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Hydrometallurgy 133 (2013) 16

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Visualization of ow behavior during bioleaching of waste rock dumps under

saturated and unsaturated conditions
Shenghua Yin a, b,, Aixiang Wu a, b, c, Kaijian Hu b, Yiming Wang b, Zhenlin Xue b

State Key Laboratory of Advanced Metallurgy, University of Science and Technology Beijing, Beijing 100083, China
Key Laboratory of the Ministry of Education of China for High-Efcient Mining and Safety of Metal Mines, University of Science and Technology Beijing, Beijing 100083, China
State Key Laboratory of Comprehensive Utilization of Low-Grade Refractory Gold Ores, Zijin Mining Group Co., Ltd, Shanghang 364200, China

a r t i c l e

i n f o

a b s t r a c t
A simulation framework is outlined for the analysis of the saturated and unsaturated ow behaviors within a
waste rock dump. The traditional inherent black-box approach for treating waste rock dumps has resulted in
generalizations that sometimes prove inaccurate. The hydrodynamics play an important role in terms of leaching
reaction kinetics, heat and solute transport. The coexistence of saturated and unsaturated ows within the dump
makes the ow behavior complicated. In this study, X-ray CT (SOMATOM Sensation 16) was used to obtain the
real pore structure of the packed waste rocks. The meso-scale saturated ow process was visualized through
solving the governing equation by the COMSOL Multiphysics software. The velocity eld depends strongly on
the distribution of channels, pore connectivity and curvature. The macro-scale unsaturated velocity eld within
the dump was obtained. The information drawn from this model can be used to improve the understanding
of the hydrodynamics within waste rock dumps.
2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Available online 23 November 2012

Flow behavior
Waste rock dump

1. Introduction
Waste rock dump is a major environmental concern, common to
most hard rock mines that contain suldic minerals such as pyrite
or chalcopyrite. The joint action of oxygen and water on these reactive
minerals causes a complex sequence of oxidationreduction reactions
that can produce an acidic leachate (Poisson et al., 2009). Water and circulation into the pile initiate and sustain the acid mine drainage process
(Lefebvre et al., 2001). The reactions occurred inside the dump can be
summarized as follows:

CuFe2 O2 4H Cu


2FeS2 7O2 2H2 O2Fe

2S 2H2 O

4SO4 4H

2S 3O2 2H2 O4H 2SO4 :

Those reactions induce the release of protons and set off a sequence
of other processes that result in the release of cations and formation
This paper was originally presented at the International Biohydrometallurgy Symposium
(IBS), Changsha, China, 1822 September 2011.
Corresponding author at: Key Laboratory of the Ministry of Education of China for
High-Efcient Mining and Safety of Metal Mines, University of Science and Technology
Beijing, Beijing 100083, China.
E-mail address: (S. Yin).
0304-386X/$ see front matter 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

of sulfate, sulfuric acid, and a low pH environment. The presence

of micro-organisms (e.g. Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans) can further
speed up the processes (Brierley and Brierley, 2001). Water inltrating
the dump carries these pollutants into the surrounding environment.
There is the potential of migration of dissolved metals away from the
mine wastedisposal area, causing the degradation of groundwater and
surface water resources, threatening ora, fauna, and aquatic life.
With increasing use of dump leaching technology, it is clear that deep
insight into the effects of the driving parameters including chemical,
physical, microbial factors, and their interactions, is the key to successful
implementation and improvement of the technology (Pradhan et al.,
2008). The study of the thermodynamics, kinetics and mechanisms of
the chemical reactions in dump leaching (with and without microbial
mediation) has provided much insight into the effects of limiting reactions (Petersen and Dixon, 2002). This has led to various strategies for
optimizing the reactions. However, dump leaching technology still faces
serious problems related to the hydrology, resulting in relatively low
rates and extent of extraction and necessitating long retention time to
achieve a high degree of mineral extraction.
During the leaching process, dumps are irrigated in order to
transport leaching reagents to reaction sites within the dump, to
transport the products of reaction out of the dump, and to maintain
dump temperatures within the limits of activity of microbes. Two
distinct phenomena are of interest in the study of dump leaching:
uid ow and physicochemical reactions (Cariaga et al., 2005).
These two phenomena can be studied separately if the extent of
leaching does not inuence the ow pattern (Cariaga et al., 2007).
The liquid phase hydrodynamics in dump leaching, however, in

