Process simulation and gate-to-gate life cycle assessment of hydrometallurgical refractory gold concentrate processing

Heini Elomaa, Pia Sinisalo, Lotta Rintala, Jari Aromaa, Mari Lundström (Corresponding Author)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Purpose: Currently, almost all cyanide-free gold leaching processes are still in the development stage. Proactively investigating their environmental impacts prior to commercialization is of utmost importance. In this study, a detailed refractory gold concentrate process simulation with mass and energy balance was built for state-of-the-art technology with (i) pressure oxidation followed by cyanidation and, compared to alternative cyanide-free technology, with (ii) pressure oxidation followed by halogen leaching. Subsequently, the simulated mass balance was used as life cycle inventory data in order to evaluate the environmental impacts of the predominant cyanidation process and a cyanide-free alternative. Methods: The environmental indicators for each scenario are based on the mass balance produced with HSC Sim steady-state simulation. The simulated mass balances were evaluated to identify the challenges in used technologies. The HSC Sim software is compatible with the GaBi LCA software, where LCI data from HSC-Sim is directly exported to. The simulation produces a consistent life cycle inventory (LCI). In GaBi LCA software, the environmental indicators of global warming potential (GWP), acidification potential (AP), terrestrial eutrophication potential (EP), and water depletion (Water) are estimated. Results and discussion: The life cycle assessment revealed that the GWP for cyanidation was 10.1 t CO2-e/kg Au, whereas the halogen process indicated a slightly higher GWP of 12.6 t CO2-e/kg Au. The difference is partially explained by the fact that the footprint is calculated against produced units of Au; total recovery by the halogen leaching route for gold was only 87.3%, whereas the cyanidation route could extract as much as 98.5% of gold. The addition of a second gold recovery unit to extract gold also from the washing water in the halogen process increased gold recovery up to 98.5%, decreasing the GWP of the halogen process to 11.5 t CO2-e/kg Au. However, both evaluated halogen processing scenarios indicated a slightly higher global warming potential when compared to the dominating cyanidation technology. Conclusions: The estimated environmental impacts predict that the development-stage cyanide-free process still has some challenges compared to cyanidation; as in the investigated scenarios, the environmental impacts were generally higher for halogen leaching. Further process improvements, for example in the form of decreased moisture in the feed for halide leaching, and the adaptation of in situ gold recovery practices in chloride leaching may give the cyanide-free processing options a competitive edge.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)456-477
Number of pages22
JournalInternational Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Volume25
Issue number3
Early online date26 Dec 2019
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

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Keywords

  • Cyanide-free
  • Gate to gate
  • Gold leaching
  • Halides
  • Pressure oxidation
  • Simulation

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