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Home » Gold » Getting Gold » Gold Extraction - Secondary Processes and Lixiviation

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Getting Gold:


A practical treatise for prospectors, miners and students


Written by J.C.F. Johnson, F.G.S. (1898)


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Chapter VII



GOLD EXTRACTION - SECONDARY PROCESSES AND LIXIVIATION


Before any plan is adopted for treating the ore in a new mine the management should very seriously and carefully consider the whole circumstances of the case, taking into account the quantity and quality of the lode stuff to be operated on, and ascertain by analysis what are its component parts, for, as before stated, the treatment which will yield most satisfactory results with a certain class of gangue on one mine will sometimes, even when the material is apparently similar, prove a disastrous failure in another. Some time since I was glad to note that the manager of a prominent mine strongly discountenanced the purchase of any extracting plant until he was fully satisfied as to the character of the bulk of the ore he would have to treat. It would be well for the pockets of shareholders and the reputation of managers, if more of our mine superintendents followed this prudent and sensible course.

Having treated on gold extraction with mercury by amalgamated plates and their accessories, something must be said about secondary modes of saving in connection with the amalgamation process. The operations described hitherto have been the disintegration of the gold-bearing material and the extraction therefrom of the coarser free gold. But it must be understood that most auriferous lode stuff contains a proportion of sulphides of various metals, wherein a part of the gold, usually in a very finely divided state, is enclosed, and on this gold the mercury has no influence. Also many lodes contain hard heavy ferric ores, such as titanic iron, tungstate of iron, and hematite, in which gold is held. In others, again, are found considerable quantities of soft powdery iron oxide or "gossan," and compounds such as limonite, aluminous clay, etc., which, under the action of the crushing mill become finely divided and float off in water as "slimes," carrying with them atoms of gold, often microscopically small. To save the gold in such matrixes as these is an operation which even the best of our mechanical appliances have not yet fully accomplished.

Where there is not too great a proportion of base metals on which the solvent will act, and when the material is rich enough in gold to pay for the extra cost of treatment, chlorination or cyanisation are the best modes of extraction yet practically adopted.

Presuming, however, that we are working by the amalgamation process, and have crushed our stone and obtained the free gold, the next requirement is an effective concentrator. Of these there are many before the public, and some do excellent work, but do not act equally well in all circumstances. The first and most primitive is the blanket table, previously mentioned; but it can hardly be said to be very effective, and requires constant attention and frequent changing and washing of the strips of blanket.

Instead of blanket tables percussion tables are sometimes used, to which a jerking motion is given against the flow of the water and pulp, and by this means the heavier minerals are gathered towards the upper part of the table, and are from thence removed from time to time as they become concentrated.

I have seen this appliance doing fairly good work, but it is by no means a perfect concentrator.

Another form of "shaking table" is one in which the motion is given sideways, and this, whether amalgamated, or provided with small riffles, or covered with blanket, keeps the pulp lively and encourages the retention of the heavier particles, whether of gold or base metals containing gold. There has also been devised a rocking table the action of which is analogous to that of the ordinary miner's cradle. This appliance, working somewhat slowly, swings on rockers from side to side, and is usually employed in mills where, owing to the complexity of the ore, difficulties have been met with in amalgamating the gold. Riffles are provided and even very fine gold is sometimes effectively recovered by their aid.

The Frue vanner will, as a rule, act well when the pulp is sufficiently fine. It is really a adaptation of an old and simple apparatus used in China and India for washing gold dust from the sands of rivers. The original consisted of an endless band of strong cloth or closely woven matting, run on two horizontal rollers placed about seven feet apart, one being some inches lower than the other. The upper is caused to revolve by means of a handle. The cloth is thus dragged upwards against a small stream of water and sand fed to it by a second man, the first man not only turning the handle but giving a lateral motion to the band by means of a rope tied to one side.

Chinamen were working these forerunners of the Frue vanner forty years ago in Australia, and getting fair returns.

