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Uranium Recovery from Phosphates

(last updated 14 Jan 2015)



The world average uranium content in phosphate rock is estimated at 50 - 200 ppm. Marine phosphorite deposits contain averages of 6 - 120 ppm, and organic phosphorite deposits up to 600 ppm.
World uranium resources in phosphate rock are not very well known; the following table shows approximate inventories.

Approximate uranium inventories in phosphate deposits
Countrymillion t U
Marine phosphorite
Organic phosphorite
Source: after [IAEA 2001]



The widely used sulphuric acid process concentrates most of the uranium in the product stream (fertilizers, detergents, etc.).

Various technologies exist to recover the uranium from the product stream, based on solvent extraction:

uses di(2-ethylhexyl) phosphoric acid and trioctyl phosphine oxide as extractants (ORNL process)
uses octyl phenyl acid phosphate as extractant (ORNL process)
uses octyl pyro phosphoric acid as extractant (Dow process)
The DEPA-TOPO process has proven to be the best technology available, according to [IAEA 1989]. It comprises the following steps:
  1. Acid preconditioning and gunk removal
  2. First cycle extraction and strip
  3. Raffinate post treatment
  4. Second cycle extraction, strip and uranium precipitation

Worldwide, there are approximately 400 wet-process phosphoric acid plants in operation from which some 11,000 t U could in principle be recovered each year, according to [IAEA 1989]
A more cautious figure of up to 3700 t U/a for the theoretically possible uranium recovery from phosphates is presented in [IAEA 2001]. This total assumes annual production of phosphate rock of 142 million tonnes per year yielding 66 million tonnes of concentrate. Marine phosphorite deposits account for 80% of the world output of phosphate based fertilizer products, and 70% of this total is converted into wetprocess phosphoric acid, the base for the current uranium extraction process. Assuming an average recoverable content of 100 ppm of uranium, this scenario would result in an annual output of 3700 t U/a. [IAEA 2001]

Eight plants for the recovery of uranium from phosphoric acid have been built and operated in the United States since 1976 (Florida: 6, Louisiana: 2). Plants have also been built in Canada, Spain, Belgium, Israel, and Taiwan, see Facilities for Uranium Recovery from Phosphate.
Historical operating costs for the uranium recovery from phosphoric acid range from 22 to 54 US$/lb U3O8. These operating costs are by far higher than past uranium market prices, and most uranium recovery plants have been closed, therefore. In view of the recent increase of the uranium market price, the situation may change, again.



Jan. 13, 2015: Positive independent Pre-Feasibility Study announced for PhosEnergy process for uranium by-product extraction from phosphate fertiliser production

Nuclear-free New Zealand incidentally becoming uranium miner? Uranium in phosphate nodules that Chatham Rock Phosphate external link intends to mine could threaten New Zealand's nuclear-free reputation, the seafood industry has told the Government. But the Golden Bay-based miner says the uranium is "incidental" and Conservation Minister Nick Smith agrees, saying it is a side issue.
Deepwater Group chairman Chris Horton wrote to Smith and the ministers of energy and resources and primary industries last week, raising the nuclear spectre. The group, which represents the three biggest quota holders Sealord, Talley's and Sanford, has made a strong submission against CRP's application to the Environmental Protection Authority for a marine consent to suction-mine on the Chatham Rise, 450 kilometres east of Christchurch. It wants the area protected as a nursery for species such as hoki, the backbone of New Zealand's fish exports. (Nelson Mail July 17, 2014)
> Download Application Documents external link (NZ EPA) - see chapter and Appendix 11 for a discussion of the uranium issue
[According to the application documents, mean uranium concentrations in Chatham Rise phosphorite are 240 mg/kg in coarse and 170 mg/kg in fine nodules, comparing to 64 - 140 mg/kg reported in phosphorites globally. In spite of the elevated uranium concentrations, the documents do not contain any proposal to recover the uranium. Given the minimum annual production target of 1.5 million t of phosphorites, the contained uranium would amount to approx. 300 t U annually. If not separated, the uranium would be transferred to the phosphate product, potentially scaring off customers.]

September 20, 2013: EIA submitted for Itataia uranium/phosphate mine project (Brazil)

March 5, 2013: Positive Pre-Feasibility Study announced for PhosEnergy process for uranium by-product extraction from phosphate fertiliser production

February 28, 2012: Cameco plans to test extraction of uranium from ion exchange resins generated at phosphate mining facilities (Smith Ranch, Wyoming)

November 30, 2009: CNSC extends completion date for clean-up of former Earth Sciences uranium recovery plant in Calgary (Alberta)

November 9, 2009: Cameco to invest into technology for uranium extraction from phosphoric acid (Florida)

November 2008: Egypt runs pilot scale plant for uranium extraction from phosphoric acid

May 9, 2008: Jordan planning to exploit uranium deposits

February 17, 2008: India aims at uranium extraction from phosphoric acid

INB hopes to get uranium export clearance for Santa Quiteria phosphate and uranium mining project to become viable (Brazil)

Areva to study feasibility of uranium extraction from phosphates in Morocco

CF Industries to study feasibility of uranium recovery facility at Plant City Phosphate Complex (Florida)

Mosaic Co., CF Industries considering uranium extraction from phosphate rock (Florida)

IMC-Agrico considering restart of uranium by-product production from phosphates, New Wales, Florida

CNSC renews license for Earth Sciences' idle Calgary uranium recovery plant with conditions

By-product uranium production from phosphate in Louisiana to cease



Data Set of World Phosphate Mines, Deposits, and Occurrences external link, by C.B. Chernoff and G.J. Orris, USGS Open-File Report 02-156A&B, 2002

The Recovery of Uranium from Phosphoric Acid external link, IAEA-TECDOC-533, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, 1989, 104 p.

Analysis of Uranium Supply to 2050 external link, STI-PUB-1104, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, May 2001, 112 p. (1.3M PDF)

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