Automated Mineralogy: Solid Prospects

The boom in the metals market have led to record prices and a steep increase in profits for mining companies. Satisfying the current demand for the minerals to make metals requires new exploration, as well as faster and more efficient mining and processing. Such needs have stimulated demand for automated analysis techniques that provide higher throughput, greater accuracy and increased efficiency.

One of the most successful analytical techniques used to automate and refine minerals analysis in recent years has been automated mineralogy software. First used in the 1970s and commercialized in 2000, automated mineral analysis employs a scanning electron microscope (SEM) equipped with backscattered electron (BSE) imaging and energy dispersive spectrometry (EDS), as well as specialized software to quantitate and characterize material samples. Compared to traditional characterization techniques, including semiautomated SEM and optical microscopy, automated mineralogy provides a fully automated method.

Automated mineralogy is employed for the micron and submicron quantitation of mineral composition, including the variation, distribution and association of minerals in a sample as well as the determination of particle size, shape and texture. Image analysis software matches the selected sample area to a database for identification, while a pixel by pixel analysis of an image reveals further detail.

Automated mineralogy systems are available from two Australian companies: JKTech and Intellection. Both companies were born as spinouts from nonprofit institutions and each has strong ties with an SEM vendor and service provider. In addition to hardware and software products, each company also offers training and analytical services. Although young, the market for automated mineralogy systems has supported both companies. In this way, the success of automated mineralogy illustrates the technical advancements that can be made with software, as well as also the opportunities for analytical innovation in commodity markets.

JKTech was founded in 2001 as a private company to commercialize technology for the minerals industry developed at the University of Queensland’s Julius Kruttschnitt Mineral Research Center. The company’s Mineral Liberation Analyzer software (MLA) was first commercially installed in 2003. The MLA now has an installed base of 52, according to Rolf Fandrich, MLA mineralogy specialist for JKTech. JKTech’s MLA software is sold with FEI’s Quanta SEM. This summer, the company formalized the partnership. And, in August, independent laboratory company ALS, part of Campbell Brothers, partnered with JKTech to form ALS Mineralogy, which will provide automated mineralogy and diagnostic services.

Dr. Fandrich told IBO that the primary factor behind the success of MLA is its flexibility. The MLA offers seven different measurement modes and can analyze as many as 16 standard samples overnight. This flexibility also benefits end-users outside of the mining industry, including universities, according to Dr. Fandrich. “Flexible hardware configurations also ensure the MLA can suit many budgets,” he said. “The two most used MLA applications are mineral processing plant optimization and ore characterization for the evaluation and management of ore deposits,” said Dr. Fandrich. “These applications are applied across the broad range of commodities from base and precious metals to mineral sands,” he added.

Rene Dobbe, product marketing manager for FEI, explained MLA systems “are basically able, depending on the application, within the time span of one or two hours to give you full data about that sample.” He also stressed the applicability of the technology to the entire mineral pipeline: “The automated minerality systems are used along [the mineral] pipeline from exploration right through to plant optimization and development.”

Dr. Fandrich told IBO that FEI provides factory integration and testing for the MLA, logistical expertise, and a global sales and service network. Mr. Dobbe explained, “[Mining companies and other customers] really want to buy one integrated solution rather than buying a component from FEI [and] a component from JKTech.” The informal relationship between the companies extends back to more than 10 years ago, according to Mr. Dobbe, when customers asked for both systems.

Asked about future developments for the MLA, Dr. Fandrich told IBO, “We are developing applications for the oil and gas industry and expanding the MLA’s coal capability. We are linking the MLA with JKTech simulation software packages so that MLA data can be directly translated into a solution for a client’s processing plant.” Mr. Dobbe stated that many of the larger mining companies were early adopters of the technology and he believes smaller companies will also become users.

The technology behind Intellection’s QEMSCAN system was developed at Australia’s science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, from which the company was spun out in 2003. In August, the company reported the installation of its 50th system and the sale of the 200th license to its iDiscover software. In August, Carl Zeiss SMT announced a long-term strategic agreement with Intellection. Carl Zeiss has supplied its SEM for the QEMSCAN since the company’s formation. However, Intellection is the direct seller of the QEMSCAN.

Since 2005, Intellection has been distribution and development partners with Struers A/S for sample preparation and consumables. Intellection also has a strategic alliance with Bruker AXS, whose Quantax Esprit X-ray microanalyzer software is available as an option. In October, the company expanded its service business, acquiring UK-based X-Ray Mineral Services, to complement its activities in the oil and gas industry. In addition, Intellection has had a strategic alliance with SGS Minerals Services since 2005.

According to Jolene Alfred, Intellection’s marketing communications manager, “In the mining industry, this automated quantitative analysis of ores and processed products is crucial to maximizing recovery, grade and throughput.” QEMSCAN mining applications include exploration assessment, reserve determination, mineral processing and process optimization.

Intellection has grown from 46 employees in 2006 to over 100 this year. The company reports revenue growth of more than 400% over the last two years. Its hardware and software cost $350,000–$800,000. Hardware and software account for 48% and 31% of the company’s revenues, respectively. Future developments for the QEMSCAN include the development of a portable version. CEO Calvin Treacy stated, “Through our product development program, we are focusing on accessing a potential market ranging from at least $1 billion and as high as $10 billion.”

To expand the market, Intellection is focusing on other industries besides mining. “Our focus is totally dedicated to sample preparation, software development, systems and support, and building knowledge; therefore, we have the flexibility to manipulate and allow us to develop new applications outside of mining and oil and gas,” said Ms. Alfred. The oil and gas industry is a growing market. “We specialize in mineralogical and petrographic analysis for applications from advanced basin analysis to cross-well correlation, porosity estimation and contextual geology,” she noted. Other markets include utilities and forensics.

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