September 15, 2022
How copper is made: from the ore to the finished product.
Norilsk walkabout – done. Norilsk borsch – supped, and already yearning for more.
Next up – an inspection of the industrial-technological processes upon which the city of Norilsk grew, and which still produces a broad spectrum of the elements from the periodic table.
Nornickel was kind enough to show us practically the whole process of the production of copper: extraction > fine crushing > preparation > smelting > electrolysis > dispatching. All that, coming up in this post…
First up for us – safety talk, down there on the ground floor (next to that pond in which carp swim!) ->
Ok, so we missed out extraction, starting with the second stage: the just-mined raw material – ore – being trucked to the plant on these here brightly-colored (just like the city’s downtown) beauts (each weighing some 60 tons!) ->
Onto this here conveyor said ore is transferred ->
Those rocks are crushed in a grinder, then what’s left is put into another crushing chamber, in which it’s further reduced mashed – literally to dust – with the help of these here metal orbs:
And here’s the chamber those orbs are placed in to reduce the material to dust:
Next – preparation (sometimes referred to as enrichment) with acid, where the copper and nickel separates from the other material, rising upward in these here aggregates:
Next – showtime! Smelting! ->
The liquid copper then gets poured into these here basins:
The copper cools, and is transferred from the basins to platforms:
Next stage: electrolysis, where the “not quite copper yet” is turned into practically pure metal:
And that, in a nutshell, rounds off the production process. The only thing left to do is getting the finished product ready for shipping. Now for some detail…
Back at the beginning of the process, first the ore needs to be prospected. But that was done long, long ago. They found out that there’s one heck of a lot of copper/nickel ore around here early last century. So, prospecting: done.
We continued our inspection of the manufacturing process inside; straight away – plenty of brutal industrialism to be snapped:
Here’s the first crushing machine:
Mid-foundry, suddenly – sunlight. Wasn’t expecting that. My guess: ventilation/fresh air! ->
Further crushing – in a cylinder filled with these metal balls:
All this, it goes without saying, is automated, with hardly any folks about – just the occasional dusty touch-screen and assorted other industrial control system installations:
Next stage: enrichment with an acid/chemical agent. Actually, let’s get the terminology right: not enrichment, not preparation, but flotation. Or cleaning )…
Acid/chemicals are added, and the copper-nickel sticks to bubbles which rise up to the top of the mixture, from where it’s scooped up and put to one side:
Here’s a corner of the production facility that’s having its old equipment upgraded to new:
Next – things get even more interesting, but in a different facility – an enrichment/preparation/flotation plant…
After being pulverized, the metal pulp is sent a full 20 kilometers away to another copper works to be finished. As we headed over there, we were surprised to see that, despite the thoroughly harsh climatic conditions here, the pipeline through which the copper is sent doesn’t feature any temperature compensators (U-form sections). It turns out they solved that problem here differently – the pipeline was laid in a “slithering snake” formation:
Upon arrival at the other plant, the molten, not-quite-pure copper is smelted in ovens and then poured out into huge ladles. And it’s an unforgettable sight to see: it was in fact the most grandiose industrial manufacturing process I have ever seen in my life! The stench was unforgettable too ) ->
Somewhere in this cavernous heavy-industry plant there’s some serious rumbling and smoking going on, but we couldn’t see it yet…
Meanwhile, here’s a ladle:
The ladle’s handle is also impressive ->
It was difficult squeezing the industrial vastness into our cameras’ viewfinders, but that didn’t stop us trying ->
Here comes something heading slowly our way…
The oven door is opened…
It gets sooo hot in here near to where the molten copper’s being poured, but the workers stand nearby (alas, not visible in these pics) all calm and relaxed – seeming to be chit-chatting as if they’re in the pub. Eh?!
So, why all the smoke and the foulest ecology? We were informed thus: there’s a lot of sulfur in the ore deposits around here (which, btw, are all of volcanic origin; but more on that in my upcoming posts on the Putorana Plateau). And when smelted, the sulfur oxidizes and is belched out. And since this plant is old, they never really thought to limit these emissions in the interests of ecology and the workers’ health. And the problem still exists to this day: when the wind blows a certain direction a thick layer of nasty ~nickel-oxide cloud covers the city!…
Here comes the best bit: the molten metal is poured from one ladle into another ->
Next, the liquid copper is poured into these here molds. Ooh. I could watch liquid metal being poured forever…
The molds then go around in a circle cooling ->
After cooling and hardening, the slabs of copper are taken out, loaded onto a small train, and sent to the next production facility:
Yet still this single-smelted copper isn’t pure enough for many applications. Accordingly, it’s sent for further purifying, called “refining“…
I checked out the electrolysis process last year at UMMC. Ok, let’s have a look at it again here:
Here are the slabs after electrolysis. Next they’re… smelted yet again! ->
And this – finally! – is the finished product, already sold on the metals exchange, ready for transporting to the buyers:
And that’s how pure copper is made. And you thought it was extracted straight out of the ground maybe? :-)
Copper production on the inside ->
And copper production on the outside ->
After the second copper works we headed on over to the quarry where the ore is extracted out of the earth. It’s a kilometer in diameter and half-a-kilometer deep! Initially the site was a mountain; now it’s an inverted one! ->
We bet each other on which is bigger – this huge open-mine, or the Mir (diamond) mine in Yakutia, which we inspected early this year. Turns out they’re about the same ).
Ants down there – digging and transporting:
And the view from down inside the crater:
And that was that: Norilsk copper extraction and production – fully inspected. Now for some local volcanism – in the next couple of posts…
The rest of the photos from our Norilsk trip are here.