JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – A 50 000-t/y facility to convert iron-ore fines into metallic briquettes for use as a scrap supplement in electric steelmaking, will be developed in Phalaborwa, in South Africa's Limpopo province, following a $17-million transaction unveiled on Friday.
The demonstration project would involve an investment of between $12-million and $15-million and could be the precursor to a larger $120-million project to produce 500 000 t/y of the briquettes, which fit into the palm of an adult-sized hand and have a reported iron purity of between 93% and 95%.
Russia's OAO Severstal, a leading international steel and mining company, which produced 16,7-million tons of steel in 2009, acquired 25,6% of South Africa's privately-held Iron Mineral Beneficiation Services (IMBS), which holds a patent to the Finesmelt technology. The technology, which still has to be proved commercially, enables the conversion of previously stockpiled waste fine and ultrafine material into a saleable product.
Finesmelt has attracted interest from such well-known business personalities as Sir Sam Jonah, whose Jonah Capital provided seed finance to support the research and development, and Jürgen Schrempp, the former global CEO of DaimlerChrysler, who is also IMBS chairperson.
Severstal Russian Steel CEO Alexander Grubman said that the company's investment in the South African-developed technology was evidence of its belief that the technology represented a breakthrough for the iron and steel industry.
Grubman added that it could provide a valuable supplement to scrap, which represented the single largest cost in electric steelmaking. In fact, some 700-million tons of scrap metal is consumed yearly and Severstal believes that there is likely to be a shortage of scrap, as more and more electric arc furnaces, which have scale and costs advantages over blast furnaces in certain situations, are introduced.
The plant, which is still undergoing a bankable feasibility study, could be operational within 18 to 24 months and would be the first commercial-scale Finesmelt facility globally.
The project would be backed by the State-owned Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), which would take up to 33,3% of the equity in the initial venture.
Talks were also currently under way with Palabora Mining Company (PMC), which is owned by resources giant Rio Tinto, on a supply agreement for the initial facility and for the possible expansion to 500 000 t/y.
PMC has also been given an option to take equity in the project, IMBS CEO John Beachy Head said, with the current shareholding being 66,7% IMBS and 33,3% the IDC.
The briquettes could fetch prices akin to scrap, which is currently trading in a range of between $370/t to $420/t and Beachy Head said that he expected the facility to produce at a cost of between $130/t to $150/t.
Should this be proved, Severstal would seek to support a globalisation of the technology, while IMBS would focus on domestic market opportunities, while also earning royalties from metallic-iron projects built elsewhere using the Finesmelt solution.
Beachy Head said that the technology, which had originally been designed to tap into South Africa's cheap industrial electricity, had also been adapted to South Africa's current power constraint, which had also bolstered its export potential.
In essence, Finesmelt has been designed to add-value to a resource that has, hitherto, been deposited as a waste material by the PMC - the on-surface reserves are estimated at 240-million tons, with an average iron content of 58%.
IMBS plans to buy "superfine" iron-ore from PMC's magnetite dumps, blend it with standard thermal coal, sourced from Exxaro, to produce a char, which will then be processed through Finesmelt system to extract the oxygen content from the ore to produce an iron-rich product. This product is then beneficiated further to produce an iron power, which is pressed into a briquette with an iron content of up to 95% that is nearly 90% metallic and which can be fed into an electric-arc furnace.
"We believe we can make millions of tons of these briquettes around the world," Beachy Head concluded.