The Frue vanner is an endless indiarubber band drawn over an inclined table, to which a revolving and side motion is given by ingenious automatic mechanism, the pulp being automatically fed from the upper end, and the concentrates collected in a trough containing water in which the band is immersed in its passage under the table; the lighter particles wash over the lower end. The only faults with the vanner are—first, it is rather slow; and secondly, though so ingenious it is just a little complicated in construction for the average non-scientific operative.

Of pan concentrators there is an enormous selection, the principle in most being similar—i.e., a revolving muller, which triturates the sand, so freeing the tiny golden particles and admitting of their contact with the mercury. The mistake with respect to most of these machines is the attempt to grind and amalgamate in one operation. Even when the stone under treatment contains no deleterious compounds the simple action of grinding the hard siliceous particles has a bad effect on the quicksilver, causing it to separate into small globules, which either oxidising or becoming coated with the impurities contained in the ore will not reunite, but wash away in the slimes and take with them a percentage of the gold. As a grinder and concentrator, and in some cases as an amalgamator, when used exclusively for either purpose, the Watson and Denny pan is effective; but although successfully used at one mine I know, the mode there adopted would, for reasons previously given, be very wasteful in many other mines.

There is considerable misconception, even among men with some practical knowledge, as to the proper function of these secondary saving appliances; and sometimes good machines are condemned because they will not perform work for which they were never intended. It cannot be too clearly realized that the correct order of procedure for extracting the gold held in combination with base metals is—first, reduction of the particles to a uniform gauge and careful concentration only; next, the dissipation, usually by simple calcination, of substances in the concentrates inimical to the thorough absorption of the gold by the mercury; and lastly, the amalgamation of the gold and mercury.

For general purposes, where the gangue has not been crushed too fine, I think the Duncan pan will usually be found effective in saving the concentrates. In theory it is an enlargement of the alluvial miner's tin dish, and the motion imparted to it is similar to the eccentric motion of that simple separator.

The calcining may be effectively carried out in an ordinary reverberatory furnace, the only skill required being to prevent over roasting and so slagging the concentrates; or not sufficiently calcining so as to remove all deleterious constituents; the subject, however, is fully treated in Chapter VIII.

For amalgamating I prefer some form of settler to any further grinding appliance, but I note also improvements in the rotary amalgamating barrel, which, though slow, is, under favourable conditions, an effective amalgamator. The introduction of steam under pressure into an iron cylinder containing a charge of concentrates with mercury is said to have produced good results, and I am quite prepared to believe such would be the case, as we have long known that the application of steam to ores in course of amalgamation facilitates the process considerably.

Some seventeen years since I was engaged on the construction of a dry amalgamator in which sublimated mercury was passed from a retort through the descending gangue in a vertical cylinder, the material thence falling through an aperture into a revolving settler, the object being to save water on mines in dry country. The model, about quarter size, was completed when my attention was called to an American invention, in which the same result was stated to be attained more effectively by blowing the mercury spray through the triturated material by means of a steam jet. I had already encountered a difficulty, since found so obstructive by experimentalists in the same direction, that is, the getting of the mercury back into its liquid metallic form. This difficulty I am now convinced can be largely obviated by my own device of using a very weak solution of sulphuric acid (it can hardly be too weak) and adding a small quantity of zinc to the mercury. It is perfectly marvellous how some samples of mercury "sickened" or "floured" by bad treatment, may be brought back to the bright limpid metal by a judicious use of these inexpensive materials.

Thus it will probably be found practicable to crush dry and amalgamate semi-dry by passing the material in the form of a thin pasty mass to a settler, as in the old South American arrastra, and, by slowly stirring, recover the mercury, and with it the bulk of the gold.

The following is from the Australian Mining Standard, and was headed "Amalgamation Without Overflow":

"Recent experiments at the Ballarat School of Mines have proved that a deliverance from difficulties is at hand from an unexpected quarter. The despised Chilian mill and Wheeler pan, discarded at many mines, will solve the problem, but the keynote of success is amalgamation without overflow. Dispense with the overflow and the gold is saved.

