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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 10

I 1. Introduction

II 2. The Role Of Technology

III 3. Some Highlights Of Australian Minerals Technology
i Gold
ii Copper
iii Lead-zinc-silver
iv Technology in iron ore mining
v Iron and steel technology
vi Nickel
vii Mineral sands
viii Bauxite, alumina, aluminium

IV 4. Other Technological Achievements (in brief)

V 5. Export Of Technology

VI 6. Education And Research

VII 7. The Scientific Societies

VIII 8. Conclusion



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Mineral sands

Australia has established and maintained over some 50 years the world's leading mineral sands industry based on extensive coastal deposits on both eastern and western coasts. From small and tentative ventures into gold and tin recovery from the coastal sands larger developments followed in NSW and Qld. into rutile, zircon and ilmenite in the 1950s and 1960s; in 1956 some 30 companies were involved and their combined production supplied the highest proportion of the growing world demand for titanium pigments and metal and for zircon and zirconium. Production and prices fluctuated considerably, but overall Australia was supplying as much as 95 per cent of the world's rutile, 70 per cent of the zircon and some 10 per cent of the ilmenite. WA producers entered the scene in 1949 and have compensated in great part for the exhaustion of some of the eastern deposits and the withdrawal of substantial areas from development on environmental grounds. Currently the total Australian outputs are of the order of 200,000 t/yr of rutile (approximately 50 per cent of world consumption); 500,000 t/yr of zircon (60 per cent); 1,100,000 t/yr of ilmenite (25 per cent); 18,000 t/yr of monazite (66 per cent).

Over its 50 year history the industry's output has been almost entirely for export, but some 100,000 t/yr of ilmenite has been converted by the sulphate process to titanium dioxide pigment in two plants in Tasmania and WA, and minor amounts of rutile and zircon have been consumed in welding electrode manufacture and the foundry industry respectively. More recently the conversion of ilmenite to synthetic rutile has been established in four plants in WA with a combined output of 270,000 t/yr. The process is a major exercise in metallurgical and chemical engineering.

Two other emerging developments in local utilization of the mineral sands products are the establishment of a plant in WA to produce zirconia based ceramics for which many revolutionary engineering applications are forecast; and the major research and development efforts now being directed to the extraction of rare earths and other constituents of monazite for which there are applications in the high technology fields of electronics and superconductors.

Estimates of remaining Australian reserves, allowing for the 40 per cent withdrawal of some on environmental grounds, are 8 Mt of rutile (approximately 25 per cent of total world reserves), 11 Mt of zircon (35 per cent), 40 Mt of ilmenite (4 per cent) and 230,0001 of monazite (world figures are not available). At current rates of production the overall reserves will be substantially reduced in 25 to 30 years, but further technical advances in processing are possible, although grades of feed have already
been reduced as low as 0.2 per cent combined rutile and zircon. The success of the conversion plants for synthetic rutile from ilmenite is a factor which will influence the future of the industry.

Technologically the Australian industry has an outstanding record in concentration equipment, to such an extent that it has practically a monopoly of exports to other countries. The separation of concentrates of 95 per cent plus grades of rutile and zircon respectively from feeds as low as 0.2 per cent of the combined minerals has been achieved by continuous development of for example spirals, cone concentrators, the pinched sluice, magnetic separators, electrostatic separators, pneumatic and hydraulic tables. A highly innovative approach has been a characteristic of the industry throughout its 50-year history; an early example was the practice by Zircon Rutile Ltd of selective flotation of zircon from a mixture of rutile, ilmenite, monazite, garnet and quartz. This highly selective flotation of non-sulphide minerals was possibly the most successful in this difficult field anywhere in the world.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Zircon Rutile Ltd

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 762 - 764, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher