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Sustainable processing of Europe's low-grade sulphidic and lateritic nickel/cobalt ores and tailings into battery-grade metals

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ENICON (Sustainable processing of Europe's low-grade sulphidic and lateritic nickel/cobalt ores and tailings into battery-grade metals)

Reporting period: 2022-06-01 to 2023-11-30

The cobalt (Co) and nickel (Ni) demand is expected to be about 20 times higher in 2040 than in 2020. Given that Europe plays only a minor role in the global Ni/Co supply chains, which are concentrated in the DRC, Indonesia and China, we face a serious problem in securing a reliable, affordable and sustainable supply of battery-grade Ni/Co, vital for Europe’s aims to be climate-neutral by 2050. In view of a “domestic and foreign sourcing” procurement model, ENICON exploits the potential of (low-grade) Ni/Co resources within Europe – i.e. sulphidic Ni/Co ores and derived Ni/Co-bearing pyrite and silicate tailings, and limonitic/saprolitic laterite Ni(/Co) ores – while improving and developing the Ni/Co-refining capacity that can process imported ores, concentrates and intermediates. ENICON comprises both major improvements to existing Ni/Co metallurgical unit operations in Europe as well as the development of a new HCl-based route for both Ni/Co sulphide concentrates and laterites. ENICON’s HCl-route dispenses with the old-school hydro approach of continuously precipitating and redissolving metals that requires lots of chemicals and creates problematic waste streams. The HCl-based route can be extended to the downstream processing of FeNi (Class-II Ni) obtained from laterites; (2) Mixed (Ni/Co) Sulphide/Hydroxide Precipitate (MSP/MHP) from the bioleaching of Co-rich pyrite tailings; and Ni/Co-containing silicate tailings. ENICON targets a “forensic geometallurgy” protocol, making it possible to identify and mitigate the mineralogical and textural reasons for processing losses along existing and new flowsheets. To make the transition to (near) zero-waste processing and to further reduce CO2-footprints, ENICON develops enhanced mineral-matrix valorisation processes. The outputs from ENICON’s group of European Ni/Co mining, processing and refining companies will all be benchmarked in terms of positive environmental and techno-economic impacts against current methods.
In M18, the project is considered to be well on track. All tasks were executed according to the GA. No major delays or problems have occurred.
Samples of the main materials streams, i.e. (1) laterites and FeNi (Class-II Ni) obtained from the processing of laterites; (2) Mixed (Ni/Co) Sulphide/Hydroxide Precipitate (MSP/MHP) and (3) Ni/Co-containing silicate tailings were distributed to the ENICON partners by BOMIN/BOHA/LARCO/EURONICKEL/FINNCOBALT. A sampling protocol was developed by WP1 allowing to produce identical subsamples for geometallurgical analysis. In a next phase, clear agreements were made about the amounts & timing of materials transfers between partners in the subsequent phase of the project, in which the starting materials are are treated in different processes in WP2 to produce a PLS, which is further purified in WP2 and subsequently in WP3. Leaching residue is assessed for upcycled into construction materials in WP4. At all stages of the research, sub samples are taken and sent to WP1 allowing to study metal deportment in the flowsheets assessed & developed. Throughout the project strong alignment exists between the technical work/flowsheet development in WP2-3-4 allowing to gather the information needed for the geometallurgical work in WP1 and the LCA/LCC in WP5.

In WP1, after successful development of a sampling & characterization protocol, focus has been on the geometallurgical study, i.e. chemical, mineralogical, textural characterization of the starting materials (1)-(2)-(3) as described above. Apart from the starting materials, samples were taken throughout the existing mineral processing flowsheets allowing to study the metal deportment in the current processes. In a second phase, samples resulting from the HCl leaching route in WP2 have been studied, allowing to study the metal deportment in the leaching process. In WP2, the BOMIN leaching pilot was successfully planned, constructed and run allowing to produce Ni and Co containing MHP & MSP for downstream processing. Detailed analyses of products as well as evaluation of pilot results are still ongoing. Laboratory trials for carbonation of low silicate tailings is ongoing. Laboratory scale smelting of slag and Ni/Co-concentrate using biochar as carbon-neutral reducing agent and coke as reference is ongoing. Screening tests on HCl-leaching of MHP, MSP and laterite ore and FeNi has been completed. Further optimization is ongoing. Solvent extraction (SX) of FeNi PLS from leaching has been performed and upscaling is being planned. Thermodynamic modelling of the processes has been performed. Overall, the activities within WP2 are on track, with no major issues or delays. In WP3, fundamental aspects of the direct Co oxide recovery process were studied. At the moment, Ni reduction and H2 evolution as cathodic reaction are studied. MSP/MHP treatment in the state-of-the art flowsheet for Ni/Co hydrometallurgical refining was successfully tested. Activities in WP3 are considered to be on track. In WP4, all in-scope primary raw materials were evaluated. Based on the evaluation, decisions were made on which valorization routes to persue further for the different materials. Feasibility to valorize the fayalitic slags and silicate tailings was preliminary assessed showing that the portfolio of WP4 technologies can provide a beneficial solution. The WP4 activities are considered to be on track. WPs 1–3 provided the required input for the implementation of WP5 regarding LCA/LCC of Ni/Co recovery and ultra-refining. A detailed LCA framework was defined and state-of-the art flowsheets have been developed and associated data inventories have been created. In a subsequent step, HPAL for the treatment of Ni-Co laterites will be compared to the ENICON HCl process for the treatment of ferronickel (FeNi). The progress of WP5 is on track. In WP6, multiple clustering events have been organized in line with the GA.
The impact expected by the results of the project of the is still in line with the impact as described in the grant agreement. Treatment of stream (2) using state-of-the art technology has proven to be feasible. A geometallurgical protocol is under development (WP1) and an innovative HCL leaching route is under development for the (3) groups of materials as described above. At this point, no major bottlenecks have been identified in obtaining the results to be expected as described in the GA. Uptake of results is guaranteed as major industrial players drive the consortium. The strategy for exploitation has been described in the draft communication, dissemination & exploitation plan.