Nowadays, with the commodities boom still hurtling along at breakneck speed, knowing your minerals processing plant is operating at its fullest potential is not just a nice to have option, it is a business necessity.
Some plants could be losing potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars a day simply by failing to ensure their people, processes and equipment are performing at optimum level.
Achieving a high throughput and maximising recoveries is a continuous challenge for all operators, production and metallurgical supervisors and it has been well documented that some site technologies and equipment are often pushed well past their original design capabilities.
From a minerals processing point of view, there are many technologies that could benefit from auditing and/or optimisation. A properly audited site can ensure its operators are adequately trained and any potential safety hazards eliminated. Payback time for such a site can be a matter of weeks or even days.
So, taking a thickener as an example, its inefficient operation can lead to excessive flocculant and reagent consumption, increased solids carry over in the overflow system, reduced underflow densities, increased maintenance routines and inefficient pumping. All of these have a considerable impact on recoveries, environment and maintenance, each of which affect the bottom line.
With such compelling arguments, the marketplace has obviously recognised this need and as a result, we increasingly see technology providers, engineering companies and consultants offering plant audits and optimisation. So, what type of site could benefit from a health check-up?
Plants which have experienced changes to the original design, either in ore type, throughput or even duty
Operations which have no formal or systematic optimisation programme
Plants which are running antiquated equipment
Plants whose operators have changed. Change of personnel can have a surprising impact on how some equipment is run.
This article will, firstly, look at key elements essential to optimal thickener performance and, secondly, outline the potential steps in a thickener audit/optimisation programme.
Feedwell - the feedwell is the heart of any thickener operation. Mixing, deaeration and flocculation are all performed and controlled within the feedwell structure.
So, ensuring optimal design can result in efficient flocculation, reduced reagent costs, maximum underflow densities and improved overflow clarity. The following feedwell areas merit check-ups, baffle quantity, size and profile; incoming and outgoing feed velocities; feed projection angles; throat dimensions, pitch and depth; dilution quantity and design; and, lastly, flocculant addition methods.
Throughput and duty - if there is an increase in the thickener throughput which is in the
uppermost levels of the original design scope, upsizing the feedwell and feedpipe, modifying overflow boxes, increasing underflow nozzle sizes and providing additional dilution are means of improving performance. If, however, the volumetric feed rate continuously exceeds the original thickener design to a level, where the increase in rise rate will compromise the thickener performance, then a larger thickener may be required.
Changes in duty, including rates and feed composition, can adversely affect the drive mechanism. If not controlled or monitored correctly, these can impact on torque loads and the controls. It is important to manage a thickener’s inventory whilst maintaining an adequate safety margin for recovery in a high torque scenario. Operating continuously with high torque loads or high torque spikes can result in lengthy downtimes due to bogging or even maintenance shutdowns as a result of the increased wear rates.
Feed mixing – it is critical that the feed becomes homogenous once it enters the feedwell’s mixing zone. A nominated retention time should also be maintained to allow for deaeration and efficient flocculation. The feed must enter the feedwell at a given rate and gently rotate with a controlled agitation that enhances the mixing and flocculant contact process. Excessive agitation can cause the flocculant to shear, leading to high flocc consumption and a high yield stress with minimal density gain. Not enough agitation can cause material segregation, poor flocculation, short-circuiting, beaching, torque spikes and a general reduction in performance.
Excessive flocculant consumption can increase the underflow viscosity, placing additional load on the underflow management system. This may appear to improve overflow clarity yet has no real gain in actual production as it may not increase the underflow density. Optimised flocculant consumption can, however, result in the obvious financial gain, improve pumping capabilities, assist with underflow densities and reduce the environmental impact.
Thickener rake - over time, a thickener’s electronics can drift and decalibrate from simple general wear and tear. So whether a thickener is performing a revised duty or needs fine tuning due to excessive wear, torque loads and drive mechanisms should be audited to determine if the current mechanism configuration and design are adequate. Re-calibration of hydraulic pressures, resetting of relief’s and limits and a full review of the automatic torque management system are easily carried out and highly recommended. Monitoring wear and tear can greatly reduce the equipment downtime and enable a site to efficiently plan their maintenance schedules. In some cases, performing predictive maintenance can increase the lifespan of parts and components, replacing them only when necessary, as opposed to simply replacing them on a frequency basis (often done when using account-based maintenance programmes)
What’s involved in your typical audit?
Most credible auditing methods examine mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, equipment configuration and process issues. Following this, potential design inefficiencies, configuration problems and any equipment failures can be determined. If a full mechanical audit is required, then it needs to be performed during shutdown and restarted for the process stage. This type of audit would obviously take longer.
The audit - a process and basic mechanical audit commences with ensuring the site’s priorities, objectives and plant operation history are clearly understood by all parties. At a minimum, the site’s current operating performance and examination of whatever changes, if any, have occurred, are reviewed. Some providers are more interested in selling additional equipment during an audit than actually understanding what the site really needs, so it is important that the audit remains an audit and not a sales pitch.
Site visit – during the site visit (typically 1-3 days, depending on quantity of equipment etc) the engineers generally perform the following: observe thickener operation; review trends such as rake torque, bed level and bed mass etc.; record current duty (feeds, particle size, pH, etc); record current performance in underflow density and overflow clarity; monitor mixing in feedwell; and examine flocc formation and consumption.
Review process - the information should be collated and reviewed along with current design and equipment configuration using original specifications, original test reports and as-built drawings. If there are any differences between original specification and current duty, a new duty statement would be compiled and used to determine changes for efficient thickener performance.
Testwork – if changes have occurred, testwork is the next logical step to help determine what modifications are required for optimal design. A sample from site is obtained and lab scaled dynamic thickener testwork performed. Any reputable service provider can also carry out FEA and CFD software to design, optimise and individually tailor aspects of equipment. Upon completion of testwork and, where applicable, software modelling, the optimal thickener performance is determined, covering areas such as flocculant consumption, underflow density, overflow clarity and underflow yield stress.
The service provider should supply a comprehensive report that includes all data, testwork and any recommendations or modifications to thickener configuration and ancillary equipment. It should also contain a report on mechanical, electrical and instrumentation conditions.
If there is a need for equipment optimisation or replacement, then a site could obtain indicative capital estimate for the proposed changes. This estimate should include supply, installation and commissioning. Alternatively, a site could request a scoping study that provides a definitive capital estimate for all associated design and construction works.
Plant audits and optimisation programmes are an investment well worth making. Even if a site’s duty, orebody or throughput has not changed over the years (highly unlikely) – all equipment, personnel and processes benefit from a “health check”. Most reputable service providers will be able to offer a full suite of optimising options after an audit – and not necessarily just recommend buying larger equipment.