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14.3 Mining and mineral processing

14.3 Mining and mineral processing (ESBRD)

Now that we know where the minerals that mankind uses can be found, we can look at how he accesses the minerals. We have seen that often the minerals are not found just lying around waiting to be picked up, but rather are embedded in rocks and combined with other elements.

As man learnt more and made new discoveries, the techniques used to extract the ores improved and the amount of mineral that could be extracted increased greatly. Large tunnels started to be cut into the Earth to access minerals buried deep underground. New processing methods meant new kinds of metals could be mined.

The main stages in mining are: exploration, extraction, refining, manufacturing and marketing. We will take a brief look at exploration, extraction and refining.

Exploration (ESBRF)

Ancient humans did not worry about whether they could make money from the ores they mined. All they cared about was accessing metals and minerals that would help them eat, keep warm and beat the neighbouring tribes.

Indigenous people often have unique ways of finding mineral deposits, such as observing the behaviour of animals or noting the abundance of particular plants.

In modern times money matters and so the first step in mining is to find a suitably sized deposit of ore. For example, diamonds were found in Kimberley and gold ore was found in Johannesburg. These deposits were large enough to make mining for the gold and diamonds profitable.

As the number and size of known deposits is shrinking, geologists (who study the lithosphere) are developing new ways of finding suitable deposits. Geologists will often spend years learning how to find ores and then spend years exploring for the ores.

Obtaining the ore (ESBRG)

Once a suitably sized deposit of a mineral has been found, mining can begin. In ancient times mining and mineral processing were very primitive and the main method used to extract ores was digging by hand.

Mining is largely divided into surface and underground mining. Minerals are often found in river beds, beach sands and other sandy areas. These are known as alluvial deposits. These minerals can be fairly easily removed by surface mining techniques. Other minerals occur in long streaks known as veins or in pipes, and underground mining techniques are used to access these minerals.

Surface mining includes open pit mines, quarrying, strip mining and landfill mining. Coal and copper are often mined in this way.

Underground mining mainly consists of digging tunnels and shafts into the Earth's crust. Gold is often mined in this way. Underground mining is more risky than surface mining as tunnels can collapse and dangerous gases build up underground.

We will look more at underground and surface mining shortly.

Coal miners used to take a canary with them down the mines. If the canary died, they knew that there was a high level of gas building up and that it was not safe to stay down in the mine.

Extracting the minerals (ESBRH)

Once the ore has been mined it is usually crushed into smaller pieces that can be processed more easily. The mineral then needs to be removed from the ore.

Ancient peoples soon learnt that fire could be used to refine and purify the metals. This technique is known as smelting. This was the earliest method used to extract the mineral from the ore.

Smelting involves heating the ore to a very high temperature, often in a blast furnace. A reducing agent is usually added and the mineral is removed using chemical reactions.

In modern times several new techniques are used to extract the mineral from the ore, in addition to smelting. The most common methods are flotation, leaching and use of redox reactions.

Leaching involves mixing the ore with a carefully chosen liquid that dissolves either the mineral or the unwanted minerals. The liquid is often an acid.

Flotation involves the use of air bubbles to separate the valuable minerals from the unwanted rock. The valuable mineral becomes attached to the air bubbles and rises to the top of the mixture from where they can be removed.

The following table lists several metals and the typical methods used to mine and extract them.

Metal Mining techniques Extraction techniques
Gold Underground mining (shaft mining) and surface mining. Gold cyanidation is used. The ore is chemically treated to extract the gold.
Iron Surface mining (open pit mining). Smelting and chemical reduction.
Phosphate Surface mining (open pit mining). Treatment with acid.
Coal Surface mining (open pit mining). Underground mining is now starting to become more common. Coal is extracted in almost pure form.
Diamonds Surface mining (alluvial deposits) and underground mining (pipe mining). Diamonds are extracted from rocks and in almost pure form.
Copper Surface mining (open pit mining). Leaching is used to extract the copper using an acid.
Platinum Underground mining (shaft mining). Chemical methods and as a byproduct of copper mining.
Zinc Underground mining (shaft mining). Smelting and leaching.
Chromium (Chrome) Surface mining (open pit mining) and underground mining (shaft mining). Smelting, redox reactions.
Asbestos Surface mining (open pit mining). Extracted in fairly pure form.
Manganese Surface mining (open pit mining) and underground mining (shaft mining). Smelting and chemical processes.
Table 14.3: Table showing the mining and mineral extraction techniques for several minerals.

We will now discuss gold mining in more detail to gain a better understanding of the mining process.

Gold mining (ESBRJ)

Gold had long been known in Africa by the indigenous people, but in the late 1800's colonists found gold reefs and started exploiting the resource. Since then it has played a very important role (and often a controversial one too) in South Africa's history and economy. Its discovery brought many foreigners into South Africa, lured by the promises of wealth. They set up small mining villages which later grew into larger settlements, towns and cities. One of the first of these settlements was the beginning of present-day Johannesburg, also known as Egoli or Place of Gold.

