Industrial Process Description

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This section specifically contains a description of commonly used production processes, associated raw materials, the byproducts produced or released, and the materials either recycled or transferred offsite. This discussion, coupled with schematic drawings of the identified processes, provide a concise description of where wastes may be produced in the process.1617

Primary copper processing

Copper is mined in both open pits and underground mines, depending upon the ore grade and the nature of the ore deposit. Copper ore typically contains less than 1% copper and is in the form of sulfide minerals. Once the ore is delivered above the ground, it is crushed and ground to a powdery fineness, after which it is concentrated for further processing. In the concentration process, ground ore is slurried with water, chemical reagents are added, and air is blown through the slurry. The air bubbles attach themselves to the copper minerals and are then skimmed off the top of the flotation cells. The concentrate contains between 20 and 30% copper. The "tailings," or gangue minerals, from the ore fall to the bottom of the cells and are removed, dewatered by "thickeners," and transported as slurry to a tailings pond for disposal. All water used in this operation, from dewatering thickeners and the tailings pond, is recovered and recycled back into the process.

Copper can be produced either pyrometallurgically or hydrometallurgically depending upon the ore type used as a charge. The ore concentrates, which contain copper sulfide and iron sulfide minerals, are treated by pyrometallurgical processes to yield high-purity copper products. Oxide ores, which contain copper oxide minerals that may occur in other parts of the mine, together with other oxidized waste materials, are treated by hydrometallurgical processes to yield high-purity copper products. Both processes are illustrated in Figure 3.3.

Copper conversion is accomplished by a pyrometallurgical process known as "smelting." During smelting the concentrates are dried and fed into one of several different types of furnaces. There the sulfide minerals are partially oxidized and melted to yield a layer of "matte," a mixed copper-iron sulfide, and "slag," an upper layer of waste.

The matte is further processed by a process known as "converting." The slag is tapped from the furnace and stored or discarded in slag piles onsite. A small amount of slag is sold for railroad ballast and for sand blasting grit. A third product of the smelting process is sulfur dioxide, a gas that is collected, purified, and made into sulfuric acid for sale or for use in hydrometallurgical leaching operations.

Following smelting, the copper matte is fed into a converter. During this process the copper matte is poured into a horizontal cylindrical vessel (approximately 10 x 4 m) fitted with a row of

Waste/scrap Sulfide ore


Concentrates -►

Oxide and sulfide ore


Cement copper


Copper matte


Solvent extraction


Blister copper

SX solution


Anode refining and casting

Copper anodes

Electrolytic refining

Copper cathodes (99.99% copper)

Alloying and/or casting

Copper alloys Refined shapes copper shapes

FIGURE 3.3 Copper production process. (From U.S. Congress, Copper Technology and Competitiveness, Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment, Washington, DC, 1994.)

pipes. The pipes, known as "tuyeres," project into the cylinder and are used to introduce air into the converter. Lime and silica are added to the copper matte to react with the iron oxide produced in the process to form slag. Scrap copper may also be added to the converter. The furnace is rotated so that the tuyeres are submerged, and air is blown into the molten matte, causing the remainder of the iron sulfide to react with oxygen to form iron oxide and sulfur dioxide.

Following the "blow," the converter is rotated to pour off the iron silicate slag. Once all of the iron is removed, the converter is rotated back and given a second blow, during which the remainder of the sulfur is oxidized and removed from the copper sulfide. The converter is then rotated to pour off the molten copper, which at this point is called "blister" copper (so named because if allowed to solidify at this point, it will have a bumpy surface due to the presence of gaseous oxygen and sulfur). Sulfur dioxide from the converters is collected and fed into the gas purification system together with that from the smelting furnace, and made into sulfuric acid. Owing to its residual copper content, slag is recycled back to the smelting furnace.

Blister copper, containing a minimum of 98.5% copper, is refined to high-purity copper in two steps. The first step is "fire refining," in which the molten blister copper is poured into a cylindrical furnace, similar in appearance to a converter, where first air and then natural gas or propane are blown through the melt to remove the last of the sulfur and any residual oxygen from the copper. The molten copper is then poured into a casting wheel to form anodes pure enough for "electrorefining."

In electrorefining, the copper anodes are loaded into electrolytic cells and interspaced with copper "starting sheets," or cathodes, in a bath of copper sulfate solution. When a DC current is passed through the cell the copper is dissolved from the anode, transported through the electrolyte, and redeposited on the cathode starting sheets. When the cathodes have built up to a sufficient thickness they are removed from the electrolytic cell and a new set of starting sheets is put in their place. Solid impurities in the anodesus metals such fall to the bottom of the cell as a sludge, where they are ultimately collected and processed for the recovery of precio as gold and silver. This material is known as "anode slime."

