A demonstration plant to recover uranium from existing phosphate production facilities is being prepared for shipment to the USA, Australian company Uranium Equities has announced. Major uranium company Cameco has increased its investment in the process.
The PhosEnergy process is being developed by Uranium Equities Ltd (UEQ) in conjunction with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). Cameco has now made the second investment under a deal signed in 2009 to partner UEQ in the development and commercialisation of the process. Cameco's latest $5 million investment brings its total investment in the process to date to $12.5 million out of the possible $16.5 million total investment under the 2009 agreement.
Phosphate rocks, which are processed into the phosphoric acid used to make fertilisers, contain many million tonnes of uranium and are chief among the world's so-called unconventional uranium resources. Estimates of the amount of uranium in the world's phosphate rocks range from 9 to 22 million tonnes of uranium. In the past, recovery of uranium as a by-product from the processing of phosphate rocks has contributed some 20,000 tonnes to world uranium production, but the process became uneconomic in the 1990s and was discontinued.
UEQ estimates that if the historic uranium recovery process were to be revived in the current economic climate, recovery costs would be around $50-70 per pound U3O8 and would be above the current spot market prices for uranium. The PhosEnergy process, however, can deliver low operating costs estimated at $20-25 per pound U3O8 and uranium recoveries estimated at 92% with improved environmental outcomes and reduced waste, the company claims.
The PhosEnergy process is designed as a "bolt-on" that can be added to existing phosphate processing facilities. A fully integrated and process controlled demonstration plant that fits into two 40-foot (12-metre) shipping containers has been built in Australia and is now undergoing final commissioning before being shipped to the USA.
The demonstration plant will go into operation at the US fertiliser producer's site in the second half of 2011 where it will operate for 5-6 months. Cameco's investment will underpin the planned operation of the demonstration plant and an associated pre-feasibility study, according to UEQ. The operations will provide cost and design data to enable the construction of a full-scale commercial facility.
UEQ managing director Bryn Jones said that Cameco's latest investment represented a strong endorsement of the potential of the process. "We are pleased that Cameco is to continue its financial, technical and corporate development support of the PhosEnergy process," he said.
If Cameco goes ahead and invests the third and final $4 million tranche, it will own 63% of the technology related to the process, with UEQ holding 27% and original developers the remaining 10%. According to UEQ, if it earns its interest, Cameco has agreed to provide funding for a minimum of 50% of UEQ's portion of capital expenditure for the construction of the first commercial plant.
Worldwide, more than 100 million tonnes of phosphate rock is processed into phosphoric acid annually, with major producers in North America, northern Africa and Asia. According to UEQ this could represent potential uranium production of 20 million pounds U3O8 (7690 tU) per year. Total world uranium production from all sources in 2010 was 53,663 tU, with Cameco producing some 16% of that from its interests in Canada, the USA and Kazakhstan.
Source: World Nuclear News