Most of South Africa's gold is concentrated in the Golden Arc which stretches from Johannesburg to Welkom. Geologists believe that, millions of years ago, this area was a massive inland lake. Rivers feeding into this lake brought sand, silt, pebbles and fine particles of gold, depositing them over a long period of time. Eventually these deposits accumulated and became compacted to form gold-bearing sedimentary rock or gold reefs. It is because of this complex but unique set of circumstances that South Africa's gold deposits are so concentrated in that area. In other countries like Zimbabwe, gold occurs in smaller pockets which are scattered over a much greater area.

Mining the gold (ESBRK)

A number of different techniques can be used to mine gold and other minerals. The three most common methods in South Africa are panning, open pit (not typically used for gold) and shaft mining.

  1. Panning

    Panning for gold is a manual technique that is used to sort gold from other sediments. Wide, shallow pans are filled with sand and gravel (often from river beds) that may contain gold. Water is added and the pans are shaken so that the gold is sorted from the rock and other materials. Because gold is much more dense, it settles on the bottom of the pan. Pilgrim's Rest in Mpumalanga was the first site for gold panning in South Africa.

  2. Surface mining (open pit mining)

    This type of mining takes place from the surface of the Earth. In open pit mining, the topsoil is removed first and placed on the side of a trench. Then the surface layers of rock are removed to expose the deeper, valuable mineral layers. The valuable rocks are then blasted into smaller rocks using explosives. The rocks are loaded onto huge trucks and taken away for further crushing and processing. Any mineral that is found close to the surface (even up to \(\text{1 000}\) \(\text{m}\)) can be mined using surface mining techniques. If minerals are found deeper, as is the case with most of the gold in South Africa, underground mining is used.

  3. Underground mining (shaft mining)

    South Africa's thin but extensive gold reefs slope at an angle underneath the ground, and this means that some deposits are very deep and often difficult to reach. Shaft mining is needed to reach the gold ore. After the initial drilling, blasting and equipping of a mine shaft, tunnels are built leading outwards from the main shaft so that the gold reef can be reached. Shaft mining is a dangerous operation, and roof supports are needed so that the rock does not collapse. In addition the intense heat and high pressure below the surface make shaft mining very complex, dangerous and expensive. A diagram illustrating open cast and shaft mining is shown in Figure 14.3.

    Figure 14.3: Diagram showing open pit and shaft mining.

Processing the gold ore (ESBRM)

For every ton of ore that is mined, only a very small amount (about \(\text{5}\) \(\text{g}\)) of gold is extracted. A number of different methods can be used to separate gold from its ore, but one of the more common methods is called gold cyanidation.

In the process of gold cyanidation, the ore is crushed and then cyanide (\(\text{CN}^{-}\)) solution is added so that the gold particles are chemically separated from the ore. In this stage of the process, gold is oxidised. Zinc dust is then added to the cyanide solution. The zinc then takes the place of the gold, so that the gold is precipitated out of the solution. This process is shown in Figure 14.4.

Figure 14.4: Flow diagram showing how gold is processed.

Characteristics and uses of gold (ESBRN)

Gold has a number of uses because of its varied and unique characteristics. Below is a list of some of these characteristics that have made gold such a valuable metal:

  • Shiny

    Gold's beautiful appearance has made it one of the favourite metals for use in jewellery.

  • Durable

    Gold does not tarnish or corrode easily, and therefore does not deteriorate in quality. It is sometimes used in dentistry to make the crowns for teeth.

  • Malleable and ductile

    Gold can be bent and twisted into shape, as well as being flattened into very thin sheets. For this reason gold is used to make fine wires and thin, flat sheets.

  • Good conductor

    Gold is a good conductor of electricity and is therefore used in transistors, computer circuits and telephone exchanges.

  • Heat ray reflector

    Because gold reflects heat very effectively, it is used in space suits and in vehicles. It is also used in the protective outer coating of artificial satellites. One of the more unusual applications of gold is its use in firefighting, where a thin layer of gold is placed in the masks of the firefighters to protect them from the heat.

Gold mining

Textbook Exercise 14.1

In Mapungubwe (in the Limpopo Province) there is evidence of gold mining in South Africa as early as 1200. Today, South Africa is a world leader in the technology of gold mining. The following flow diagram illustrates some of the most important steps in the recovery of gold from its ore.


Name the process indicated by A.

Oxidation of gold by sodium cyanide solution.

During process A, gold is removed from the ore. Is gold oxidised or reduced during this process?

Gold is oxidised.

Use oxidation numbers to explain your answer to the question above.

