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Life on Golden Dumps

Life on Golden Dumps

05.10.2009 — Analysis

Russia will need decades to process all of its accumulated industrial waste. Lack of money and technologies hampers elimination of ash disposal areas. However, the main reason, as the observer of RusBusinessNews found out, is that back in the Soviet times the manufacturers got used to drawing budgets, not making money by making a quality product.

The Sverdlovsk Oblast has accumulated about 8 billion tons of industrial waste. Most of it (around 80%) is disposal areas of mining and metallurgic industries. These industries produce 160 million tons of waste per annum. As a result, whole towns in the Urals are surrounded by man-made hills the chemical composition of which is similar to the periodic table. The residents of various settlements literally walk on gold, while manufacturers still keep on digging new open pits.

Specialists say that the content of metals in dumps is substantially higher than in ores. Vladimir Khristosenko, Head of Laboratory for Developing Materials of ООО StroiMarket, has established that in one of currently shut down enterprises the gold content in the processed ore was 0.9 grams per ton, while in the disposal areas - 1.2 grams. The higher concentration of the precious metal in the waste is ensured by the outdated technology of gold mining: flushing equipment that changed little since the 19th century entraps only big particles, while fine particles of gold are thrown out. The quantity of the yellow metal in the man-made hills sometimes amounts to dozens of tons. "Tailings" have many more other precious metals: according to Anatoly Filippenkov, President of the Oblast Small and Medium Business Union, the content of nickel, copper, chromium, and vanadium in disposal areas is 5-10 times higher than in the mined ore.

Foreign business people have always known what riches Russia possesses, and hence have been trying to purchase disposal areas. In particular, the Japanese couldn't take their eyes off of the "tailings" of the Kachkanar Vanadium Mining Complex (GOK), from which they planned to recover scandium. There have been many others willing to buy these disposal areas, too. However, all foreigners' proposals were refused. According to Vladimir Khristosenko, the owners of the GOK decided to recover scandium and titanium themselves and turned to Americans for assistance in finding an appropriate technology and equipment. The deal was not closed because foreigners failed to find equipment that would match the scope of challenges the company was facing. For over 50 years of work this enterprise has mined over 1.5 billion tons of ore, 80% of which ended up at the disposal area. To process these mountains of rock, special technologies and high-performance equipment is needed.

The company has not yet got to recover titanium from the disposal area. The technology of scandium recovery has been developed by Russian scientists but, according to Sergei Makushev, Chief Dresser of the Kachkanar GOK, it is way too expensive, which undermines the cost effectiveness of the scandium business. Moreover, the complex has not yet set itself the task of developing a project and conducting a market research, without which the commencement of technology development, say nothing of building a new ore dressing factory, would be utter madness.

Yuri Sorokin, Head of Metallurgical Slags Department of the Urals Metals Institute JSC, is convinced that this problem has to be approached from the other end. For example, Kamensk-Uralski has accumulated hundreds of million tons of the so-called red mud. It contains scandium, iron (40%), aluminium (30%), and other metals. However, starting to recover just one element means making the project unprofitable. The expert sees the way out in an integrated processing of dumps. This, however, requires an appropriate technology and 350 million dollars.

It was as far as 9 years ago that Vladimir Khristosenko offered to the Kachkanar GOK the use of high-performance equipment (gravity concentrator) that he and his specialist team had developed. This equipment makes it possible to recover fine fractions of gold, lead, zinc, molybdenum, titanium, wolfram, tantalum, titanium and vanadium oxides. The inventor was not appreciated by miners. "I am not concerned with this topic any more," he said to RusBusinessNews. "Russian manufacturers do not need technologies. Owners do not want to deal with the management issues, whilst managers are not interested in recovering metals from the dumps. They find other ways of making money."

