Acceleration of Industrial Innovation to Secure High-Quality Nickel Supply

After successful testing of a pilot project by NewEco, a partnership supported by EIT RawMaterials, the ERAMET Sandouville plant in France is undergoing a €34.5 million upgrade that allows it to replace suppliers in the South Pacific with a new European source for nickel concentrate.

Due to the highly competitive market on nickel, ERAMET launched in 2013 a strategic programme aiming at strengthening its Sandouville plant’s positions in the high-purity nickel market, as well as preserving the local employment (170 people). High purity nickel is among other uses vital for the development of electric cars. ERAMET’s programme involves the adaptation of existing refining processes and a change in the business model.

In that regard, instead of shipping in nickel concentrate (matte) from New Caledonia, ERAMET started a partnership with Boliden’s Harjavalta smelter in Finland to study the feasibility of importing nickel mattes from a closer country. This has rapidly shown a good potential but with the needs of significant changes in the refining process. Thanks to this great symbiosis, the first positive impact is the best use of the raw materials in order to recover and produce nickel, cobalt, iron, copper and precious metals in a competitive way. Secondly, by optimizing the processes at both plants, this partnership allows continued production of high purity nickel salts and metals at the ERAMET Sandouville plant. Thanks to the better competitive positioning, ERAMET/BOLIDEN will secure the supply of pure nickel-based products for a large number of customers in Europe. Furthermore, the cooperation will enable to develop the expertise of both plants, contributing to their sustainability it has also a positive impact on the environment by reducing the carbon footprint.

To turn innovation into industrial reality, the first main productions steps of the ERAMET Sandouville plant were totally revamped during 11 months in 2017 and the logistic flows were redesigned as well as the treatment of co-products. Amounting to €34.5 million, the upgrade is the biggest capital project since the site was built in 1978. The opening ceremony took place on 19 June. The new process will gradually ramp up until the end of the year. Once ramped up, the site will process 25,000 tons of matte per year to produce 15,000 tons of high-purity nickel metal, 2,300 tons of nickel content in various salts and liquids, 400 tons of cobalt and 3,000 tons of iron.

The recycled intermediate from Sandouville plant will increase Boliden Harjavalta’s production by 3.5 Ktons of copper and by more than 1000 kg’s of gold, platinum, and palladium.

The EIT RawMaterials contribution to this achievement is supported by the NewEco project, which started in 2016. The NewEco consortium gathers industrial partners and universities, each of them bringing its own knowledge on specific issues. So, not only ERAMET contributes to this success story, but also the University of Liège in charge of the mineralogy studies, Aalto University bringing its expertise in thermodynamics and modelling and BOLIDEN Harjavalta bearing the responsibility for pyrometallurgy and hydrometallurgy demonstration issues. A good cooperation spirit and a great complementarity of the consortium’s member skills is the key to this success story.

The NewEco project’s grant allowed the consortium to work on different issues aiming to adapt existing processes to the refining of a new matte and will allow in 2018 to assist the ramp-up at ERAMET Sandouville plant:

  • Research Groups for Thermodynamics and Modelling and for Hydrometallurgy and Corrosion at Aalto University (FI) perform theory studies on the process kinetics and thermodynamics coupled to preliminary lab tests.
  • GeMMe (Mineral Science, Materials and Environment) group at the University of Liège (BE) provides characterization data and interpretation of phenomena at the different stages of the hydrometallurgical process.
  • ERAMET RESEARCH (FR) implements at pilot scale (TRL 6) the most promising process routes and optimises operating parameters in the Ni/Co hydrometallurgy process; ERAMET Sandouville implements the demonstration trials after TRL validation at ERAMET Research allowing this process to reach TRL 7.
  • BOLIDEN Harjavalta carries on pyrometallurgy demonstration trials in the copper smelter and hydrometallurgy demonstration trials in the copper refinery to guarantee processing and recovery of valuable metals recycled as an intermediate from Sandouville plant to back Harjavalta.
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