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Copper Ore Types: Sulfides vs. Oxides

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Mundo Minero con información de Investing News || 27 de abril de 2016

Copper-containing rock, or copper ore, hosts only a small percentage of copper. Most of the rock is unwanted material, typically referred to as gangue. Depending on which minerals the copper is bound to, the rock is processed in different ways in order to extract the valuable copper.

There are two main copper ore types of interest: copper oxide ores and copper sulfide ores. Both ore types can be economically mined. However, the most common source of copper ore is chalcopyrite, the sulfide ore mineral — it accounts for about 50 percent of copper production.

Copper sulfide ores are the most profitable types of ores. That is because they have high copper content, and the copper can more easily be separated from the unwanted minerals. It is important to note that sulfide ores are not as abundant as oxide ores.

Copper ore types: Oxides

Copper oxide ores are not as attractive an exploration target as copper sulfide ores due to their lower grade. However, low-grade copper ore of this type can still be economically mined because they can be processed at a lower cost than copper sulfide ores.

Oxidized copper ore bodies may be treated several ways. For instance, hydrometallurgical processes are used to treat oxide ores dominated by soluble minerals, such as copper carbonate minerals. These oxide ores are usually leached using sulfuric acid to liberate the copper minerals into a solution of sulfuric acid laden with copper sulfate solution.

The copper sulfate solution (the pregnant leach solution) is then stripped of copper via a solvent extraction and electrowinning (SX-EW) process. Alternatively, the copper can be precipitated out of the pregnant leach solution through a process called cementation, whereby the copper is contacted with scrap iron. Copper produced through the cementation method is usually less pure than SX-EW copper.

Copper ore types: Sulfides

The method used to process copper sulfide ores depends on the concentration of copper within the ore — higher concentrated ores can be separated via smelting, while lower concentrated ores are separated via hydrometallurgical processes.

Some supergene sulfide deposits can be leached using a bacterial oxidation heap leach process to oxidize the sulfides to sulfuric acid. That also allows for simultaneous leaching with sulfuric acid to produce a copper sulfate solution.

As with oxide ores, SX-EW technologies are used to recover copper from a pregnant leach solution. Secondary sulfides, formed by supergene secondary enrichment, are resistant to sulfuric leaching.

When rich enough, native copper ore bodies may be treated to recover contained copper via a gravity separation circuit. Supergene copper ores rich in sulfides may be concentrated using froth flotation.

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