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The ultimate mineral processing challenge: Recovery of rare earths, phosphorus and uranium from Florida phosphatic clay

Minerals & Metallurgical Processing , 2017, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 183-188

Zhang, P.; Liang, H.; Jin, Z.; DePaoli, D.



Phosphate beneficiation in Florida generates more than one tonne of phosphatic clay, or slime, per tonne of phosphate rock produced. Since the start of the practice of large-scale washing and desliming for phosphate beneficiation, more than 2 Gt of slime has accumulated, containing approximately 600 Mt of phosphate rock, 600 kt of rare earth elements (REEs) and 80 million kilograms of uranium. The recovery of these valuable elements from the phosphatic clay is one of the most challenging endeavors in mineral processing, because the clay is extremely dilute, with an average solids concentration of 3 percent, and fine in size, with more than 50 percent having particle size smaller than 2 μm, and it contains nearly 50 percent clay minerals as well as large amounts of magnesium, iron and aluminum. With industry support and under funding from the Critical Materials Institute, the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute in conjunction with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory undertook the task to recover phosphorus, rare earths and uranium from Florida phosphatic clay. This paper presents the results from the preliminary testing of two approaches. The first approach involves three-stage cycloning using cyclones with diameters of 12.4 cm (5 in.), 5.08 cm (2 in.) and 2.54 cm (1 in.), respectively, to remove clay minerals followed by flotation and leaching. The second approach is a two-step leaching process. In the first step, selective leaching was conducted to remove magnesium, thus allowing the production of phosphoric acid suitable for the manufacture of diammonium phosphate (DAP) in the second leaching step. The results showed that multistage cycloning with small cyclones is necessary to remove clay minerals. Selective leaching at about pH 3.2 using sulfuric acid was found to be effective for removing more than 80 percent of magnesium from the feed with minimal loss of phosphorus.

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