Owing to tough ferrochrome and ferromanganese market conditions globally, process and engineering service provider Metix has had to widen its focus beyond ferrous metals and target the processing of other commodities.
Metix MD Andrew van Niekerk tells Mining Weekly that, as the representative in Southern Africa of engineering service provider SMS Group, the company’s efforts to expand into other markets are supported by the group’s diverse expertise and global client base.
Metix’s latest projects have been in ferronobium and the production process of high-purity alumina (HPA).
HPA can be used to create synthetic sapphire, high-tech materials for electronics, such as lithium-ion batteries, and in the production of cellphone covers. “It has got a big market globally,” emphasises Van Niekerk.
Together with other product centres within SMS Group, Metix has been working since July to develop the technology necessary to produce HPA with 99% alumina for an international customer.
“HPA is a novel product, which traditionally requires using the Bayer process to produce aluminium metal from bauxite. “However, using the raw aluminium material and a purifying process, the intermediary process of smelting and refining involved in producing HPA conventionally, can be eliminated,” explains Van Niekerk.
This adds to the cost benefit of HPA, with reduced processing steps and a near-pure aluminium product.
Meanwhile, Metix is also involved in developing applications for a patented cooling liquid for processing plants called Iltec for nonferrous metal production company PolyMet Solutions, a joint venture between SMS Group and Austria-based mechanical and process engineering company Mettop. Iltec is an ionic fluid that can be used in furnaces or extremely high-temperature applications because, unlike water, it does not explode when exposed to these conditions.
“If you expose water to liquid metal or extremely high temperatures, it evaporates instantly and, subsequently, expands so fast that it has an explosive effect, which damages equipment,” explains Van Niekerk.
The company actively started marketing Iltec in May; however, the response has been slow because it requires investment and, therefore, needs a lot of justification. However, SMS Group is convinced that Iltec will, at a later stage, be a standard in the metals industry, owing to its safety and advantages.
Further, Metix is supplying processing equipment, called Urban Gold, in conjunction with PolyMet Solutions. This recycling technique uses metallurgy to recover rare elements and precious metals from electronic waste produced by mobile phones, computers and monitors, among other electronic devices.
“PolyMet has developed different technologies and steps where you effectively use advanced converters to atomise and separate particles, and granulate materials,” Van Niekerk highlights, adding that electronic waste is fed into the plant, which recovers metals such as silver and gold.
SMS Group received its first order for the recovery plant last month from a Russian company. The group will install the plant in early 2018 to allow for the processing of about 6 000 t of printed electronic boards.
Van Niekerk says the cost of electricity in South Africa is a problem that is often overlooked, but it significantly impacts on the efficiency of mineral processing and metals smelting.
Metal processing and smelting, especially, relies heavily on electricity, owing to power-intensive processing equipment.
“With electricity prices soaring, it is becoming unaffordable for companies to produce ferroalloy in a competitive market when, more than double their production cost is spent on power, compared with producers in other countries.”
Van Niekerk adds that minerals and metals processing companies often exit a country when the cost of power is too high as businesses are no longer economically viable.
However, Metix is always ready with new equipment. As an original-equipment manufacturer, Van Niekerk says, the company understands the position clients find themselves in with regard to cost cutting and, therefore, offers to collaborate with clients to find the most cost-effective plant equipment and practices to suit their needs.
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