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MEI Online: Plant Operation News: Australasia: October 15th 2010


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:: First Quantum takes on Laterite Nickel Challenge

One day a book will be written about Australia’s $10 billion laterite nickel processing experiment that started two decades ago, returned little, and which will be back in the news next year when production is scheduled to resume at one of the mothballed plants in Western Australia. Ravensthorpe, on the south coast, is the current centre of activity as a new owner tries to make good at a plant previously operated by some of the best brains at the world’s biggest mining company, BHP Billiton.

This time around Canadian-based First Quantum Minerals is taking the Ravensthorpe challenge after buying the project for US$338.8 million, or about 11 cents in the dollar, in what might prove to be the bargain buy of the century, or a one-way ticket to trouble. More than 600 workers are being recruited for the re-start at Ravensthorpe, one of four nickel laterite processing projects in Western Australia. It was built by BHP Billiton at a cost of more than US$3 billion, but operated for less than two years. Closure of the plant in January 2009, saw Ravensthorpe follow in the footsteps of the failed Cawse and Bulong laterite plants, and the once deeply troubled, but now sucessfully operating, Murrin Murrin plant of Minara Resources. One success out of four attempts is the disturbing score for laterite nickel processing in WA with at least $10 billion sunk, along with the enthusiasm of investors for laterite ore processing.

First Quantum believes it can solve the Ravensthorpe riddle by spending another US$150 million on changes to the way the plant works. Designed to produce a mixed nickel cobalt hydroxide intermediate product, Ravensthorpe suffered problems throughout, although a detailed breakdown of the issues was never released.

First Quantum is also saying little about what it’s doing at the site, apart from recruiting staff for next year’s re-start and reporting that it is proceeding with the detailed design of modifications. The new owner has said changes include alterations to the crushing, conveying, stockpile, reclaim and rejects handling areas of the plant.

If the re-start works, First Quantum will emerge with a world-class nickel processing plant capable of producing 39,000 tonnes of nickel metal a year for the first five years, and then a steady-state 28,000 tonnes for the next 32 years. First nickel production is scheduled for the March quarter next year, followed by six months of commissioning. Financially, First Quantum could make a fortune. It could also win worldwide recognition for what is one of Australia’s biggest mineral processing experiments.

By Tim Treadgold, Senior Resources Writer - Source: Process October 2010




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