Basic iron sulfate – a potential killer in the processing of refractory gold concentrates by pressure oxidation
Minerals & Metallurgical Processing, 2010, Vol. 27, No. 2, pp. 81-88
Refractory gold concentrates often contain submicroscopic gold that is encapsulated within the crystal matrix of iron sulfide minerals, such as pyrite, pyrrhotite and arsenopyrite. To recover the gold, the host mineral must generally be broken down chemically by oxidative processes, such as roasting, pressure oxidation or bacterial leaching, which expose the gold for subsequent recovery by leaching in cyanide solution. The focus of attention in these pretreatment processes is usually the oxidation of the sulfides to elemental sulfur, sulfur dioxide gas or sulfate ions. Less attention is paid to the deportment of iron and the changes in its oxidation state, although this can have a profound effect on gold and silver liberation, as well as downstream operating costs. Iron sulfide minerals break down completely during pressure oxidation, and dissolve in the sulfuric acid solution that is generated from oxidation of the sulfides. This dissolution liberates the tiny gold particles that were originally trapped in the sulfide crystals, and gold recovery during subsequent cyanidation is usually very high (>95%). Iron goes into solution in the oxidation process, initially as ferrous sulfate, but this compound is rapidly oxidized to ferric sulfate, which then hydrolyzes and reprecipitates. The form of the precipitate varies depending on the operating conditions in the autoclave and the presence of certain metal cations. When the acidity in the autoclave is quite low (<20 g/L H2SO4) and the temperature is high (>200°C), the formation of hematite is favored. When the acidity is high (>20 g/L H2SO4) and the temperature is relatively low (160 to 200°C), the formation of basic iron sulfate is favored. If the ore or the leach solution contains significant levels of certain cations (such as Na+, K+, NH4+, Ag+ or Pb2+) and the acidity is high (>20 g/L H2SO4), jarosite compounds are favored. Hematite is the desired iron product in the autoclave discharge, for both metallurgical and environmental reasons, but it is difficult to operate an autoclave under the conditions required for effective liberation of gold without converting some of the iron to basic iron sulfate and/or jarosite. These compounds fall into a category of iron compounds known generically as iron hydroxy sulfates, all of which can cause significant processing and environmental problems in the downstream gold process. This paper deals specifically with basic iron sulfate: the conditions under which it is formed in an autoclave, the problems that are caused by its presence in the feed to a cyanidation plant and possible remedial strategies that can be adopted, both in the autoclave and downstream.