3D printing technology may soon be able to manufacture separation spirals for minerals sands extraction, thanks to a new device engineered by researchers in Australia.
While 3D printing has been around for many years, mineral separation spirals are too large to be created using off-the-shelf 3D printers, meaning a purpose-built tool had to be designed.
The custom-made printer can only produce a small range of shapes, but allows for larger build volume than traditional printers. Its bespoke design makes the additive manufacturing of full-scale spirals feasible.
Senior Design Engineer Thomas Romeijn – the brains behind the technology – says 3D printed spirals could help the mineral sands industry push new boundaries in terms of efficiency and output.
“The end goal is to tailor spirals to a specific ore body, which can help processing plants derive value more efficiently from their outflow,” he said, ahead of his speech at the Mineral Sands Conference, hosted by Informa Connect.
“We start with a general shape for the spiral, measure its mineral separation efficiency, leverage our fluid flow simulation expertise to make tweaks, and 3D print the new geometry.
“We then test this new geometry and gauge the improvements in mineral separation efficiency. If we believe there is more to be gained, we’ll have another go.
“In the end, this iterative process delivers an optimised spiral geometry for the ore body at hand.”
Typically a customisation process like this would take months to perform, but with 3D printing it can be completed in days.
“With traditional spiral technology, customising in this way is highly drawn out,” Mr. Romeijn said.
“You have to base prototypes on a mould, then perform extensive testing cycles, with months in between. With 3D printing, this development and prototyping can be done incredibly quickly.”
The flexibility of the new manufacturing process also lends itself to emerging technologies, including sensors – further heightening the spiral’s potential to provide efficiency gains.
“With 3D printing, it is easy to embed sensors into the spiral surface,” Mr. Romeijn said. “In the future, this could provide ‘live’ data on the mineral separation performance. Through automation of the spiral’s spitters, which determine what portion of the outflow is further processed, each individual spiral can optimise its output and boost the overall efficiency of the plant as a whole.”
There are also environmental advantages to the new technology. Currently around 500 containers of spirals are shipped globally each year, but with the introduction of 3D printing, spirals could be printed on site.
“Instead of shipping spirals to mineral sands plants across the world, the 3D printers can be shipped instead, enabling producers to print their own spirals as needed,” Mr. Romeijn said.
“Shipping spirals really means shipping a large body of air around the world since these helical structures are hard to stack efficiently. It would make far more sense to produce these spirals where they’re needed.”
The 3D printing technology is the product of a collaboration between the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (Innovative Manufacturing CRC Ltd), the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Downer, via its subsidiary Mineral Technologies Pty Ltd.
The printer prototype was completed in April 2021 and a commercial version of the printer is set to be operational before Christmas 2022.
Mr. Romeijn will share more details on the technology at the 23rd annual Mineral Sands Conference. This year’s event will be held 22-23 November at the Pac Pacific Perth. Learn more and register your place here.