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We at Informa Insights were extremely excited this week as we had the opportunity to pick the brain of Mr Elardus Maré, the Principal Metallurgist – Resource Strategy, Fortescue Metals Group. Elardus shared some wonderful insights into FMG’s Metallurgical Centre of Excellence, the iron ore market as well as current technological trends. Enjoy!
Informa Insights (II): You will be speaking at the 5th Annual FeTech 2014 and sharing with delegates a case study on Fortescue Metals Group’s Metallurgical Centre of Excellence, which opened in the Pilbara mid-2012. Can you tell us a bit about the centre; the aims and objectives for the centre and how success is measured there?
Elardus Maré (EM): At Fortescue we have always been very technically minded as we like to challenge and innovate. Over the years it meant that in-house metallurgical expertise and especially laboratory and testing facilities have always been a big part of what we are and what we do. It does not preclude us from also making use of external laboratories and consultants from time-to-time but our preference is to do as much as possible of at least the preliminary stuff in-house. It helps to not only protect one’s strategy but also helps hone skills and make you think deeper about the processes involved. Initially our metallurgical facilities, being the brainchild of our original department head Dr John Clout, were mostly based at Cloudbreak (our first mine in the eastern Pilbara) but as we added new mines, especially the Solomon hub in the western Pilbara, it made sense to centralise a larger, more sophisticated metallurgical facility. Apart from being able to serve all the mine-based processing from a central location not necessarily affiliated with one of the mines in particular, being close to a sizeable town would be ideal in terms of logistics and available services.
Through brilliant foresight, Fortescue had acquired the Newman Racecourse administration complex more than a decade ago, so we had such an excellent base, with accommodation units and associated amenities available just outside of Newman. While we have been using this strategic asset intermittently as a metallurgical base previously, it was only in 2012 that our department returned to Newman permanently when our current facility, Newman Metallurgical Centre of Excellence, was opened in August of that year within easy walking distance of our own accommodation site.
We employ two teams of metallurgical technicians on a rotating basis, headed by a manager and team supervisors and technically assisted by FIFO metallurgists and geologists. NMCE work on a system of formal job requests with weekly prioritisation of incoming jobs on team handover day and formal close-out of completed jobs by the FIFO metallurgists and Perth-based geo-met team who regularly liaise with and visit the sites to do final reporting. Success is measured by the satisfaction of our customers – mine site personnel and corporate headquarters. It is only rarely that metallurgical investigations go to outside facilities and then only for very specific reasons or when NMCE is overstretched. We do not do chemical assay for example. Some specialised testing are still more cost-effectively done by commercial labs but we are able to the 95% of work that precedes the bits we don’t do.
II: What are the pressing issues that you and your team expect to focus on in the next 12-18 months?
EM: We need to ensure that our mine sites have practical and useful information on the optimal utilisation and processing of their specific ore types that fit in with their specific corporate strategies in terms of quantity and quality of ore production. Our challenge is to maintain regular contact horizontally as well as vertically to be fully aware of what is still applicable in a changing market. That way our testing plans will be appropriate to their needs and will answer typical questions such as grade v yield optimisation, simplified processing, latest techniques and technologies etc.
II: The iron market is currently experiencing some market challenges, where do you think there are opportunities to improve productivity for iron ore processing?
EM: Unlike a true commodity with little room for specialisation, iron ore qualities like grades and textures can fortunately be altered to some extent to satisfy differing market demands or to suit specific customers. It is therefore a very marketable product with technical marketing experts forever involved to read the market and pitch unique products at specific end-users. I believe the market challenges require the right balance between ore quantity and quality. Iron ore is no different in that respect to many other things in life – it’s a question of finding the right balance. The metallurgical team is always on the forefront in finding the relationships between quantity and qualities; so-called grade versus yield. We need to ensure we know the true relationships and that we can operate on both sides of that equation.
II: What are the top technological trends that you are currently monitoring?
EM: In broad terms, without giving away our strategic advantages, metallurgists would always be looking for technologies that minimise unwanted losses to tails, that achieve maximum organic efficiencies and sharp separations, that are easy and efficient to operate and that are potentially flexible to change as dictated by market conditions. Currently NMCE is involved in testing a range of different hydrocyclones and cycloning strategies as primary separators of waste and ore as well as associated processes such as ore and waste dewatering.
Other than that, we are active in researching any technologies that afford instantaneous or quicker measurement of various ore qualities so that one can respond as fast as possible to changing scenarios like ore type changes or different productions strategies.
II: You have been involved with the ore characterisation and plant design for Fortescue’s operating mines. What are your biggest career lesson to date?
EM: Though orebodies like ours share similarities and ultimately share a common market, one still needs to look for the special points that make each unique. One can easily fall into a trap of simply copying successful processing and plant designs across sites, especially when they are fairly near each other such as our two Chichester hub mines. It is worth diligently repeating the same basic characterisation testwork for each orebody. It gives perspective to compare studies and actively identify the slight differences. The biggest lesson, however, is not to forget that laboratory scale testwork is only an approximation of what can and will be achieved in real life. Operational scale inefficiencies and secondary effects will invariably lead to results that are not quite the same as what was predicted from all the hard small scale work. We therefore put a big price on pilot scale testing to confirm what our initial desktop studies indicated.