PERSPECTIVE: Take a Cue from Kazakhs and Leap Forward in Security-Minded Metals Extraction

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One of us (T.A.C.) recently wrote an article for HS Today elucidating the fact that other countries like Kazakhstan have instituted rigorous programs to make the practical application of technology a No. 1 priority to create economic growth. The case study below shows how a relatively little known player in uranium production became the leader on the world stage and, more importantly, has enabled real-world, proven capabilities of paramount interest to the United States.

In the Soviet period, the nuclear industrial and energy complex of Kazakhstan made up a significant part of the military and civilian nuclear potential of the USSR, which did not directly face competition on the world stage. In the USSR economy at that time, the nuclear complex was pivotal with a significant share of the Soviet Union’s nuclear potential formed by Kazakhstan’s nuclear complex. After the voluntary abandoning of nuclear weapons and the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, only peaceful components of the industry remained in Kazakhstan; namely, enterprises for the extraction of natural uranium and the production of nuclear fuel for nuclear power plants. Known historical events of the early ’90s brought the nuclear complex of Kazakhstan into a state of collapse: closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site with huge scientific and supporting infrastructure, the decommissioning of the unique BN-350 fast-neutron reactor in Aktau, closure of the majority of uranium mines, as well as closure of the largest uranium plants in Aktau, Stepnogorsk, and Ust-Kamenogorsk. A rapid exodus of highly qualified, unique workers also began.

After such a sharp reduction in the production of uranium products, Kazakhstan took timely administrative measures to create an effective management team to oversee the remaining capabilities, such as the establishment of the National Atomic Company Kazatomprom in 1997. Readers of this article should be interested to know the factors and the success story “from scratch” of the state uranium company Kazatomprom in the early 2000s. In short, the competitiveness of the company was ensured, firstly, by formulating and presenting an attractive challenge to the company’s managers and, secondly, by achieving high quality of work of all employees of the company. Behind this success, of course, lie the innumerable large and small accomplishments that all together formed a great result.

When setting a super task and building a strategy, both economic and geopolitical aspects were taken into account for its solution. The nuclear complex had always been a strategic priority, both in countries with official nuclear status (e.g. USA, France, Great Britain, etc.), as well as in “near-nuclear” countries (e.g. Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, etc.). Nuclear energy provides 25 percent of the world’s electricity production and, for example, in France, nuclear power plants provide 80 percent of the electricity. The most populous and industrially developed countries, such as the USA, Japan, China, Korea, India, Brazil, France and others, consider the development of nuclear energy a matter of priority. These plans lead to high future demand for natural uranium for the next 10-20 years. Based on these facts, a far-reaching conclusion was made that most of the expected annual uranium deficit of more than 10,000 tons expected from 2007 could only be mitigated by a uranium industry of Kazakhstan and, possibly, Australia. The forecast of 2000 (when the price fell to $6/lb.) about the imminent upcoming, inevitable price increase in natural uranium was confirmed.

Based on this forecast, ahead of all companies in the world, Kazatomprom developed an ambitious and completely realistic program: the company would reach the first place on the world nuclear market within five years by increasing the production fivefold, and over the next 10 years entry to world leaders in a wide range of the global nuclear-fuel-cycle(NFC) services.

To ensure the natural uranium production program that was mentioned above had no analogues in the past, technological advantages were mobilized and developed at all stages of the mining complex, which are the management of uranium reserves, uranium mining by an In-Situ Leaching (ISL) method, and production of commodity uranium oxide. All of the company’s existing mines were merged into a more powerful subsidiary, the Mining Company (“GRK” LLP), which improved management of the current production, investment and innovation. Corresponding scientific and technical programs in many areas were tied to production programs, the developer of which was a specially created branch called the Institute of High Technologies (“IHT” LLP). The Institute of High Technologies (“IHT” LLP) was created to carry out the corresponding scientific and technical programs that were tied to production. As a result, this led to the application of new methods of the calculation and design of geotechnological fields, advanced well designs, new systems for managing the work of geotechnological sites, and new equipment and technologies for well repair in the geotechnology of uranium. In the field of chemical technology of uranium, advanced sorption-desorption cascades, using high-performance SPC (Sorption-Pressure Columns) and SDC (Sorption-Desorption Columns) devices, were developed, deposition of commodity uranium concentrates were optimized, and a new technology of extraction refining with the production of pure export oxide-uranium was developed and mastered.

The engineers and scientists of the company started the development of applied technologies of related to the processing of productive solutions using fine-grained sorbents, a new technology for producing export oxide-uranium through peroxide refining, purification of uranium-containing technological solutions from mechanical suspensions, and direct extraction of uranium from borehole solutions by extraction, etc.

For the extraction of natural uranium, considerable material resources are required. The company rebuilt centralized, economical logistics and communications systems to deliver all the basic resources for uranium production to desert areas, composed of chemicals, fuel, electricity, components, building materials, food, water, etc. Taking into account market conditions, new systems of scientific, methodological, regulatory and information support for production were created, using their own subsidiaries and existing, specialized institutes and universities of Kazakhstan.

The key success factor of the company was ensuring excellence in the enterprise, and especially human resources management. The new management was built on the basis of increasing the responsibility of managers (up to complete economic independence) of the sites, mines and enterprises, and on the principles of well-deserved remuneration for achieving the main financial and production indicators established by the company. It also should be mentioned that the success of the company was reached due to the day-to-day activities of top management to establish trustful and mutually beneficial relations with all potential partners in the uranium business, such as the worldwide nuclear companies and enterprises.

