The Flotation of Niobium Oxide Minerals from Carbonatite Ores
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Global niobium production is presently dominated by three operations, Araxá and Catalão (Brazil), and Niobec (Canada). Although Brazil accounts for over 90% of the world’s niobium production, a number of high grade niobium deposits exist worldwide. The advancement of these deposits depends largely on the development of operable beneficiation flowsheets. Pyrochlore, as the primary niobium mineral, is typically upgraded by flotation with amine collectors at acidic pH following a complicated flowsheet with significant losses of niobium. This research compares the typical two stage flotation flowsheet to a direct flotation process (i.e. elimination of gangue pre-flotation) with the objective of circuit simplification. In addition, the use of a chelating reagent (benzohydroxamic acid, BHA) was studied as an alternative collector for fine grained, highly disseminated pyrochlore. For the amine based reagent system, results showed that while comparable at the laboratory scale, when scaled up to the pilot level the direct flotation process suffered from circuit instability because of high quantities of dissolved calcium in the process water due to stream recirculation and fine calcite dissolution, which ultimately depressed pyrochlore. This scale up issue was not observed in pilot plant operation of the two stage flotation process as a portion of the highly reactive carbonate minerals was removed prior to acid addition. A statistical model was developed for batch flotation using BHA on carbonatite ore (0.25% Nb2O5) that could not be effectively upgraded using the conventional amine reagent scheme. Results showed that it was possible to produce a concentrate containing 1.54% Nb2O5 with 93% Nb recovery in ~15% of the original mass. Fundamental studies undertaken included FT-IR and XPS, which showed the adsorption of both the protonized amine and the neutral amine onto the surface of the pyrochlore (possibly at niobium sites as indicated by detected shifts in the Nb3d binding energy). The results suggest that the preferential flotation of pyrochlore over quartz with amines at low pH levels can be attributed to a difference in critical hemimicelle concentration (CHC) values for the two minerals. BHA was found to be absorbed on pyrochlore surfaces by a similar mechanism to alkyl hydroxamic acid. It is hoped that this work will assist in improving operability of existing pyrochlore flotation circuits and help promote the development of niobium deposits globally. Future studies should focus on investigation into specific gangue mineral depressants and inadvertent activation phenomenon related to BHA flotation of gangue minerals.