Mineral processing
In the field of extractive metallurgy
Extractive metallurgy
Extractive metallurgy is the study of the processes used in the separation and concentration of raw materials. The field is an applied science, covering all aspects of the physical and chemical processes used to produce mineral-containing and metallic materials, sometimes for direct use as a...

, mineral processing, also known as mineral dressing or ore dressing, is the process of separating commercially valuable mineral
A mineral is a naturally occurring solid chemical substance formed through biogeochemical processes, having characteristic chemical composition, highly ordered atomic structure, and specific physical properties. By comparison, a rock is an aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids and does not...

s from their ore
An ore is a type of rock that contains minerals with important elements including metals. The ores are extracted through mining; these are then refined to extract the valuable element....



Before the advent of heavy machinery the raw ore was broken up using hammers wielded by hand, a process called "spalling". Before long, mechanical means were found to achieve this. For instance, stamp mill
Stamp mill
A stamp mill is a type of mill machine that crushes material by pounding rather than grinding, either for further processing or for extraction of metallic ores. Breaking material down is a type of unit operation....

s were used in Samarkand
Although a Persian-speaking region, it was not united politically with Iran most of the times between the disintegration of the Seleucid Empire and the Arab conquest . In the 6th century it was within the domain of the Turkic kingdom of the Göktürks.At the start of the 8th century Samarkand came...

 as early as 973. They were also in use in medieval Persia. By the 11th century, stamp mills were in widespread use throughout the medieval Islamic world
Islamic Golden Age
During the Islamic Golden Age philosophers, scientists and engineers of the Islamic world contributed enormously to technology and culture, both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding their own inventions and innovations...

, from Islamic Spain
Al-Andalus was the Arabic name given to a nation and territorial region also commonly referred to as Moorish Iberia. The name describes parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Septimania governed by Muslims , at various times in the period between 711 and 1492, although the territorial boundaries...

 and North Africa in the west to Central Asia
Central Asia
Central Asia is a core region of the Asian continent from the Caspian Sea in the west, China in the east, Afghanistan in the south, and Russia in the north...

 in the east. A later example was the Cornish stamps, consisting of a series of iron hammers mounted in a vertical frame, raised by cam
A cam is a rotating or sliding piece in a mechanical linkage used especially in transforming rotary motion into linear motion or vice-versa. It is often a part of a rotating wheel or shaft that strikes a lever at one or more points on its circular path...

s on the shaft of a waterwheel and falling on to the ore under gravity.

The simplest method of separating ore from gangue consists of the picking out the individual crystals of each. This is a very tedious process, particularly when the individual particles are small. Another comparatively simple method relies on the various minerals having different densities
Specific gravity
Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of a reference substance. Apparent specific gravity is the ratio of the weight of a volume of the substance to the weight of an equal volume of the reference substance. The reference substance is nearly always water for...

, causing them to collect in different places: metallic minerals (being heavier) will drop out of suspension more quickly than lighter ones, which will be carried further by a stream of water. The process of panning and sifting for gold uses both of these methods. Various devices known as 'buddles' were used to take advantage of this property. Later, more advanced machines were used such as the Frue vanner
Vanning is a type of ore dressing by which ores are washed on a shovel.Typically, a powdered sample of orestuff is swirled with water on the blade of a shovel and then given a series of upward flicking motions. The heavier ore is tossed up through the water and appears as a crescent shaped patch at...

, invented in 1874.

Other equipment used historically includes the hutch, a trough used with some ore-dressing machines and the keeve or kieve, a large tub used for differential settlement.

Unit operations

Mineral processing can involve four general types of unit operation: comminution – particle size reduction; sizing – separation of particle sizes by screening or classification; concentration by taking advantage of physical and surface chemical properties; and dewatering – solid/liquid separation. In all of these processes, the most important considerations are the economics of the processes and this is dictated by the grade and recovery of the final product. To do this, the mineralogy of the ore needs to be considered as this dictates the amount of liberation required and the processes that can occur. The smaller the particles processes, the greater the theortical grade and recovery of the final product, but this however is diffucult to do with fine particles as they prevent certain concentration processes from occurring.


Comminution is the process in which solid materials are reduced in size, by crushing, grinding and other processes. It occurs naturally during faulting in the upper part of the crust and is an important operation in mineral processing, ceramics, electronics and other fields. Within industrial uses,...

 is particle size reduction of materials. Comminution may be carried out on either dry materials or slurries. Crushing
A crusher is a machine designed to reduce large rocks into smaller rocks, gravel, or rock dust. Crushers may be used to reduce the size, or change the form, of waste materials so they can be more easily disposed of or recycled, or to reduce the size of a solid mix of raw materials , so that pieces...

 and grinding
Mill (grinding)
A grinding mill is a unit operation designed to break a solid material into smaller pieces. There are many different types of grinding mills and many types of materials processed in them. Historically mills were powered by hand , working animal , wind or water...

 are the two primary comminution processes. Crushing is normally carried out on "run-of-mine" ore, while grinding (normally carried out after crushing) may be conducted on dry or slurried material.


