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In recent months, the government of South Africa has made significant efforts to achieve greater control of its resources and create more employment opportunities and economic growth for the wider community. In the lead-up to IMM’s inaugural Iron Ore Beneficiation Africa conference, we had the chance to speak to David Cousins, Industry Champion for Mining and Beneficiation, Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) about the biggest opportunities for iron ore beneficiation in South Africa, the most promising technological developments in the sector and its role in facilitating regional economic growth.
IMM Events: In your presentation at the IMM Africa Iron Ore conference in 2013 you told attendees that in order to gain additional steel production capacity in South Africa industry should focus on developing low-cost steel production methods and technologies. What are the main issues with current production methods?
David Cousins: As you would expect, the key cost drivers are logistics, reductant, and iron ore – pretty much in that order. South Africa does not have abundantly available coking coal; the little coking coal available requires blending with imported coking coals. For additional iron ore beneficiation key drivers for achieving low cost steel production will be matching locally available raw materials – both iron ore and coals – with the appropriate technology. Existing facilities are experiencing ever increasing production costs, they are typically aging facilities established when iron ore, coking coal and logistics were abundant and low cost. None of these factors remain valid today. Iron making technologies, environmental standards and raw material costs have all evolved in recent decades resulting in a continuous reduction in the world steel cost curve. This is contrary to domestic production costs.
IMM Events: Where do you see the biggest opportunities for iron ore beneficiation in South Africa? What developments need to occur to make the most of these opportunities?
David Cousins: The vast resources or iron ore in South Africa creates opportunity, this coupled with various initiatives to develop appropriate technologies to process the specific iron ores. Many of the iron ores are associated with other elements such as vanadium, titanium, copper etc. What is required to make additional beneficiation a reality are commercialisation plants on an industrial scale. The challenges in scaling laboratory scale or even pilot plants to full scale are not to be underestimated. Other enablers include development of low cost logistic chains particularly rail.
IMM Events: What do you consider the most promising technological developments in iron ore beneficiation? When can we expect them to be ready for the wider market?
David Cousins: There are numerous initiatives to develop new iron making processes. The reality is that many of the lower value iron ores require bespoke beneficiation processes to produce iron. It is a case of matching the iron ore to the correct technology for that resource. This is what makes the initiatives so exciting. They are aimed at transforming challenging or even marginal or sub-economic iron ores that would not otherwise be viably developed into commercially viable resources. We are supportive of those processes that do not require coking coals. It is a matter of matching local low cost resources including reductants with iron ores and the appropriate technologies. Some of these projects like the IMBS MIB project have been implemented and expansion can be anticipated. Others require construction of the commercialisation plants to demonstrate the technology with the resource on a commercial scale. There are also those projects where feasibility studies need to be concluded and EIA approvals are required. The EIA process is one of the longest processes in the development chain. I don’t foresee any significant additions to beneficiated iron ore in the short-term. It will take time, at least 3 years to see meaningful increases.
IMM Events: One of IDC’s roles is promoting regional economic growth in South Africa. How can local iron ore beneficiation facilitate this?
David Cousins: The region is a net exporter of iron ore and other steel making raw materials. The obvious benefits of beneficiation include exporting a greater value product. However, what is of particular interest is beneficiating local iron fines or iron ore associated with other elements such as those found in the Bushveld Complex. Matching beneficiation and iron making technologies to the specific iron ores will potential for exports and lead to sustainable development opportunities. Logistics remain the single most import factor in making this a reality. Logistic constraints and logistic costs work both ways in supporting beneficiation. Upgrading iron ore reduces the volumes and increases the value of what needs to be transported. Consider from the customer/importers view, they import iron ore at [55% to 65%] Fe, and they import the reductant/energy source (coals). At the current logistic costs, beneficiation near source has economic merit.
IMM Events: You will be speaking at the inaugural Africa Iron Ore Beneficiation conference, to be held on the 7-18 March in Johannesburg. What insights are you hoping to gain from your participation in the event?
David Cousins: It is always good to hear what others in the industry are doing. Various initiatives are being worked on, all facing similar challenges. I look forward to seeing the different approaches to addressing these challenges and what progress has been made.