A large, colorful machine from South Africa sitting outside Continental Steel in Butte could turn this city into the mine remediation capital of the United States, its backers say.
That would not only be great for the environment here and elsewhere, they say, it would mean good-paying manufacturing jobs in Butte. Lots of them. It’s been a while since a lot of those came to town.
A lot must happen before then, first among them getting positive results from tests to show if the machine can – as its promoters say – efficiently separate and remove arsenic, lead, mercury and other harmful metals from mine tailings.
The machine – here called the PET4K Processing Plant – uses only water and pressure and can be set at various gravity levels to target and remove specific metals even at minuscule sizes, all in process.
“Everyone who knows this business says that it’s so simple, but it works,” said Sofus Michelsen, one of three partners in a company called Refunsa Plains LLC that hopes to make and distribute the machines in the United States with Butte as the launching site.
He and the other partners – his wife and Butte native, Jackie Michelsen, and Eugene Marais from South Africa, know there are skeptics. They’re also confident they will be won over and they chose Butte to do that at because, as Sofus says, “Jackie is a Butte girl.”
Officials with Butte-Silver Bow County saw enough potential to spend $30,000 to have the large, mobile machine shipped here from South Africa – a 9,800-mile trip.
Two companies, including a local engineering firm, recently arranged for the machine to be tested with tailings at the Butte Reduction Works site. Samples of the end product were sent to an independent lab for analysis and results should be in soon.
But preliminary, hand-held X-ray tests done on samples of tailings before they went through the machine and after they came out were promising, Jackie Michelsen says.
“We pulled out arsenic and cadmium, we pulled out copper, we pulled out zinc, we pulled out lead,” she said. “The only thing we did not pull out was mercury. There was no mercury in anything we tested. At the end of the day, we end up with tailings that are clean.”
All the final tests need to show is that specific metals were removed to environmentally acceptable levels and if they do that, the possibilities for Butte could be big.
Dave Palmer, Butte-Silver Bow’s chief executive, says he likes what he’s seen so far.
“They have committed that if it works and if they prove it works – and they are positive it will and I believe them – they will start ordering the machines and they will start manufacturing them here in Butte,” he said.
It was the county’s Tax Increment Financing Industrial District (TIFID) that paid to have the machine shipped to Butte. Brendan McDonough, a member of the TIFID Board and a Butte-Silver Bow commissioner, believes it was a wise decision.
“They have proven this technology and I believe the test results will be what they have actually done over in Africa,” McDonough said.
The application for contaminated tailings is new in this country, but McDonough is confident the machine can clean them. And, he notes, there are plenty of sites in Butte and elsewhere that need cleaning.
THE MACHINE'S ORIGINS AND WORKINGS
The machine has been used in mining operations in South Africa for more than 20 years and it has been tested and used for a variety of purposes in other countries as well. They include Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Ecuador and Peru.
The man who created it, Daan Roux, developed it for processing gold and diamonds for his mines in South Africa. Sofus, a world-renowned gemologist and an expert in diamond mining, cutting and pricing, met Marais – Roux’s son-in-law – in West Africa and they began talking about the possibilities for the machine in the United States.
It was initially designed to help small to medium-size mining operations pull out more gold from their crushed ore.
A typical mine operator might pull out 70 percent of the gold from ore during initial processing but leave 30 percent because it is too small to separate and capture, Sofus said. This machine is able to pull out 96 percent of the gold in that remaining 30 percent of material, he said.
It became apparent that the technology also could be used to extract other metals, including those that can be harmful when found in tailings.
The machine uses a combination of older technology, including vibrating screens and augers, as well as newer technology, including water concentrators and pressurized cyclones, to define and separate the metals.
What sets it apart, the Michelsens say, is its mobility and combination of newly patented technologies all in one machine on a single, mobile chassis.
In basic terms, this is how it works:
- The machine has an auger full of water, and that water pushes through the machine at a constant pressure, rate and speed.
- A separate hopper feeds the tailings into a long, cylindrical scrubber on the machine. As it turns, fins break the material apart and make it more round.
- It then goes to a shaker table, which sizes the material, and then so-called “jigs” take over and do 90 percent of the work by separating metals from the tailings.
- The auger pushes water and pressure at a constant rate and speed, as opposed to a pump, which moves it through in spurts. Then a so-called cyclone takes over, but it’s not a typical cyclone.
Most cyclones in the U.S. employ centrifugal force to push metals in material to the side, but that means all metals.
“You can’t ask a cyclone to separate different metals,” Sofus said.
This machine allows specific gravities to be set that, depending on the number, can separate only mercury or arsenic or gold or silver – as examples - and funnel them into a separate container. Or it can separate numerous metals all at once, as was done for the recent tests in Butte.
The machine also allows very small particles to be collected, down to 3 microns, which is smaller than a red blood cell. Current equipment and processes in the U.S. can’t manipulate gravities to such an extent, the Michelsens say, or deal with such minute particles.
The machine shipped to Butte can process four to 10 tons of material an hour and can be pulled behind a pickup truck. But there are larger, less mobile versions that can process much more.
The machine can’t do everything on its own.
It requires a separate hopper to load the material in and it needs 2,000 gallons of water running through the processing machine each hour. With a separate water purification machine, the water can be recycled through the machine over and over.
The Michelsens didn’t have water-purification machinery sent here and Continental Steel built a hopper for the tests in Butte.
“To bring all this equipment here without having a contract with anyone didn’t make sense,” Jackie said.
POTENTIAL AND POSSIBILITIES
Since the machine has never been manufactured in the United States, the cost of doing so has not been determined yet. It would be something over $100,000, the Michelsens say, and when adding the other ancillary machinery and equipment, an initial operation could run about $450,000.
But it could still be quite cost-effective, they say.
For companies or government agencies responsible for cleaning up mine waste, it could be much cheaper to do that on site than haul huge amounts of tailings elsewhere and store them. And doing that, Jackie says, is “only kicking the can down the road.”
Said Sofus: “You can clean it up now or you can clean it up later.”
The possibilities for remediation are great, they say, since there are 8,500 abandoned mines in Montana alone. Many have contaminated tailings and there might still be valuable metals that haven’t been captured as well.
Sofus said there were hoops to jump through just getting the machine to Butte, and there are still plenty of skeptics.
“We’ve have all this data developed in South Africa that is just not acceptable in America,” he said. “They want something here. I suppose they think it’s rigged. We have to convince the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the Forest Service and other places that it works.”
If the test results show what the Michelsen’s expect them to show, they are confident there will be a demand for the machines in the U.S. Producing them here likely would start at Continental Steel, and Refunsa Plains has a financial arm that could assist in leasing agreements, joint ventures or other arrangements.
Also, operation costs in some instances could be offset or paid for if valuable metals are extracted.
“We will probably be assembling them here first, bringing some parts from South Africa that are very technical until we get to a comfort level that Continental can do exactly what we want and then roll it into full production,” Jackie said.
For full production, they will need road and railroad access because a lot of pre-cut steel would have to be shipped in. They would also need a warehouse and showroom. Locating all that in the TIFID’s Montana Connections industrial park would make total sense, they said.
First and foremost, the Michelsens say, they are committed to Butte and Montana. And that’s music to McDonough’s ears.
He sees it benefiting Butte in two big, big ways.
“The first is we have no end in sight of mine reclamation work in front of us,” he said, citing several sites of mine tailings that must be addressed. “The other side of the model is that after they have proven it works here, they would manufacture the machines here.”
That, he and Palmer say, would mean jobs. Lots of them.