After a foundation in physical science has been followed, this field of study branches into the following areas of specialisation:
- Ore preparation: extraction processes used are based on the chemical and physical properties of the material
- Pyrometallurgy: processes are based on the heating and smelting of materials in order to extract the valuable metals
- Hydrometallurgy: processes are developed to work with and recover metals in solution.
Some ore bodies contain as little as 5 grams per tonne (5 parts per million) of a precious metal. Extraction metallurgists are required not only to recover these small amounts of material, but also to do so in the most economical way. The skill of a metallurgist to extract as much of the mineral as possible from these ores at the lowest possible cost, will thus become even more important in the future.
They need a detailed understanding of the physical and chemical characteristics of metals and minerals and how these vary under different conditions. They use this knowledge to design, test, operate and maintain processes and plants to extract the metals and minerals, efficiently and economically.
Because of the need to recover as much of the mineral as possible, modern plants use the latest instruments and computers to help monitor the processes and pinpoint problems on the plant as soon as they occur. Hence the metallurgist also needs to be familiar with these systems.
The first stage of ore extraction involves the concentration of the minerals in the ore. Through the use of various beneficiation methods the valuable material is separated from the waste material to form an ore concentrate. The initial process of concentration is known as beneficiation, ore preparation or mineral preparation.
The type of material and the grade of the product required determine the exact process used. Thereafter various hydro-metallurgical and pyrometallurgical technicians are available to obtain a product of the correct quality.
- mining companies
- metallurgical extraction plants
- metallurgical research laboratories
- educational institutions
- government departments
- such organisations as Mintek, Mittal Steel, CSIR
- self-employment - suitably qualified and experienced extraction metallurgists can establish themselves as independent consultants offering specialist advice and service to metallurgical plants and companies throughout the country
Note: In South Africa there is usually a need for more university of technology qualified metallurgists than graduates.
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