"Two typical mines—the Great Mercury Proprietary Gold Mine, of Kuaotunu, N.Z., the other, the Pambula, N.S.W.—have lately been conducting a series of experiments with the object of saving their fine gold in an economical manner. The last and best trials made by these companies were at the Ballarat School of Mines, where amalgamation without overflow was put to a crucial test, in each case with the gratifying result that ninety-six per cent of the precious metal was secured. What this means to the Great Mercury Mine, for instance, can easily be imagined when it is understood that notwithstanding all the latest gold-saving adjuncts during the last six months 1260 tons of ore, worth 4l. 17s. 10 23d. a ton, have been put through for a saving of 1l. 9s. 1 23d. only; or in other words over two-thirds of the gold has gone to waste (for the time being) in the tailings, and in the tailings at the present moment lie the dividends that should have cheered shareholders' hearts.

"And now for the modus operandi, which, it must be remembered, is not hedged in by big royalties to any one, rights, patent or otherwise. The ore to be treated is first calcined, then put through a rock-breaker or stamper battery in a perfectly dry state. If the battery is used, ordinary precautions, of course, must be taken to prevent waste, or the dust becoming obnoxious to the workmen. The ore is then transferred to the Chilian mill and made to the consistency of porridge, the quicksilver being added. When the principal work of amalgamation is done (experience soon teaching the amount of grinding necessary), from the Chilian mill the paste (so to say) is passed to a Wheeler or any other good pan of a similar type, when the gold-saving operation is completed."

This being an experiment in the same direction as my own, I tried it on a small scale. I calcined some very troublesome ore till it was fairly "sweet," triturated it, and having reduced it with water to about the consistency of invalid's gruel, put it into a little berdan pan made from a "camp oven," which I had used for treating small quantities of concentrates, and from time to time drove a spray of mercury, wherein a small amount of zinc had been dissolved, into the pasty mass by means of a steam jet, added about half an ounce of sulphuric acid and kept the pan revolving for several hours. The result was an unusually successful amalgamation and consequent extraction—over ninety per cent.

Steam—or to use the scientific term, hydro-thermal action—has played such an important part in the deposition of metals that I cannot but think that under educated intelligence it will prove a powerful agent in their extraction. About fourteen years ago I obtained some rather remarkable results from simply boiling auriferous ferro-sulphides in water. There is in this alone an interesting, useful, and profitable field for investigation and experiment.

The most scientific and perfect mode of gold extraction (when the conditions are favourable) is lixiviation by means of chlorine, potassium cyanide, or other aurous solvent, for by this means as much as 98 per cent of the gold contained in suitable ores can be converted into its mineral salt, and being dissolved in water, re-deposited in metallic form for smelting; but lode stuff containing much lime would not be suitable for chlorination, or the presence of a considerable proportion of such a metal as copper, particularly in metallic form, would be fatal to success, while cyanide of potassium will also attack metals other than gold, and hence discount the effect of this solvent.

The earlier practical applications of chlorine to gold extraction were known as Mears' and Plattner's processes, and consisted in placing the material to be operated on in vats with water, and introducing chlorine gas at the bottom, the mixture being allowed to stand for a number of hours, the minimum about twelve, the maximum forty-eight. The chlorinated water was then drawn off containing the gold in solution which was deposited as a brown powder by the addition of sulphate of iron.

Great improvements on this slow and imperfect method have been made of late years, among the earlier of which was that of Messrs. Newbery and Vautin. They placed the pulp with water in a gaslight revolving cylinder, into which the chlorine was introduced, and atmospheric air to a pressure of 60 lb. to the square inch was pumped in. The cylinder with its contents was revolved for two hours, then the charge was withdrawn and drained nearly dry by suction, the resultant liquid being slowly filtered through broken charcoal on which the chloride crystals were deposited, in appearance much like the bromo-chlorides of silver ore seen on some of the black manganic oxides of the Barrier silver mines. The charcoal, with its adhering chlorides, was conveyed to the smelting-house and the gold smelted into bars of extremely pure metal. Messrs. Newbery and Vautin claimed for their process decreased time for the operation with increased efficiency.

