Leaching technology can double copper recoveries says BHP

BHP’s Chief Technology Officer Laura Tyler says Chalcopyrite leach projects are progressing at all its copper assets in South America

BHP's leaching technology has the potential to double copper recoveries in primary sulphides from the current mid-30s percentile, according to BHP’s Chief Technology Officer Laura Tyler.

She was speaking at the Bank of America SmartMine Conference recently, outlining the importance of innovation for the global miner.

"Chalcopyrite leach projects are progressing at all our copper assets in South America," she said, highlighting the efficiency-increasing technology. "Chalcopyrite leach has the potential to increase copper recoveries in primary sulphide ore and significantly reduce the cycle times."

She added BHP is also looking at chloride leaching technology.

"We have had success at Spence implementing this - we saw recoveries increase by 10% over 2017 levels and we are hoping for similar increases at Escondida (pictured) as we replicate the process there over the next year or two," she said.

"If successful, given the volume of throughput at Escondida, this should drive significant increases in value through to the bottom line. Beyond the in-house development in leaching, we are also working with external partners, specifically Jetti Resources."

Copper discoveries have decreased in frequency as the resources are more remote. They may be deeper, lower-grade, under cover, or in countries with more challenging operating conditions.

"That makes the resource we already control in copper, which for BHP is the largest in the world, and nickel, even more valuable and technology’s role in helping to unlock this potential even more critical," said Tyler. 

The endowment BHP holds is not just in terms of the resource in the ground, it is also in the legacy data that has been gathered throughout the 150-year history of BHP, Billiton and all the other companies that have formed today’s group.

"There are quite a lot of them when you start looking," she added. "We have created new tools and a data lake to view this legacy data in a different way. Significant amounts of data, much of which was previously paper copy, is now digitised and available for our geoscientists to access."

BHP commits to 'multi-year journey' of digital technology growth 

The global metals exploration team at BHP works with technology, and its ventures group and external partners on solutions that can be applied to its data and global endowment models to open new search bases for discovery. A good example is 3D machine learning in Australia with SensOre and KoBold, and in Chile with SRK and DeepIQ.

"We are working in partnership with these guys to deliver a new generation of search spaces under cover that were not previously recognised," she said. 

BHP is committed to delivering more and better-quality data to operations in real time, so that decisions can be automated with confidence and to make sure people can provide calculated intervention and see intended outcomes.

She described its digital factories as "hothouses of performance", with BHP setting a minimum return of 10 times NPV over cost, so no project gets through "just because it looks good". BHP has previously highlighted blockchain traceability as key to carbon neutrality, reducing emissions and meeting ethical considerations (click here).

"This is just such an incredible, powerful opportunity for how we truly democratise data and get it into people’s hands," said Tyler.

"But it is a multi-year journey and we are investing to make sure we get this right through foundations in data ownership, cloud, digital ways of working, cybersecurity and the digital capability build across the business. This investment, coupled with the digital factories at every major asset, all directly enable BHP’s digital future."

In closing, over time, BHP is confident that its investment in digital technology and innovation, linked with the automation it is putting in place, will follow a path of increasing returns, with reuse, scaling and adaption to new applications - "some of which we just do not know about yet".

To read how BHP is aiming to turn 'sludge into decarbonised dollars', click here.

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