Copper Mining  Elmhurst College
Ore Crushing Water Reclamation/Tailings Copper Smelter  Chemistry Department
Flotation Ray Mine & Smelter  Electrorefining  Virtual ChemBook

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Copper Electrorefining - Last step

The end result of of the copper smelter operations is anode copper which is 99% pure (see graphic on the left). An example where copper is further purified is at the Asarco electrolytic plant in Amarillo, Texas.
The 99% pure copper from the anode furnace is cast into 750-pound, 3-inch thick, rectangular slabs called anodes.
The final step is a process called electrorefining. This is done by electrolysis where the copper anodes from the smelter become positive electrodes and thin, three-foot square sheets of pure copper are used as negative electrodes. Forty-five anodes and 46 cathodes are interleaved and immersed in an electrolysis tank filled with a solution of sulfuric acid and copper(II) sulfate.
Oxidation occurs at the anode, where copper metal is converted to copper(II) ions with the release of two electrons. At the cathode the opposite reaction occurs: copper(II) ions are joined with two electrons to form copper metal. During the migration of metal ions from anode to cathode through the aqueous solution, the impurities drop to the bottom of the electrolysis cell. Some of these impurities are gold, silver, nickel, selenium, tellurium, and platinum which are themselves recovered to be used.
After two weeks, the cathodes are pulled from the tank- -- each one about 350 pounds of 99.99% pure copper. These are washed, bundled, and sold. A new set of cathode starter sheets is inserted and the process continues. After two more weeks, the second set of cathodes is pulled and the remainder of the anodes are melted and cast into new full-size anodes.
Anode - oxidation: Cu metal (impure)---> Cu+2 + 2 electrons
Cathode - reduction: Cu+2 + 2 electrons ---> Cu metal (pure)

In-situ Copper Mining:

Another type of mining being tried by BHP at Florence, AZ is in-situ copper mining. A weak acid solution is injected in wells to dissolve the copper in the ore without removing it. The concentrated copper solution is then pumped out of recovery wells.
Hydrometallurgical routes have become more popular to research because: energy costs are lower; more pollution-conscious communities require "zero discharge" type conditions; whether for air or water, as smelting processes are made "leak proof" the impurities become a problem by concentrating in the copper; hydrometallurgical processes can separate impurities better; the operating temperatures are lower making pilot plants easier to operate; sulfur dioxide is a gas that has to be made into acid. (Elemental sulfur is formed in hydrometallurgical processes.)

Hydrometallurgical methods of concentrating copper from low grade ores:
The leaching of the "oxide" materials is relatively easy and relies on dump, vat and agitation leaching using dilute sulfuric acid solutions.

Both the Asarco Ray Mine and the Silverbell Mine are leaching low-grade copper with weakly acidic solutions. Silverbell produces 50 tons of SX/EW copper per day (design capacity).
Leaching Copper Ore - Arizona Mining Association
Leaching sulfide materials, whether in ore or concentrate, requires a chemical oxidizing agent ­ ferric ions (Fe+3). These special ferric ions can be generated by reactions with air. The oxidation can be assisted by either pressure (as in an autoclave) or more commonly with bacteria. The importance of the bacteria and our understanding of their potential only introduces an extra variable into the process. But different copper minerals require different conditions to extract the copper.
However, sulfuric acid is not the only reagent that can dissolve copper from concentrate. For example, BHP has already patented a process using ammonia to dissolve part of the copper concentrate. (This is the basis of the Coloso cathode production plant in Chile.)
The Mission Mine has an an ore body with lots of limestone, which precludes using acid leaching. Leaching with NaOH was tried here in the 60's with costly success. It worked, but it cost more than the copper recovered was worth.

Copper Applications in
Mining & Extraction How Do They Do That?
In Situ Mining


November 1997

In-situ mining is designed to co-exist with other land uses, such as agriculture. The in-situ mine will typically consist of a series of injection wells (A) and recovery wells (B). The wells are built with acid-resistant concrete and a PVC casing. At the level where the drill hold penetrates the copper-bearing rock (C), perforations in the casing allow a weak acid solution to be pumped into the ore to dissolve the copper. Then the copper-rich solution is drawn up through the recovery wells for processing at a nearby SX-EW (Solvent Extraction, Electrowinning) facility.

This article is reprinted with permission from the publication, On CU, January - March, 1997, Vol. 1, No. 2.
On CU is the quarterly publication of
BHP Copper, a business group of
The Broken Hill Proprietary Corp., Ltd.

© 1997 BHP Copper
BHP Copper
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