These processes can be classified as either dense medium separation or gravity separation. The difference between the two that gravity separation does not use a dense medium to operate, only water or air. Dense medium separation can be performed with a variety of mediums. These include, organic liquids, aqueous solutions, suspensions in water and suspensions in air. Of these, most industrial processes use suspensions in water. The organic liquids are not used due to their toxicity and difficulties in handling. The aqueous solution as a dense medium is used in coal processing in the form of a belknap wash and the suspension in air is used in water-deficient areas, like china, where sand is used to separate coal from the gangue minerals. The dense medium separation is also classified as absolute gravity separation as the sinks and the floats travel in different directions. The gravity separation is also called relative gravity separation as they separate particles due to their differences in the magnitude of the particle response to a driving force.
These processes can also be classified into multi-G and single G processes. The difference is the magnitude of the driving force for the separation. Multi-G processes allow the separation of fine particles to occur and these particles can be in the range of 10 to 50 micron. The single G process are only capable of processing particles that are greater than 80 micron in diameter.
Of the gravity separation processes, the spiral concentrators are one of the most economical due to their simplicity and use of space. They operate by flowing film separation and can either use washwater or be washwater-less. The washwater spirals separate particles more easily but can have issues with entrainment of gangue with the concentrate produced..
Froth flotation is an important concentration process. This process can be used to separate any two different particles and operated by the surface chemistry of the particles. In flotation, bubbles are introduced into a pulp and the bubbles rise through the pulp. In the process, hydrophobic particles become bound to the surface of the bubbles. The driving force for this attachment is the change in the surface free energy when the attachment occurs. These bubbles rise through the slurry and are collected from the surface. To enable these particles to attach, careful consideration of the chemistry of the pulp needs to be made. These considerations include the pH, Eh and the presence of flotation reagents. The pH is important as it changes the charge of the particles surface and the Eh affects the chemisorption of collectors on the surface of the particles.
The addition of flotation reagents also affects the operation of these processes. The most important chemical that is added is the collector, This chemical binds to the surface of the particles as it is a surfactant. The main considerations in this chemical is the nature of the head group and the size of the hydrocarbon chain. The hydrocarbon tail needs to be short to maximize the selectivity of the desired mineral and the headgroup dictates which minerals it attaches to.
The frothers are another important chemical addition to the pulp at it enables stable bubbles to be formed. This is important as if the bubble coalesce, minerals fall off their surface. The bubbles however should not be too stable as this prevents easy transportation and dewatering of the concentrate formed. The mechanism of these frothers is not completely known and further research into their mechanisms is being performed.
Depressants and activators are used to selectively separate one mineral from another. Depressants inhibit the flotation of one mineral or minerals while activators enable the flotation of others. Examples of these include CN-, used to depress all sulfides but galena and this depressant is believed to operate by changing the solubility of chemisorbed and physisorbed collectors on sulfides. This theory originates from Russia. An example of an activator is Cu2+ ions, used for the flotation of sphalerite.
There are a number of cells able to be used for the flotation of minerals. these include flotation columns and mechanical flotation cells. The flotation columns are used for finer minerals and they typically have a higher grade and lower recovery of minerals than mechanical flotation cells. The cells in use at the moment can exceed 300 m3. This is done as they are cheaper per unit volume than smaller cells, but they are not able to be controlled as easily as smaller cells.
This process was invented in the 19th century in Australia. It was used to recover a sphalerite concentrate from tailings, produced using gravity concentration. Further improvements have come from Australia in the form of the Jameson cell, developed at the University of Newcastle, Australia. This operated by the use of a plunging jet that generates fine bubbles. These fine bubbles have a higher kinetic energy and as such they can be used for the flotation of fine grained minerals, such as those produced by the isamill.
There are two main types of electrostatic separators. These work in similar ways, but the forces applied to the particles are different and these forces are gravity and electrostatic attraction. The two types are electrodynamic separators (or high tension rollers) or electrostatic separators. In high tension rollers, particles are charged by a corona discharge. This charges the particles that subsequently travel on a drum. The conducting particles lose their charge to the drum and are removed from the drum with centripetal acceleration. Electrostatic plate separators work by passing a stream of particles past a charged anode. The conductors lose electrons to the plate and are pulled away from the other particles due to the induced attraction to the anode. These separators are used for particles between 75 and 250 micron and for efficient separation to occur, the particles need to be dry, have a close size distribution and uniform in shape. Of these considerations, one of the most important is the water content of the particles. This is important as a layer of moisture on the particles will render the non-conductors as conductors as the layer of the water is conductive.
Electrostatic plate separators are usually used for streams that have small conductors and coarse non-conductors. The high tension rollers are usually used for streams that have coarse conductors and fine non-conductors.