ENICON EU-funded project
Start date: 1 June 2022 - End date: 31 May 2026
Sustainable processing of Europe’s low-grade sulphidic and lateritic nickel/cobalt ores and tailings into battery-grade metals
KATHOLIEKE UNIVERSITEIT LEUVEN (Belgium)
Sustainable refining methods for the profitable recovery of nickel and cobalt
Electric vehicles are expected to dramatically increase the demand for nickel (Ni) and cobalt (Co) over the next two decades. Europe is expected to face difficulties in securing a reliable, affordable and sustainable supply chain as the concentration of such minerals in the continent is scarce. The EU-funded ENICON project aims to improve the refining capacity of domestic and imported low-grade Ni/Co. ENICON’s metal recovery route using hydrochloric acid dispenses with the old-school hydro-based approach that involves continuously precipitating and redissolving metals. Thus, it reduces the amount of chemicals needed for metal dissolution, which result in the production of potentially harmful waste streams.
The cobalt (Co) and nickel (Ni) demand is expected to be about 20 times higher in 2040 than in 2020. Given that Europe plays only a minor role in the global Ni/Co supply chains, which are concentrated in the DRC, Indonesia and China, we face a serious problem in securing a reliable, affordable and sustainable supply of battery-grade Ni/Co, vital for Europe’s aims to be climate-neutral by 2050. In view of a “domestic and foreign sourcing” procurement model, ENICON exploits the potential of (low-grade) Ni/Co resources within Europe – i.e. sulphidic Ni/Co ores and derived Ni/Co-bearing pyrite and silicate tailings, and limonitic/saprolitic laterite Ni(/Co) ores – while improving and developing the Ni/Co-refining capacity that can process imported ores, concentrates and intermediates. ENICON comprises both major improvements to existing Ni/Co metallurgical unit operations in Europe as well as the development of a new HCl-based route for both Ni/Co sulphide concentrates and laterites. ENICON’s HCl-route dispenses with the old-school hydro-approach of continuously precipitating and redissolving metals that requires lots of chemicals and creates problematic waste streams. The HCl-based route can be extended to the downstream processing of FeNi (Class-II Ni) obtained from laterites; (2) Mixed (Ni/Co) Sulphide/Hydroxide Precipitate (MSP/MHP) from the bioleaching of Co-rich pyrite tailings; and Ni/Co-containing silicate tailings. ENICON targets a “forensic geometallurgy” protocol, making it possible to identify and mitigate the mineralogical and textural reasons for processing losses along existing and new flowsheets. To make the transition to (near) zero-waste processing and to further reduce CO2-footprints, ENICON develops enhanced mineral-matrix valorisation processes. The outputs from ENICON’s group of European Ni/Co mining, processing and refining companies will all be benchmarked in terms of positive environmental and techno-economic impacts against current methods.