At Mount Morgan, when I visited that celebrated mine, they were using what might be termed a composite adaptation process. Their chlorination works, the largest in the world, were putting through 1500 tons per week. The ore as it came from the mine was fed automatically into Krom roller mills, and after being crushed and sifted to regulation gauge was delivered into trucks and conveyed to the roasting furnaces, and thence to cooling floors, from which it was conveyed to the chlorinating shed. Here were long rows of revolving barrels, on the Newbery-Vautin principle, but with this marked difference, that the pressure in the barrel was obtained from an excess of the gas itself, generated from a charge of chloride of lime and sulphuric acid. On leaving the barrels the pulp ran into settling vats, somewhat on the Plattner plan, and the clear liquid having been drained off was passed through a charcoal filter, as adopted by Newbery and Vautin. The manager, Mr. Wesley Hall, stated that he estimated cost per ton was not more than 30s., and he expected shortly to reduce that when he began making his own sulphuric acid. As he was obtaining over 4 oz. to the ton the process was paying very well, but it will be seen that the price would be prohibitive for poor ores unless they could be concentrated before calcination.

The Pollok process is a newer, and stated to be a cheaper mode of lixiviation by chlorine. It is the invention of Mr. J. H. Pollok, of Glasgow University, and a strong Company was formed to work it. With him the gas is produced by the admixture of bisulphate of sodium (instead of sulphuric acid, which is a very costly chemical to transport) and chloride of lime. Water is then pumped into a strong receptacle containing the material for treatment and powerful hydraulic pressure is applied. The effect is stated to be the rapid change of the metal into its salt, which is dissolved in the water and afterwards treated with sulphate of iron, and so made to resume its metallic form.

It appears, however, to me that there is no essential difference in the pressure brought to bear for the quickening of the process. In each case it is an air cushion, induced in the one process by the pumping in of air to a cylinder partly filled with water, and in the other by pumping in water to a cylinder partly filled with air.

The process of extracting gold from lode stuff and tailings by means of cyanide of potassium is now largely used and may be thus briefly described:—It is chiefly applied to tailings, that is, crushed ore that has already passed over the amalgamating and blanket tables. The tailings are placed in vats, and subjected to the action of solutions of cyanide of potassium of varying strengths down to 0.2 per cent. These dissolve the gold, which is leached from the tailings, passed through boxes in which it is precipitated either by means of zinc shavings, electricity, or to the precipitant. The solution is made up to its former strength and passed again through fresh tailings. When the tailings contain a quantity of decomposed pyrites, partly oxidised, the acidity caused by the freed sulphuric acid requires to be neutralised by an alkali, caustic soda being usually employed.

When "cleaning up," the cyanide solution in the zinc precipitating boxes is replaced by clean water. After careful washing in the box, to cause all pure gold and zinc to fall to the bottom, the zinc shavings are taken out. The precipitates are then collected, and after calcination in a special furnace for the purpose of oxidising the zinc, are smelted in the usual manner.

The following description of an electrolytic method of gold deposition from a cyanide solution was given by Mr. A. L. Eltonhead before the Engineers' Club of Philadelphia.

A description of the process is as follows:—"The ore is crushed to a certain fineness, depending on the character of the gangue. It is then placed in leaching vats, with false bottoms for filtration, similar to other leaching plants. A solution of cyanide of potassium and other chemicals of known percentage is run over the pulp and left to stand a certain number of hours, depending on the amount of metal to be extracted. It is then drained off and another charge of the same solution is used, but of less strength, which is also drained. The pulp is now washed with clean water, which leaches all the gold and silver out, and leaves the tailings ready for discharge, either in cars or sluiced away by water, if it is plentiful.

"The chemical reaction of cyanide of potassium with gold is as follows, according to Elsner:—

2Au + 4KCy + O + H2O = 2KAuCy2 + 2KHO.

"That is, a double cyanide of gold and potassium is formed.

"All filtered solutions and washings from the leaching vats are saved and passed through a precipitating 'box' of novel construction, which may consist either of glass, iron or wood, and be made in any shape, either oval, round, or rectangular—if the latter, it will be about 10 ft. long, 4 ft. wide and 1 ft. high—and is partitioned off lengthwise into five compartments. Under each partition, on the inside or bottom of the 'box,' grooves may be cut a quarter-to a half-inch deep, extending parallel with the partitions to serve as a reservoir for the amalgam, and give a rolling motion to the solution as it passes along and through the four compartments. The centre compartment is used to hold the lead or other suitable anode and electrolyte.