S. Yin et al. / Hydrometallurgy 133 (2013) 16

spite of their economic importance as a metal recovery and cleanup

method, has been the object of only a very few systematic studies
and has not yet been completely elucidated.
Phenomenological mathematical models for dump leaching, taking
into account uid ow throughout the porous bed and the reactions
that take place in the solid particles, can be used for the design and
optimization of these processes (Bouffard and West-Sells, 2009). Understanding ow through waste rock dumps is important to enhance the
performance of dump leaching with respect to design and operating considerations. Column leaching of zinc sulde with various column heights
and various irrigation rates found that the reaction kinetics are proportional to the irrigation rate divided by heap height (Lizama et al.,
2005). FLUENT has been used to study the ow behavior through random
packing of non-overlapping spheres in a cylindrical geometry (Jafari et al.,
2008). Analyzing the best heap conditions from the economic standpoint
reveals that leaching time and heap height are the variables, which had
the greatest effects when determining the most optimal circuits (Padilla
et al., 2008). Numerical modeling of ow and basic transport in waste
rock dumps could provide visualization of probable ow patterns and
transport pathways which provide the basis for possible remedies. The
volume of uid method was used to simulate the uid motion
in the heap leaching system (Mousavi et al., 2006). An unsteady and
two-dimensional model is developed based on the mass conservation
equations of liquid phase in the bed and in the particles (Sheikhzadeh
et al., 2005). Fundamental-based modeling tools have been applied for industrial process design and process optimization of existing plants
(Menacho et al., 2007). HeapSim modeling tool has been put forward
for the HydroZinc heap bioleach process (Petersen and Dixon, 2007).
The interaction of mesophiles and moderate thermophiles in a 3-phase
computational uid dynamics model for heap bioleaching of chalcocite
is investigated (Leahy et al., 2007). The analytical models, based on the
Bernoulli equation, are presented to describe heap leaching (Mellado et
al., 2009). The objective of this paper is to realize the visualization of
saturated and unsaturated ows within the waste rock dump.
2. Flow patterns inside the waste rock dump
The movement of solution through the waste rock pile has important
impact on efciency of bioleaching operations, because the solution transport lixiviates into and metal ions out of the dump. Maximizing solution
contact and minimizing preferential ow leading to signicant bypassing
of ore by the leach solution are crucial for enhancing leaching efciency
and ore recovery. But the ow behavior in the rock dump is very complex
due to a wide range of particle size, complex conguration of the dump
structure, and interaction between uid and particles. In addition, saturated and unsaturated ows may coexist during the leaching of waste rock
2.1. Saturated ow pattern
Though less attention has been paid to the saturated zone within a
waste rock dump, it does exist. A saturated ow zone could form under
the following conditions.
(1) Bottom of the pile: Whether consisting of coarse or ne material,
the bottom of the dump is usually saturated. Vertical drainage
from the top results in the accumulation of solution at the bottom.
Large volumes of solution could saturate the pores along the
bottom of the dump, and then ow horizontally or sideways out
of the dump.
(2) Fine interlayers between the coarse particles: The dumped waste
rock, often consisting of alternating ne and coarse waste rock,
will result in stratied layers of waste rock. The layers consist
of waste rock that has been stratied due to segregation during
dumping process. The coarse layers are often located on the
bottom of the dump because large particle rolls faster down the

