Past, Present and Future of Zinc Mining in Australia
Australia has been producing zinc since 1901 when the development of a new process enabled for the economic extraction of zinc from Broken Hill. Currently, Australia is one of the world’s main producers and exporters of zinc and the industry recruit thousands of citizens, especially in Northern Australia.
In 1883, Charles Rasp uncovered the rich and extensive Broken Hill lead-zinc-silver deposit when he discovered several dark, heavy rocks which he believed can contain zinc. Subsequent assays of these rocks showed that he had situated rich oxidized (weathered) lead and silver minerals. Broken Hill provided the foundation for Australia’s present main zinc mining industry.
The rich lodes at Mt Isa were not uncovered till 1923 and were developed in spite of the distant location and harsh setting. The close by, rich Hilton deposit was uncovered in the late 1940s but not developed till the mid-1980s. Production keeps going on at Mt Isa and it said to be the next main zinc manufacturer in Australia. In the Mt Isa area, there is great zinc mining at the George Fisher, Century, and Canning ton deposits, while the Lady Loretta and Dugald River deposits are not yet to be developed. The large McArthur River deposit is a main manufacturer of zinc in the Northern Territory.
Australia takes the first position in the world economic zinc resources due to her development of the great, world-class zinc-lead-silver deposits at Century, Canning ton and McArthur River. This rank is more supported by resources in the several other deposits of different sizes in Australia.
Australia is well at the front position of technological development in zinc processing and mining.
In the early days of Broken Hill, zinc ore was discarded, because generally not any of the zinc could be mine cost-effectively. Magnetic and gravity techniques were ineffective although in 1901 a floatation method was developed at Broken Hill which attained upturn of the zinc minerals from ore at more than 60%, after a lot of experimentation, in 1912 a selected flotation technique which perfectly worked on a commercial level.
Nearly all of Australia’s zinc mines are highly mechanized and are underground operations. Ore is blasted and drilled in large quantities, moved to underground rock crushers via big trucks and loaders prior to being lifted to the exterior in driven or skips straight to the surface with the truck through a spiral access tunnel referred to a decline. Century is Australia’s only big surface unlock pit zinc mine where ore extraction is by the same techniques but hoisting is not needed.
Presently, the zinc mining industry is one of the biggest contributors to Australia’s export trade. Smelting and electrolysis are the two techniques utilized to make zinc metal in Australia. The electrolytic techniques are utilized at the Risdon zinc plant in Tasmania where zinc concentrate from several Australian mines is heated to get rid of nearly all of the sulphur as sulphur dioxide and produce impure zinc oxide. The heated concentrate is later leached with sulphuric acid to produce zinc sulphate solution. The zinc sulphate solution which is cleansed via adding a few quantity of zinc powder to remove or precipitate traces of nickel, cobalt, cadmium and copper.
In Australia, primary sophisticated zinc is made at three plants including Port in South Australia, Cockle Creek in New South Wales and Risdon in Tasmania. few production of secondary sophisticated zinc happens at Port Kembla in New South Wales. Zinc dust and zinc oxide are made from scrap and primary zinc at West Footscray in Melbourne, Victoria and in small quantities in Brisbane, Queensland.
Recently one of the world’s biggest zinc mining companies, Rio Tinto, announced that it would be investing half a billion dollars in its automation program, which includes driverless trains in the Pilbara region of Western Australia to transport zinc, iron ore, new technologies in underground tunneling, a remote operations centre in Perth, and a new fleet of driverless trucks. Other mining companies have indicated that they too have plans to roll out autonomous haul truck fleets and underground loaders.
Automation sounds like a good way of addressing current labor shortages in the zinc mining industry, especially as zinc mining operations continue to expand across Australia. Also, automation may push down the costs of zinc mining because there are (potentially) fewer wages to be paid and it improves workplace health and safety by taking people out of dangerous situations. However, automation implies that some jobs currently based in mining regions will be lost to higher skilled positions located in capital cities and regional centers.
The role of technology is central in defining and realizing a sustainable future for the minerals and zinc mining industry in Australia. It has the ability to drive environmental efficiencies (e.g. reduce water and energy use), improve the cost-efficiency of mining, and improve the safety of industry workers. Yet technology that is poorly designed or inadequately thought through has the potential to create unintended consequences for the environment, reduce the number of jobs available to local community members, and change the way zinc mining and society the relate to each other. Zinc mining technology development in the future will benefit strongly from the inclusion of a broader set of voices in considering how technologies are designed and deployed. Successful technologies will be those that not only solve technical problems but also meet the needs of decision-makers, local communities, and the broader Australian public.