Sizing is the general term for separation of particles according to their size.

The simplest sizing process is screening, or passing the particles to be sized through a screen or number of screens. Screening equipment can include grizzlies, bar screens,wedge wire screens, radial sieves, banna screens, multi-deck screens, vibratory screen, fine screens, flip flop screens and wire mesh screens. Screens can be static (typically the case for very coarse material), or they can incorporate mechanisms to shake or vibrate the screen. Some considerations in this process includes the screen material, the aperture size, shape and orientation, the amount of near sized particles, the addition of water, the amplitude and frequency of the vibrations, the angle of inclination, the presence of harmful materials, like steel and wood, and the size distribution of the particles.

Classification refers to sizing operations that exploit the differences in settling velocities exhibited by particles of different size. Classification equipment may include ore sorters
Ore sorting
Ore sorting refers to the process of separating an ore into separate constituent parts. Today, ore sorters are widely used in industrial mineral mines, diamond mines and base and precious metal mines....

, gas cyclones, hydrocyclones, rotating trommel
A trommel is a screened cylinder used to separate materials by size - for example, separating the biodegradable fraction of mixed municipal waste or separating different sizes of crushed stone....

s, rake classifiers or fluidized classifiers.

An important factor in both comminution and sizing operations is the determination of the particle size distribution of the materials being processed, commonly referred to as particle size analysis. Many techniques for analyzing particle size are used, and the techniques include both off-line analyses which require that a sample of the material be taken for analysis and on-line techniques that allow for analysis of the material as it flows through the process.


There are a number of ways to increase the concentration of the wanted minerals: in any particular case the method chosen will depend on the relative physical and surface chemical properties of the mineral and the gangue
In mining, gangue is the commercially worthless material that surrounds, or is closely mixed with, a wanted mineral in an ore deposit. The separation of mineral from gangue is known as mineral processing, mineral dressing or ore dressing and it is a necessary and often significant aspect of mining...


Gravity concentration

Historically the earliest method used, particles can be classified based on their specific gravity
Specific gravity
Specific gravity is the ratio of the density of a substance to the density of a reference substance. Apparent specific gravity is the ratio of the weight of a volume of the substance to the weight of an equal volume of the reference substance. The reference substance is nearly always water for...

. Air is the main fluid medium used for the process. Gravity concentration processes
  • Heavy media or dense media separation (these include, baths, drums, larcodems, dyana whirlpool separators, and dense medium cyclones)
  • Shaking tables, such as the Wilfley table
  • Spiral separator
    Spiral separator
    The term spiral separator can refer to either a device for separating slurry components by density, or for a device for sorting particles by shape...

  • Reflux Classifier
  • Batac jigs
  • Centrifugal bowl concentrators
  • Jig concentrators
    Jig concentrators
    Jig concentrators are devices used mainly in the mining industry for mineral processing, to separate particles within the ore body, based on their specific gravity . The particles would usually be of a similar size, often crushed and screened prior to being fed over the jig bed...

     are continuous processing gravity concentration devices using a pulsating fluidized bed.
  • Multi gravity separators (Falcon, Knelson, Mozley and the Kelsey Jig)
  • Inline pressure Jigs
  • Reichert Cones

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

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 effects the chemisorption of collectors on the surface of the particles.

The addition of flotation reagents also effects 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
Sphalerite is a mineral that is the chief ore of zinc. It consists largely of zinc sulfide in crystalline form but almost always contains variable iron. When iron content is high it is an opaque black variety, marmatite. It is usually found in association with galena, pyrite, and other sulfides...

 concentrate from tailings, produced using gravity concentration. Further improvements have come from Australia in the form of the Jameson cell. 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 produces by the isamill.

Electrostatic separation

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.

These separators are commonly used for separating mineral sands, an example of one of these mineral processing plants is the CRL processing plant at Pinkenba in Brisbane Queensland. In this plant, zircon
Zircon is a mineral belonging to the group of nesosilicates. Its chemical name is zirconium silicate and its corresponding chemical formula is ZrSiO4. A common empirical formula showing some of the range of substitution in zircon is 1–x4x–y...

, rutile
Rutile is a mineral composed primarily of titanium dioxide, TiO2.Rutile is the most common natural form of TiO2. Two rarer polymorphs of TiO2 are known:...

 and ilmenite
Ilmenite is a weakly magnetic titanium-iron oxide mineral which is iron-black or steel-gray. It is a crystalline iron titanium oxide . It crystallizes in the trigonal system, and it has the same crystal structure as corundum and hematite....

 are separated from the silica gangue
In mining, gangue is the commercially worthless material that surrounds, or is closely mixed with, a wanted mineral in an ore deposit. The separation of mineral from gangue is known as mineral processing, mineral dressing or ore dressing and it is a necessary and often significant aspect of mining...