"The anode is supported on a movable frame or bracket, so it may be moved either up or down as desired, it being worked by thumb-screws at each end.

"The electrolyte may consist of saturated solutions of soluble alkaline metals and earth. The sides or partitions of each compartment dip into the mercury, which must cover the 'box' evenly on the bottom to the depth of about a half-inch.

"Amalgamated copper strips or discs are placed in contact with the mercury and extended above it, to allow the gold and silver solution of cyanide to come in contact.

"The electrodes are connected with the dynamo; the anode of lead being positive and the cathode of mercury being negative. The dynamo is started, and a current of high amperage and low voltage is generated, generally 100 to 125 amperes, and with sufficient pressure to decompose the electrolyte between the anode and the cathode.

"As the gas is generated at the anode, a commotion is created in the liquid, which brings a fresh and saturated solution of electrolyte between the electrodes for electrolysis, and makes it continuous in its action.

"The solution of double cyanide of gold, silver, and potassium, which has been drained from the leaching vats, is passed over the mercury in the precipitating 'box' when the decomposition of the electrolyte by the electric current is being accomplished, the gold and silver are set free and unite with the mercury, and are also deposited on the plates or discs of copper, forming amalgam, which is collected and made marketable by the well known and tried methods. The above solution is regenerated with cyanide of potassium by the setting free of the metals in the passage over the 'box.'

"In using this solution again for a fresh charge of pulp, it is reinforced to the desired percentage, or strengthened with cyanide of potassium and other chemicals, and is always in good condition for continuing the operation of dissolving.

"The potassium acting on the water of the solution creates nascent hydrogen and potassium hydrate; the nascent hydrogen sets free the metals (gold and silver), which are precipitated into the mercury and form amalgam, leaving hydrocyanic acid; this latter combines with the potassium hydrate of the former reaction, thus forming cyanide of potassium. There are other reactions for which I have not at present the chemical formulas.

"As the solution passes over the mercury, the centre compartment of the 'box' is moved slowly longitudinally, which spreads the mercury, the solution is agitated and comes in perfect contact with the mercury, as well as the amalgamated plates or discs of copper, ensuring a perfect precipitation.

"It is not always necessary to precipitate all the gold and silver from the solution, for it is used over and over again indefinitely; but when it is required, it can be done perfectly and cheaply in a very short time.

"No solution leached from the pulp, containing cyanide of potassium, gold and silver, need be run to waste, which is in itself an enormous saving over the use of zinc shavings when handling large quantities of pulp and solution.

"Some of the advantages the electro-chemical process has over other cyanide processes are: Its cleanliness, quickness of action, cheapness, and large saving of cyanide of potassium by regeneration; not wasting the solutions, larger recovery of the gold and silver from the solutions; the cost of recovery less; the loss of gold, silver, and cyanide of potassium reduced to a minimum; the use of caustic alkali in such quantity as may be desired to keep the cyanide solution from being destroyed by the solidity of the pulp, and also sometimes to give warmth, as a warm cyanide solution will dissolve gold and silver quicker than a cold one. These caustic alkalies do not interfere with or prevent the perfect precipitation of the metals. The bullion recovered in this process is very fine, while the zinc-precipitated bullion is only about 700 fine.

"The gold and silver is dissolved, and then precipitated in one operation, which we know cannot be done in the 'chlorination process'; besides, the cost of plant and treatment is much less in the above-described process.

"The electro-chemical process, which I have hastily sketched will, I think, be the future cheap method of recovering fine or flour gold from our mines and waste tailings or ore dumps.

"Without going into details of cost of treatment, I will state that with a plant of a capacity of handling 10,000 tons of pulp per month, the cost should not exceed 8s. per ton, but that may be cheapened by labour-saving devices. There being no expensive machinery, a plant could be very cheaply erected wherever necessary."


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