a heavy wall carbon steel shell with lead lining and two layers of acid bricks. The bricks acted as a wear resistant material and ensured a low surface temperature at the skin of the lead lining, whereas the lead lining acted as a corrosion barrier to protect the steel shell. These brick lined autoclaves were heavy, maintenance intensive and prone to catastrophic failure.
A radical autoclave redesign was needed to reduce the high costs of manufacturing, installation and operation. Finite element modelling was used to optimize the design and various high alloy materials were investigated for the application. Based on extensive test work, the carbon steel shell was replaced with duplex SAF 2205 stainless steel in the new design. The use of this highly corrosion resistant material, eliminates the need for the lead and brick linings and reduces the wall thickness requirements substantially, resulting in an increase in the available volume for the same external shell dimensions. The vessel is welded in circular sections to form an elongated, impermeable, cylindrical body, with several agitator nozzles and compartments.
The first new duplex stainless steel unit has been in continuous operation for more than 24 months and its performance has exceeded the highest expectations. The design was so successful that a patent has been registered. The major benefits of the new stainless steel design include increased throughput, improved performance, less downtime and a safer working environment. Lead has been eliminated and replaced with a more environmentally safe material, and the total lifespan of the vessel has been extended. In addition, the autoclave project has made significant developments in advancing the field of welding and optimizing the integrity of welding quality standards in South Africa.