Yuri Sorokin states that it is not widely accepted in Russia to implement Russian technologies. For instance, Russian metal makers produce slags the old way: cool down a 30 ton cast and then start crushing it. This process requires huge spaces and a lot of energy. Back in the 1990's, the Urals Metals Institute proposed to crush slags in the melted state. They developed a piece of equipment and tested it at many enterprises and on various slags. The result was promising but no one in Russia wanted to implement this technology: they were not happy with the pay-off period of one and a half year. The scientists then sold this unit to Shanghai: outside Russia the pay-off period of 5-7 years in metals sector is considered quite acceptable. Now the Chinese sell these units to India and offer them to Russian metal makers, too. Perhaps Russians will buy them soon. The situation regarding the return of continuous steel casting technology in Russia, invented by Russian scientists but implemented by Japanese industrialists, was very similar. Russians, who initially refused to implement this invention in Russia, now never fail to remind the foreigners that it was their countryman who invented it.

Since those times, claims Yuri Sorokin, not much has changed in this country: everybody wants to get knowledge-based products for free. There is no queue of those who want to invest in technological waste processing, nor do metal makers have money for that. Before 2001, the state encouraged the business to process the dumps, counting investment into equipment and technologies as payments for waste disposal. After this benefit was recalled, investment in processing plummeted.

At first, there was an illusion that small business with its small resources will manage the task. As a matter of fact, business people started to actively delve the dumps and separate slags. Participating illegal miners created semi-criminal business on this. However, managers of big enterprises soon realized that small businesses process "tailings" selectively: taking out most precious things and leaving out poor dumps with crushed rock for metallurgists. Correspondingly, small business was asked to leave.

Experts say that it could not have been otherwise: small business is unable to set up integrated waste processing. Crushing and screening plant alone costs around 100 million rubles, and you will also need excavators, bulldozers, magnetic separators or those gravity concentrators. You will also have to obtain a license which, together with resolutions of regulatory authorities, costs 1.5 million rubles. Small business does not have that kind of money. The result of all this is a unique situation, which Anatoly Filippenkov described as "the dog in the manger": big business does not process the dumps and does not allow small business to do it.

For justice's sake we have to note that leading mining and metals companies of the Sverdlovsk Oblast continue to process the dumps after the benefits were revoked. In the Soviet times the Oblast only processed a half of blast-furnace slags and an almost negligible part of steelmaking slags (3.6%); nowadays, Yuri Sorokin claims, 20% more blast-furnace slags are processed than produced; as for steelmaking slags, the excess is 10%. It is easy to calculate that with today's pace of work Russia will be utilizing industrial tailings for decades.

Apart from lack of funds and technologies, region-specific features impede the gathering of momentum. Igor Veselovski, Head of Production and Technical Department of the Serov Ferroalloy Plant JSC, and Stanislav Moroz, Senior Specialist for Technogenic Formations Processing of A.K.Serov Metal Works JSC, claim that there is no demand for broken slag, which is the most common product of dumps processing. Road builders prefer to use natural breakstone which, according to Vladimir Dmitriev, Deputy Director of the Motorways Department SOGU, is of better quality, stood the test of times, and is comparable in price.

Yuri Sorokin does not understand why road builders are so stubbornly unwilling to change their technology, although broken slag is 5 times cheaper than the natural breakstone and allows to build roads of higher quality. The breakstone currently used has layers that slip against each other, which leads to the destruction of the road surface. Broken slag is cubic in form, harsh, and has an activity: fine powders in its composition bind to form a sort of cement surface. Accordingly, such roads have a significantly longer life than those made of natural breakstone.

Evidently, the problem is the lack of road builders' interest in building roads of good quality. In private conversations they admit that they are better off building 5 km of road of natural breakstone at 450 rubles per ton than 10 km of quality broken slag at 90 rubles.

Experts are convinced that in times of an economic crisis the state must be interested in stimulating dump processing as it will give a perceptible economic effect. According to Anatoly Filippenkov, it pays back to alloy metal with products derived from slags than with pure nickel. Besides, crushing equipment wears off quickly, which promises regular workload for machine-building plants. Demand for broken slags will most likely encourage metal makers to increase processing of dumps. Because even in times when road building is curtailed, Russia annually consumes 15 million tons of broken slag.

Vladimir Terletski

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