The cathodes removed from the electrolytic cell are the primary product of the copper producer and contain >99.99% copper. These may be sold to wire-rod mills as cathodes or processed further to a product called "rod." In manufacturing rod, cathodes are melted in a shaft furnace and the molten copper is poured onto a casting wheel to form a bar suitable for rolling into a 3/8-in.-diameter continuous rod. This rod product is shipped to wire mills, where it is extruded into various sizes of copper wire.

In the hydrometallurgical process, the oxidized ores and waste materials are leached with sul-furic acid from the smelting process. Leaching is performed in situ or in specially prepared piles by distributing acid across the top and allowing it to percolate down through the material, where it is collected. The ground under the leach pads is lined with an acid-proof, impermeable plastic material to prevent leach liquor from contaminating groundwater. Once the copper-rich solutions are collected they can be processed by either of two processes—the "cementation" process or the "solvent extraction/electrowinning" process (SXEW).

In the SXEW process, the pregnant leach solution (PLS) is concentrated by solvent extraction. In solvent extraction, an organic chemical that extracts copper but not impurity metals (iron and other impurities) is mixed with the PLS. The copper-laden organic solution is then separated from the leachate in a settling tank. Sulfuric acid is added to the pregnant organic mixture, which strips the copper into an electrolytic solution. The stripped leachate, containing the iron and other impurities, is returned to the leaching operation where its acid is used for further leaching. The copper-rich strip solution is passed into an electrolytic cell known as an "electrowinning" cell. An electrowin-ning cell differs from an electrorefining cell in that it uses a permanent, insoluble anode. The copper in solution is then plated onto a starting sheet cathode in much the same manner as it is on the cathode in an electrorefining cell. The copper-depleted electrolyte is returned to the solvent extraction process where it is used to strip more copper from the organic. The cathodes produced from the electrowinning process are then sold or made into rod in the same manner as those produced from the electrorefining process.

Electrowinning cells are used also for the preparation of starting sheets for both the electrorefining and electrowinning processes. Here copper is plated onto either stainless steel or titanium cathodes. When sufficient thickness has built up, the cathodes are removed and the copper plating on both sides of the stainless steel or titanium is stripped off. After straightening and flattening, these copper sheets are fabricated into starting sheet cathodes by mechanically attaching copper strips to be used as hangers when they are in the electrolytic cell. Both the starting sheet and the strips become part of the final product. The same care in achieving and maintaining purity must be maintained with these materials as is practiced for the electrodeposited copper.

An activity that is carried out concurrently with primary copper production is sulfur fixation. As mentioned above, in the pyrometallurgical process most of the sulfur in the ore is transformed into sulfur dioxide (although a portion is discarded in the slag). The copper smelting and converting processes typically generate over 0.5 t of sulfur dioxide per ton of copper concentrate. In order to meet CAA emission standards, sulfur dioxide releases must be controlled. This is accomplished by elaborate gas collection and filtration systems, after which the sulfur dioxide contained in the off-gases is made into sulfuric acid. In general, if the sulfur dioxide concentration exceeds 4% it will be converted into sulfuric acid, an ingredient in fertilizer. Fugitive gases containing less than 4% sulfuric acid are either released to the atmosphere or scrubbed to remove the sulfur dioxide. The sulfur recovery process requires the emissions to flow through a filtering material in the air emissions scrubber to capture the sulfur. Blowdown slurry is formed from the mixture of the filtering material and sulfur emissions. This slurry contains not only sulfur, but cadmium and lead, metals that are present in copper ore. The acid plant blowdown slurry/sludge that results from thickening of blowdown slurry at primary copper facilities is regulated by the RCRA as hazardous waste.

Secondary copper processing

The primary processes involved in secondary copper recovery are scrap metal pretreatment and smelting. Pretreatment includes cleaning and concentration to prepare the material for the smelting furnace. Pretreatment of the feed material can be accomplished using several different procedures, either separately or in combination. Feed scrap is concentrated by manual and mechanical methods such as sorting, stripping, shredding, and magnetic separation. Feed scrap is sometimes briquetted in a hydraulic press. Pyrometallurgical pretreatment may include sweating, burning of insulation (especially from scrap wire), and drying (burning off oil and volatiles) in rotary kilns. Hydrometallurgical methods include flotation and leaching with chemical recovery.

After pretreatment, the scrap is ready for smelting. Although the type and quality of the feed material determines the processes the smelter will use, the general fire-refining process is essentially the same as for the primary copper smelting industry.

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