Swedish firm LKAB is now investing in pilot plant facilities and, together with environmental services company Ragn-Sells, will industrialise an innovative technology for upgrading mine waste from iron ore production. This may result in LKAB producing phosphorus and rare earth metals - which in the EU are classed as strategic minerals that are of particular importance to the industry.
Phosphorus is used mainly in the production of mineral fertilisers. Within the EU there is currently only one producer that mines its own resources; all other production is dependent on imported material. LKAB believes that it can establish production corresponding to more than five times Sweden’s annual demand.
Rare earth metals are now produced almost exclusively in China, which accounts for about 95% of production. The EU is 100% import-dependent.
“LKAB’s ores contain the phosphate mineral apatite, as well as rare earth minerals. It has not been profitable to extract these from waste materials and they are part of the material that is currently deposited in sand tailings ponds. Together with Ragn-Sells, we are creating conditions for industrialising a profitable extraction process. We will then build full-scale plants, where the tailings sand can be recirculated and processed into strategically important minerals without the need to develop new mines,” explains Jan Moström, LKAB’s president and CEO.
An important component is the KMAP process, which has been developed by EasyMining, a subsidiary of Ragn-Sells. The process uses the novel CleanMAP technology, which is a very energy-efficient way of producing pure ammonium phosphate, phosphorus fertiliser, and is better than any comparable technology. Via a chemical process, phosphates are separated from the toxic fluoride and arsenic, which are thereby removed from the ecocycle. Rare earth metals can also be separated from the mine waste.
Initially, two pilot facilities are planned: one plant in Sweden’s orefields to produce an apatite concentrate and one plant, possibly in Uppsala, to upgrade the concentrate. Both plants will be commissioned in 2019 and will operate until 2020. During this period the team will begin dialogue with supervisory authorities and other stakeholders with an aim to locating production in Norrbotten adjacent to thw existing logistics system.
“We are pleased to be able, together with LKAB, to take the first step towards extraction of more resources from what is now considered mine waste, since we must be particularly careful with material that has been removed from the Earth’s crust,” says Lars Lindén, Group CEO, Ragn-Sells.
LKAB has a great deal of epxerience in maximising resource utilisation by upgrading residual products and commercialising them via operations within the Special Products Division, headed up by Leif Boström.
“We now use both highly upgraded iron ore and residual products from LKAB’s production, such as mixed ores and waste rock, to create products for industrial use, for example, ballast. Now our goal is to have a full-scale plant for production of ammonium phosphate and rare earth metals within five years,” explains Boström.
For LKAB, this production is important in many ways, according to Jan Moström. He says: “We take great responsibility for minimising our environmental impact and ensuring that all resources from mine operations are utilised to the greatest possible degree. In addition, this generates income streams that make LKAB stronger and less sensitive to fluctuating business cycles, since this market does not have the same cycles as the iron ore market.”