slopes, while ne layers form on the top of the bench. The porosity of these two kinds of layers tends to vary, and so does the
effective diffusivity, which leads to the several orders of magnitude variation in the hydraulic conductivity. The ne interlayers
are prone to become saturated even under small irrigation due to
the small porosity and high capillary and solution hold up.
(3) Large irrigation or heavy rain: Dumps are subject to an application
of a solution of reactants and occasional rain events. A much higher
irrigation rate or heavy rain over a few days could increase the
water content in the dump and saturate the small pores. Saturated
ow response to rainfall events has been observed in a matter of
hours or days in several waste rock dumps. In the tropical areas,
the extreme rain events would enlarge the rafnate ow rate inside the rock dump (Cross et al., 2006). An impermeable material,
such as soil, is recommended to cover the waste rock dump to
reduce rainfall inltration into the dump and acid mined drainage
out of the dump (Willschera and Bosecker, 2003).
The NavierStokes equation is used to describe the local saturated
ow, accepting that the hydraulic properties of waste rock will vary

ui uj
L g i
pI ij

xj xi

2.2. Unsaturated ow
Saturated zones exist in small part of waste rock dumps, while
unsaturated zones occupy the bulk of the dump. Because metal production from mine waste dumps is limited over the long run to the
rate of oxidation of sulde minerals, attempts to increase production
over the short run by increasing the solution application rate will
generally not improve washing, as intended, but simply increase solution short circuiting through channels and dilute the grade of the
pregnant liquor. As shown by chemical reaction (1), oxygen is important for bacterial and oxidation of sulde minerals. As the diffusion rate of oxygen in water is several orders of magnitude less
than in air, keeping a dump under unsaturated conditions could
benet the transportation of oxygen (Molson et al., 2005).
Under unsaturated condition, the driving force of ow is a vector
sum of gravity and capillary pressure (or suction). The capillary pressure depends on the surface tension of the liquid and the wettability
of the rocks. On a microscopic scale, surface tension is a result of cohesion between the liquid molecules (relative to liquidgas attraction)
(Ilankoon and Neethling, 2012; Sheikhzadeh et al., 2005). Wettability
is a result of adhesive forces between liquid molecules and solid surfaces. Unsaturated ow in porous media is a complex phenomenon
that has been studied extensively for the last 70 years in the area of
soil science and hydrology. The uid ow through rock dumps is
described primarily from soil mechanics, hydrogeology and chemical
engineering theory supported by experimental information.
Unlike saturated ow, where permeability is independent of other
hydraulic parameters, unsaturated ow permeability depends on the
degree of saturation and/or on capillary pressure. Therefore, one cannot
characterize a dump by a single permeability value but, rather, dene
relationships between permeability, saturation and capillary pressure
throughout the dump. Flow through a variably saturated waste rock
dump could be typically characterized by the Richard's equation
description of unsaturated water ow in porous media (Cross et al.,
2006; Pantelis et al., 2002).


S. Yin et al. / Hydrometallurgy 133 (2013) 16

Packed waste rocks

Fig. 1. CT scanner used for scanning the packed column.

3. The leaching column and X-ray CT technology

The ows in porous dump depend on the geometric properties of
the packed particle bed. It is difcult to obtain the in-situ inner structure
of the rock dump. The column leaching test involves passing leaching
solutions through a stationary ore sample to model the dissolution
process. It is not so much to duplicate the results that can be expected
from a commercial dump leaching operation but to collect kinetic information on the ore being evaluated so that scale-up equations can be
validated. So the microstructure and connectivity of pore space inside
the rock dump could be represented by the ores loaded into a column
(shown by Fig. 1), with diameter of 30 cm and length of 150 cm. The
packed ore bed is composed of irregular particles.
X-ray tomographic imaging is an X-ray-based method which by
radiation of an opaque sample in different directions allows for the
three dimensional reconstruction of the sample. It has been developed
to provide the advantage of revealing the detailed internal structure
of opaque objects without damaging those structures. This technology
has been widely used in the research of pore structure of porous
media, such as soil, oil reservoirs and rock (Lin et al., 2005). Recently,
the CT scanner was used to determine the complex pore structure of a
packed column. The combination of this non-destructive technique


