Tucked away in the shadow of the company’s smelter on the fringes of Sudbury, it was out of sight and out of mindeven within the city’s mining community.
All that is changing under Xstrata ownership. The Xstrata Process Control Centre, as it’s now known, has been given a new mandate to serve the global mining industry.
The ultra-modern 70,000-square foot facility is equipped with millions of dollars worth of sophisticated equipment, including two scanning electron microscopes and a pilot plant for testing new metallurgical processes.
“It’s a new and exciting world for us,” said Phil Thwaites, manager of the centre’s process control group.
The centre’s 55 engineers and technicians are still primarily focused on supporting former Falconbridge and Noranda operations, but are gradually beginning to expand their customer base to Xstrata’s larger footprint and other mining companies, including Barrick and Anglo-American.
In its original incarnation, the centre was limited to supporting Sudbury operations only, but in 1984, Falconbridge decided to centralize its research and development activities. It shut down a corporate-sponsored research centre in the Toronto area and transferred staff from a technology group in Timmins and from the former Noranda technology centre in Pointe Claire, Quebec, to Sudbury.
“So what you have here is the combination of expertise from Noranda, Kidd Creek and Falconbridge,” said Thwaites. The current, purpose-built facility came about as the result of a strategic planning exercise by develop processes for new orebodies, especially laterite orebodies.
The centre’s process mineralogy group offers a variety of services, including ore characterization, flotation test work, quantitative mineralogy and custom feed evaluation. The extractive metallurgy group performs on-site plant support, process modeling, and pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical test work on both a laboratory and pilot plant scale.
The process control group managed by Thwaites is focused on the optimization of processes, using sensors and instrumentation to improve efficiency and reduce waste.
The fourth group, materials technology, selects and specifies materials for plant equipment, tests materials for corrosion and wear and performs root cause failure investigations.
“If we can prevent a piece of equipment from failing in five years and get 10 years out of it by changing the material, we can eliminate downtime,” said Thwaites.
Materials specialists have the equipment and expertise to examine the crystal structures of equipment and parts that have succumbed to premature failure or corrosion, and recommend welding techniques, special coatings and the use of special alloys to repair or extend the life of plant assets.
The centre’s scanning electron microscopes are used to identify the mineral associations of ore samples and how to maximize metal recovery.
A pilot plant at the rear of the building contains roasters, autoclaves, leaching tanks and all of the other equipment generally found in pyrometallurgical and hydrometallurgical plants.
“Essentially, it’s a big open space with all of the essential services around the outside and overhead,” said Bob Howard, senior program metallurgist. “We set up and dismantle the equipment according to our program needs.”
Each piece of equipment sits on a steel
skid so it can be moved around as required. There is also an overhead crane and a control room equipped with all of the necessary instrumentation.
The centre evaluates ore samples from new discoveries as well as orbodies at existing operations.
“Each orebody is unique,” explained Thwaites. “As you mine an orebody over a period of time, there are differences as you go deeper, so it’s always important to understand the mineralogy, the liberation sizes of the minerals you’re extracting and the associations of some of the different impurities such as arsenic or selenium because orebodies are not homogeneous.”
Monitoring of ore samples allows metallurgists to tweak processes when ore characteristics change.
Just as important as maximizing recoveries are the challenges associated with controlling energy costs and emissions.
Xstrata Process Support personnel are able to troubleshoot some problems by remotely accessing process data from Xstrata plants. In other cases, metallurgists scope out issues onsite.
“Just yesterday, we had an engineer get on a plane to Australia to respond to a process condition because there was no one there to deal with it,” said Thwaites. “We have another guy in Vancouver working on a materials engineering problem with a supplier who is building a piece of equipment for the next shutdown in Timmins. We have two other individuals from the extractive metallurgy group in Australia, including one who is working on shift in a plant to get the operator’s perspective on an issue.”
The centre has a long list of patents and technology innovations. One of the most noteworthy is the so-called New Smelting Technology, or NST process, developed for the pyrometallurgical treatment of lateritic ore at the still to be developed Koniambo project in New Caledonia.
The new mandate for the process support centre dovetails with Xstrata’s approach to technology development as a for profit enterprise. Xstrata Technology, based in Brisbane, Australia, functions as a separate operating division marketing a portfolio of grinding, floatation, smelting, refining and leaching technologies, including IsaMill, Jameson cells, ISAMELT and the ISA Process. Focused to date on selling equipment, Xstrata Technology generated $120 million in revenue in 2006 and a profit of $22 million.
The Sudbury Process Support Centre complements the company’s Brisbane group and provides it with competencies it didn’t have prior to the acquisition of Falconbridge.
In keeping with Xstrata’s for profit approach to technology development, the Process Support Centre “is not a research facility developing new technology and wondering where to apply it,” said Thwaites.
“There is a client for all of the work that goes on here. We’re not doing theoretical research. There’s a practical problem, a practical need for everything we do.”