. In this plant, the separation is performed in a number of stages with roughers, cleaners, scavengers and recleaners.

Magnetic separation

Minerals such as ilmenite
Ilmenite is a weakly magnetic titanium-iron oxide mineral which is iron-black or steel-gray. It is a crystalline iron titanium oxide . It crystallizes in the trigonal system, and it has the same crystal structure as corundum and hematite....

 and magnetite
Magnetite is a ferrimagnetic mineral with chemical formula Fe3O4, one of several iron oxides and a member of the spinel group. The chemical IUPAC name is iron oxide and the common chemical name is ferrous-ferric oxide. The formula for magnetite may also be written as FeO·Fe2O3, which is one part...

 are naturally magnetic, and so can be separated from non-magnetic particles using strong magnets. There are a number of different processes that can be used. These include high gradient magnetic separation (HGMS), high intensity magnetic separation (HIMS) and low intensity magnetic separation (LIMS). The HIMS and HGMS are differentiated as the HGMS separators are a batch process while the HIMS are a continuous process. These two processes are typically used for paramagnetic particles while the LIMS are used for ferromagnetic particles. The main considerations that need to be taken account when processing an ore is the size distribution, the presence of tramp metal and the liberation of the particles being separated.

This process operates by moving particles in a magnetic field. The force experienced in the magnetic field is given by the equation f=m/k.H.dh/dx. with k=magnetic susceptibility, H-magnetic field strength, and dh/dx being the magnetic field gradient. As seen in this equation, the separation can be driven in two ways, either through a gradient in a magnetic field or the strength of a magnetic field. The different driving forces are used in the different concentrators. These can be either with water or without. Like the spirals, washwater aids in the separation of the particles while increases the entrainment of the gangue in the concentrate.

Automated Ore Sorting

Modern, automated sorting applies optical sensors (visible spectrum, near infrared, X-ray, ultraviolet), that can be coupled with electrical conductivity and magnetic susceptibility sensors, to control the mechanical separation of ore into two or more categories on a individual rock by rock basis.


Dewatering is an important process in mineral processing. The purpose of dewatering is to remove water contained in particles. This is done for a number of reasons, specifically, to enable ore handling and concentrates to be transported easily, allow further processing to occur and to dispose of the gangue. The water removed from dewatering can be recycled through a mineral processing plant. The main processes that are used in dewatering include dewatering screens, sedimentation, filtering, and thermal drying. These processes increase in difficulty and cost as the particle size decreases.

Dewatering screens operate by passing particles over a screen. The particles pass over the screen while the water passes through the apertures in the screen. This process is only viable for coarse ores that have a close size distribution as the apertures can allow small particles to pass though and are not able to be produced for small particles.

Sedimentation operates by passing water into a large thickener or clarifier. In these devices, the particles settle out of the slurry under the effects of gravity or centripetal forces. These are limited by the surface chemistry of the particles and the size of the particles. To aid in the sedimentation process, floculants and coagulants are added to reduce the repulsive forces between the particles. This repulsive force is due to the double layer formed on the surface of the particles. The floculants work by binding multiple particles together while the coagulants work by reducing the thickness of the charged layer on the outside of the particle.

Thermal drying is usually used for fine particles and to remove low water content in the particles. Some common processes include rotary dryers, fluidised beds, spray driers, hearth dryers and rotary tray dryers. This process is usually expensive to operate due to the heating requirements of the dryers.

Other processes

Many mechanical plants
Physical plant
Physical plant or mechanical plant refers to the necessary infrastructure used in support and maintenance of a given facility. The operation of these facilities, or the department of an organization which does so, is called "plant operations" or facility management...

 also incorporate hydrometallurgical
Hydrometallurgy is part of the field of extractive metallurgy involving the use of aqueous chemistry for the recovery of metals from ores, concentrates, and recycled or residual materials...

 or pyrometallurgical
Pyrometallurgy is a branch of extractive metallurgy. It consists of the thermal treatment of minerals and metallurgical ores and concentrates to bring about physical and chemical transformations in the materials to enable recovery of valuable metals...

 processes as part of an extractive metallurgical operation. Geometallurgy
Geometallurgy relates to the practice of combining geology or geostatistics with metallurgy, or, more specifically, extractive metallurgy, to create a spatially- or geologically-based predictive model for mineral processing plants. It is used in the hard rock mining industry for risk management...

 is a branch of extractive metallurgy
Extractive metallurgy
Extractive metallurgy is the study of the processes used in the separation and concentration of raw materials. The field is an applied science, covering all aspects of the physical and chemical processes used to produce mineral-containing and metallic materials, sometimes for direct use as a...

 that combines mineral processing with the geologic sciences.

A number of auxiliary materials handling operations are also considered a branch of mineral processing such as storage (as in bin design), conveying, sampling, weighing, slurry transport, and pneumatic transport.


  • Various articles in J. Day & R. F. Tylecote, Metals in the Industrial Revolution (Institute of Metals, London 1991).
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