and LB simulation allows for the direct pore ow simulation in 3D particle beds (Lin et al., 2009; Videla et al., 2008). The transport of reactants
during the percolation of leaching solution in heaps could have been
investigated (Dhawan et al., 2012). X-ray CT has also been used to identify exposed mineral grains through 3D analysis of multiphase particles
and the complex pore structure of packed columns before and after
leaching (Garcia et al., 2006; Kodali et al., 2011).
An advanced CT scanner, SOMATOM Sensation 16, was used to scan
the packed column in our research. It combines multi-section images
collecting technology, reconstruction technology and high speed of
rotating as well. The images of 32 sections can be collected per second
and a spatial resolution of 0.35 mm 0.35 mm could be reached for
the samples with the same size of the column.
To obtain the pore structure between the particles is the rst step
to investigate the solution ow inside the rock dump through simulation. More than 600 2-D images have been acquired, scanning from
top to bottom of this column at an interval of 2.5 mm. As shown by
Fig. 2, the particle (light gray) and air (black) could be distinguished
in this image. It is also revealed that the size of particles varies inside
the column, with coarse particles loaded at the top section.
The original gray image couldn't be imported into simulated software directly. The spatial boundary between the pore and the particles
should be distinguished according to the difference in their densities. As
shown by Fig. 3, the 2-D CT data should be pre-processed as the following steps to obtain the le incorporated with the software: (1) cut the
original image with rectangular size of 16 cm 16 cm, (2) threshold
the data to obtain binary particle image, (3) invert the data to obtain
binary pore image, (4) the boundary between pore and particle is
obtained as DXF les, which nally could be imported into software
for pore ow simulation.
4. The simulation tool and boundary conditions
COMSOL Multiphysics is a perfect simulator for problems of variable
density ow in porous media. Script-driven by a programming language that extends the Matlab language, it provides all stages of modeling CAD design, meshing, solution, and visualization via control-panel
operation. The Earth Science module within this simulation tool is used
for both heat and water simulations. The porous media is dened by the
volume fractions of solid particles and water. Once the DXF le derived
from original CT image is imported into this simulator, the pores between
particles are then simultaneously meshed based on an orthotropic grid
intersected by interfaces dening the boundaries (shown by Fig. 4).
Smooth boundaries are obtained by adjusting the interpolation points in
one, or a combination, of two ways: by setting points to reect partial
volumes or by applying a multiple material antialiasing scheme. The


Fig. 2. Scanning images corresponding to the top, middle and bottom sections of the column.

S. Yin et al. / Hydrometallurgy 133 (2013) 16

Original gray image

Binary image pore (black)

Binary image pore (white)

Particles boundary

Fig. 3. Visualization of pore structure from original gray image.

approach is fully automated and robust, creating smooth meshes with

low element distortions regardless of the complexity of the segmented
The pore space was assumed to be occupied by solution. The density
and viscosity of water were used for the solution, and a pressure gradient
of 0.1 Pa was established as the boundary conditions in the directions of
uid ow. The rock was considered rigid or having small deformations.
The rock particles are impermeable to the ow phase. The two side
boundaries were set to symmetry boundaries. While velocities are zero
in the rock surface boundary:
v 0:

The inlet pressure and the outlet pressure are assumed to be known.
Flow is symmetric about the sides, giving a slip condition. At the inlet
p0 :

Pressure is assumed for the dump bottom boundary:


P 0:

No solution ow occurs on the side slope boundaries of the dump.

The parameters needed for these simulations are shown in Table 1.
The NavierStokes equation and Richards' equation were solved separately using the simulation tool COMSOL Multiphysics. When the
governing equations and boundary conditions are properly dened, the
implementation of the equation system into COMSOL Multiphysics is
5. Meso-scale ow between ore particles

At the outlet boundary:


rock dump was considered under unsaturated conditions. The dump

is assumed to be homogeneous and initially free of solution. The
porosity of the waste rock dump remains constant during the leaching
process. The solution was irrigated uniformly on the surface of the
dump. For the boundary of dump surface: v = 0.001 m/s.