The equation for the reaction is:

\[4\text{Au} + 8\text{NaCN} + \text{O}_{2} + 2\text{H}_{2}\text{O} \rightarrow 4\text{NaAu(CN)}_{2} + 4\text{NaOH}\]

Refer to chapter 13, types of reactions to calculate oxidation numbers. In the reactants gold has an oxidation number of \(\text{0}\). In the products gold occurs as \(\text{NaAu}(\text{CN})_{2}\). The cyanide ion (\(\text{CN}^{-}\)) has an oxidation number of \(-\text{1}\). The sodium ion (\(\text{Na}^{+}\)) has an oxidation number of \(\text{+1}\). The overall compound must have a total oxidation number of \(\text{0}\). Let gold's oxidation number be \(x\). Then:

\begin{align*} +1 + x + 2(-1) & = 0 \\ x & = +1 \end{align*}

So gold has an oxidation number of \(\text{+1}\) in the products. Since this is more positive (greater than) the oxidation number of gold in the reactants gold has lost electrons and so being oxidised.

Name the chemical substance that is used in process B.


During smelting (illustrated by C in the diagram), gold is sent to a large oven called a furnace. Why do you think this process is needed, and explain what happens to the gold during this process.

The high temperature used during smelting causes the gold to become a liquid. This can then be removed from the molten mixture.

Mining and the environment (ESBRP)

Environmental impacts of gold mining

However, despite the incredible value of gold and its usefulness in a variety of applications, all mining is undertaken at a cost to the environment. The following are just a few of the environmental impacts of gold mining:

  • Resource consumption

    Gold mining consumes large amounts of electricity and water. Electricity is often generated using non-renewable resources.

  • Poisoned water

    If the mining process is not monitored properly, acid and other chemicals from gold processing can leach into nearby water systems such as rivers. This causes damage to animals and plants, as well as to humans who may rely on that water for drinking.

  • Changing the landscape

    This applies particularly to surface mines (open pit mines), where large amounts of soil and rock must be displaced in order to access the mineral reserves. The shape of the landscape can be changed when large amounts of rocks are dug up from the Earth and stacked on the surface. These are called mine dumps. Open pit mines also create very large holes (pits) in the ground that change the shape of the land.

  • Air pollution

    Dust from open pit mines, as well as harmful gases such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, could be released from mining processes and contribute to air pollution.

  • Threaten natural areas

    Mining activities often encroach on protected areas and threaten biodiversity in their operation areas.

Mine rehabilitation

There is a growing emphasis on the need to rehabilitate old mine sites that are no longer in use. If it is too difficult to restore the site to what it was before, then a new type of land use might be decided for that area. Any mine rehabilitation programme should aim to achieve the following:

  • ensure that the site is safe and stable

  • remove pollutants that are contaminating the site

  • restore the biodiversity that was there before mining started

  • restore waterways to what they were before mining

There are different ways to achieve these goals. For example plants can be used to remove metals from polluted soils and water, and can also be used to stabilise the soil so that other vegetation can grow. Land contouring can help to restore drainage in the area.

In groups of 3-4, discuss the following questions:

  1. What are the main benefits of mine rehabilitation?

  2. What are some of the difficulties that may be experienced in trying to rehabilitate a mine site?

  3. Suggest some creative ideas that could be used to encourage mining companies to rehabilitate old sites.

  4. One rehabilitation project that has received a lot of publicity is the rehabilitation of dunes that were mined for titanium by Richards Bay Minerals (RBM). As a group, carry out your own research to try to find out more about this project.

    • What actions did RBM take to rehabilitate the dunes?

    • Was the project successful?

    • What were some of the challenges faced?

Mining and Mapungubwe

Read the following information about Mapungubwe.

Because of the history preserved at the site, Mapungubwe was declared a National Heritage Site in the 1980's and a World Heritage Site in 2003. The area surrounding it was declared a National Park in 1995. Unfortunately, the site is currently under huge threat from an Australian mining company who have been granted rights to construct an opencast and underground coal mine less than 6 km from the border of the National Park. There is much concern that mining operations will have a negative impact on the ecosystems, flora and fauna around Mapungubwe, and that it will hinder preservation of the site. Several environmental agencies have taken the matter to court in order to prohibit the planned mine and protect the environment around Mapungubwe.

As a class discuss, whether or not the proposed mining should go ahead. Divide into two teams. Assign one team to be in favour of the mining and one team against it. Each team should find facts relevant to their argument and then present it to the other team. At the end of the discussion, draw conclusions about whether or not the mining should take place.

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Other minerals (ESBRQ)

We have largely focused on the process involved in mining gold. However gold is not the only mineral of interest to humankind. Many other minerals are useful such as copper, iron and platinum.

Other mining activities

Choose one of the minerals given in the list below and find information on how that mineral is mined. Use the information given in this chapter about gold mining and try to find similar information for the mineral you have chosen. Write up your findings in a report. If possible, split the class into groups and assign a different mineral to each group.

  • Iron

  • Phosphate

  • Coal

  • Diamond

  • Copper

  • Platinum

  • Zinc

  • Chrome

  • Asbestos

  • Manganese