Advancement of the Hydrophobic-Hydrophilic Separation Process
Froth flotation has long been regarded as the best available technology for ultrafine particles separation. However, froth flotation has extreme deficiencies for recovering ultrafine particles that are less than 30-50 μm in size for coal and 10-20 μm for minerals. Furthermore, dewatering of flotation products is difficult and costly using currently available technologies. Due to these problems, coal and mineral fines are either lost to tailings streams inadvertently or discarded purposely prior to flotation. In light of this, researchers at Virginia Tech have developed a process called hydrophobic-hydrophilic separation (HHS), which is based originally on a concept known as dewatering by displacement (DbD). The process uses non-polar solvents (usually short-chain alkanes) to selectively displace water from particle surfaces and to agglomerate fine coal particles. The resulting agglomerates are subsequently broken (or destabilized) mechanically in the next stage of the process, whereby hydrophobic particles are dispersed in the oil phase and water droplets entrapped within the agglomerates coalesce and exit by gravity along with the hydrophilic particles dispersed in them. In the present work, further laboratory-scale tests have been conducted on various coal samples with the objective of commercial deployment of the HHS process. Test work has also been conducted to explore the possibility of using this process for the recovery of ultrafine minerals such as copper and rare earth minerals. Ultrafine streams produced less than 10% ash and moisture consistently, while coarse coal feed had no observable degradation to the HHS process. Middling coal samples were upgraded to high-value coal products when micronized by grinding. All coal samples performed better with the HHS process than with flotation in terms of separation efficiency. High-grade rare earth mineral concentrates were produced with the HHS process ranging from 600-2100 ppm of total rare earth elements, depending on the method and reagent. Additionally, the HHS process produced copper concentrates assaying greater than 30% Cu for both artificial and real feed samples, as well as, between 10-20% Cu for waste samples, which all performed better than flotation.