In practice, the edges of the dump are sloped with a at top when
the waste rock was dumped by trucks. Therefore a trapezium waste

The investigation of ow phenomena at the meso-scale level could

be an important step in the optimization of dump leaching process. By
combining the X-ray Computed Tomography with robust modeling
tools, it is possible to show the pore scale uid ow modeled by the
NavierStokes equation.
It is assumed that saturated liquid ow exists within a certain part
of the region consisting of compacted small particles. Fig. 5, the plot of
velocity eld, shows the solution predicted with a NavierStokes
analysis for the velocities in the pore spaces between those particles.
The brighter the colors, the higher the velocity. The gure reveals that
the solution applied to the dump surface migrates through the porous
matrix of the stacked ore, primarily in the downward direction. Not
all liquid is in motion, however, there are regions of stagnant water
(darker blue regions) which are shielded from the main ow direction
by the grains, are in crevasses or dead end pores, or along the walls
of wide pore bodies. As shown by Fig. 5, a preferential ow path exists

Table 1
Overview of all model parameters used in the calibration exercise.

Fig. 4. Computational mesh of the pore.






Dump porosity
Bed height
Top length
Bottom length
Air viscosity
Air diffusion coefcient
Bed density
Liquid density
Air density
Acceleration due to gravity

1.812 105
1.44 105

m s2

S. Yin et al. / Hydrometallurgy 133 (2013) 16

Maximum velocity:

Pore center

Preferential flow path

Outlet boundary

Ore particle

Fig. 5. Velocity eld plot showing the velocities between ore particles.

inside this simulated domain. The velocity of the ow within this path
is high due to the large diameter, small curvature, and effective connectivity of the pores along this path.
Fig. 6 represents the velocities along the outlet boundary of the
calculated region, which indicates that even for fairly complex geometries, the local velocity prole is nearly parabolic, with the faster velocity in the center of the pore throats, and slower along the solid
water interface.

6. Macro-scale variably saturated liquid ow within dump

Dumps under leach are subject to an application of a solution of
reactants and occasional rain events. The solution ow velocity
eld is largely related to the irrigation rate. Increased irrigation increases the ow velocity and water content in the dump, and reduces
the air-lled porosity. An optimum irrigation rate exists to provide
sufcient both reagents and oxygen for the leaching reaction. Other
factors that can inuence ow conditions include decrepitation of
the substrate, compaction, precipitation of salts from the liquid
phase and transport of nes (e.g. clay). Dumps may also internally
be made up of different ores leading to considerable heterogeneity,

Fig. 6. Velocities along the outlet boundaries.

leading to widely varying ow conditions and therefore levels of

The liquid is assumed to feed uniformly downward under the
inuence of gravity, though in practice the solution ow can take tortuous
paths, with both channeling and liquid stagnant regions. The volume fraction of liquid is assumed to be constant everywhere in the dump. Under a
constant irrigation rate, the water saturation and ow velocity throughout the system will eventually reach a steady state. As shown clearly in
Fig. 7, the area close to the top surface and central part of the dump has
a high saturation and ow velocity. The slope of the ore bed remains
relatively dry with a small ow velocity, which was induced by the capillary, surface tension and the negative pore water pressure.
7. Conclusion
The ow inside the waste rock dump is divided into saturated
and unsaturated, and the saturation ratio depends on many factors,
such as dump structure, irrigation rate and so on. NavierStokes equation and Richards' equation are selected to describe the ow behavior
in intra-particle and in the bulk dump, respectively. Using the X-ray
CT technology, the inner structure of the packed rocks could be
visualized. The distribution of ow velocity between the particles

Fig. 7. Velocity eld of the dump at the macro-scale level.

S. Yin et al. / Hydrometallurgy 133 (2013) 16

is simulated by importing the transformed CT image into simulatorCOMSOL Multiphysics. The macro-scale ow of the whole dump is
also simulated by assuming the dump cross section to be trapezoid.
An optimized performance of a dump reactor may be obtained by
improving the hydrodynamic conditions in the bed which leads to a
more homogeneous distribution of the liquid phase. The information
of the ow behavior can be used in a variety of ways both to improve
one's understanding of the process and also to help make operational
decisions on optimizing recovery for a given scenario.
The authors would like to acknowledge the nancial support for this
work provided by the National Natural Science Foundation of China
(50934002 and 51104011), the Program for Changjiang Scholars and
Innovative Research Team in Universities (IRT0950), and the project
supported by State Key Laboratory of Comprehensive Utilization of
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