As a result, almost all leading companies that were once competitors showed their interest in the success of Kazatomprom. In fact, it was apparent that the world marketplace can provide new unusual opportunities for mutually beneficial international cooperation, and Kazatomprom was able to identify and effectively use these opportunities.

Due to the multilateral efforts, in just 10 years Kazakhstan’s share in world uranium mining increased from 1 percent to 42 percent! This has made a significant contribution to providing the world with clean nuclear energy. On the basis of the production and intellectual potential accumulated by all the enterprises of the company, it became possible to actually implement a new significant plan to create a global company that would turn to a world leader not only in uranium mining, but also in innovations.

One can confidently say that the intellectual potential of the Kazakh uranium industry, which has a history of more than 70 years, can be viewed as a catalyst for cardinal innovations in the mining industry for many metals and minerals, including gold, nickel, cobalt, tungsten, magnesium, aluminum and many others. Furthermore, like the Apollo 11 achievement of getting man to the moon, multiple technologies, processes and capabilities have arisen from this Kazakh turnaround.

One of us (T.A.C.) has been, and continues to be, proud to assist the World Bank and countries throughout the world in ensuring that monies lent by the World Bank are used according to their loan mandates and appropriated for game-changing commercialization programs. To that end, we come into contact with a plethora of technologies. Such is the case with the aforementioned set of technologies, methods and processes – which we see as an opportunity to assist the United States (and its friends) in closing the gap experienced with China’s threat of stopping production of key metals and metal compounds.

A firm called Emmet Harvest (“EH”) has been formed through its members’ cumulative 85 years of experience in the commercialization of technology of practical, field-proven applied technologies, techniques and devices, for the expert extraction and cost-efficient production of various metals and their compounds required today by mine owners and their customers. Part of this very team enabled a country like Kazakhstan to become the world’s largest producer of uranium at a fraction of other producers’ costs. The worldwide team is eager to enable its proven capabilities to be used in the production of materials – with the highest quality, at the most economical cost. You won’t see an EH website, as the firm is selective in who it will do business with.

As previously mentioned, in Kazakhstan, for example, there were various projects carried out with the team’s direct participation to enable the extraction and production of products from tungsten, molybdenum, rhenium, gold, lithium, tin, nickel, cobalt, copper, lead, bismuth, manganese, magnesium, silicon, REE, scandium, zirconium, hafnium, titanium, aluminum, beryllium, tantalum, niobium, fluoride and fluorides, chlorine and chlorides, phosphorus and phosphates, and industrial diamonds. As noted, the team had to rely on predominately poor refractory ores and industrial wastes as raw materials, for which various new disruptive technologies had to be developed.

The arsenal of EH’s applied technologies include, but are not limited to, such advanced processes as an In-Situ Leaching (ISL), sorption and extraction cycles, thermal, as well as gas-chemical processes (sulfation, fluorination, chlorination, iodination, and sulfonation), catalytic processes, hydrolytic and electrochemical methods, etc. A truly new scientific and technological platform had to be created, and maintained, in order to allow the transition in the mining industry from mechanical processes that are expensive and dangerous to humans, as well as to the environment, to methods safe and efficient, based on safer hydro-chemical and chemical processes.

Presently, all of the Kazakh uranium today is mined in an economical and environmentally friendly way through a proprietary ISL, with Kazakhstan’s share in the world uranium mining, utilizing this method, equal to about 80 percent. EH’s owned methods also, among all known, have the best prospects for use in a gradual transformation into completely unmanned and robotic mining processes –saving time and money.

EH is ready to facilitate the implementation of such scenarios in the United States and elsewhere, if desired, for the rapid mining and production of metals and their compounds crucial for a given country and/or region. From the aforementioned experience in Kazakhstan over the last 20 years, this kind of scenario will require the involvement of coordinated work groups of highly qualified specialists and scientists in all cycles and stages of production – from geology and geophysics, hydrology and hydrogeology, drilling and well-construction, chemical technologies and production, to metallurgical stages, manufacturing and supply of equipment and machinery, closed water and chemical cycles, construction of mines and factories, environmental protection, digital solutions and informational technologies, marketing, logistics, applied research and development, conceptual and detailed design, training and re-training of specialists, project management and rationing of resources, all ensuring success for clients.

As a result of years of proven success, a company like EH is poised to assist in the long-term security of the United States and elsewhere, by bringing a vast amount of trade-secrets and practical know-how to bear, that will enable the efficient and cost-effective production of a plethora of metals and their compounds.

Acknowledgement

The authors would like to thank all of our worldwide teammates and colleagues that have assisted us in the practical commercialization of technologies that really make a difference. In addition, we wanted to express our gratitude to the fact that commercialization is not a political endeavor, but one of high global value and importance.

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Dr. Baurzhan Duisebayev writes about different technologies for effective extraction of metals from poor ores and/or waste materials. He has been a well-respected leader in both the private and public sectors for over 30 years. He coordinated all the research programs of Kazatomprom from 2001-14. Dr. Duisebayev has authored or co-authored 40 technological patents, and about 80 scientific articles. He graduated from Tomsk Polytechnical University (TPU) in 1982 and defended his candidate of science dissertation in 1985 in TPU and his Doctoral dissertation in 1997 in Irkutsk Polytechnical University. Dr. Duisebayev serves also as a Professor-lecturer for magistrates-geologists in the Kazakh National Scientific Research Technical University. He and his wife Rauza spent their free time with their children and grandchildren.

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