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SME Annual Meeting

Feb. 23-25, Denver, Colorado

Preprint 04-141
M.G. Nelson
G.G. Gold
Univ. of Utah
Salt Lake City, UT


unknown fluid flow characteristics in a heap.

Dr. Jan Miller (2003) of the University of Utah performed a
detailed analysis on copper bearing ore at the Zaldivar mine in Chile.
This analysis found the optimal size distribution the mine should grind
to for maximum liberation of the copper. While this research is
extremely useful, it does not optimize the final recovery of the copper
because it ignores the effects that grinding to that size will have on
the flow of leaching solution through out the pad.
To make matters more complicated, particle size distribution is
not the only factor that will affect the fluid flow. Material placement
method, compaction, application rate, application method, and
weather conditions all affect the fluid flow. Certain areas of the pad
may be completely bypassed by the solution due to channeling of fluids. Other areas may accumulate fluids, trapping the precious pregnant solution in areas called perched water tables. Once these problems develop, there is no cheap way of correcting the problem. Leach
pads that are very large and contain multiple lifts increase the
chances of having these problems.
The complexity of a fluid flow system containing millions of tons
of material with thousands of water point sources and one exit is mind
boggling. But by increasing the knowledge of what is occurring inside
the heap, future pads can be designed to prevent problem areas or
make it easier to handle the problems once they start.
This paper summarizes the research and experiments that
were analyzed to see if temperature probes could be used to perform
a simple test to analyze how fluid flow through a particular ore would
occur. The primary goal was to see if this method has the potential to
help characterize ore prior to leaching. A secondary goal was to find
out if certain problem areas can be identified using this method.

A leach pads fluid flow characteristics greatly affect the recovery of metals from heap leaching. However, because there are other
factors such as particle size distribution, application rate and method,
and chemical reactions to consider, mining companies often overlook
potential problems associated with fluid flow until it is too late. In an
effort to better understand the dynamics of fluid flow in leach pads, a
series of experiments were preformed using temperature probes.
A model leach pad was set up using a particle size distribution,
fluid application rate, and application method common to modern
leaching methods. Variable water temperatures were applied in succession and data gathered from the three dimensional grid of temperature probes built in to the model. Current work is analyzing these
data along with visual observations of the model, computer simulations, past mining experiences, and other related research, in an
attempt to develop a low cost test that could be performed prior to
large scale leaching to determine the fluid flow characteristics of a
particular ore. This paper will summarize the work and findings to this
point as well as suggest areas of additional related research.

Heap leaching allows ores previously thought useless to be
mined economically. High volumes of very low grade ore are mined
and placed on large piles. A leach solution is applied to the tops of
the piles causing a chemical reaction that dissolves the precious
metal. The pregnant solution is then collected as it exits the pile
where it is processed into a saleable product. Recent statistics show
that about 12% of gold and 15% of copper production in the world is
from heap leaching operations.
This simple sounding process does have difficulties, which the
mining industry has not solved to this point. After 30 years of continuous improvement, the current status of heap leach design can be
characterized more as educated guess work than art, there is still
much to learn (Scheffel 2002). One area of heap leaching that is not
properly understood is the fluid flow inside the pad. A better understanding of the fluid flow characteristics could increase the percent
recovery and profitability of current leaching operations. It could also
lower the cutoff grades of these types of operations, which would
increase reserves and create new projects.
In the past several decades, considerable research has
been devoted to improving the recovery of precious metals from heap
leaching. Much of this research centers on optimizing the particle size
distribution, with a primary goal of achieving good mineral liberation.
Column tests are performed to test this liberation with laboratory
recoveries usually above 90%. However, numerous sources report
that recovery at operating leach pads typically range from 65 85%
for gold and copper. This discrepancy may in large part be due to

Materials and Equipment
The rock materials used in the model are very important to the
results. As mentioned earlier, fluid flow characteristics are very sensitive, so drastically different results can occur from small changes in
the rock material used. Several aggregate products were acquired
and sieved to known size distributions. These products were then
mixed in a standard cement mixer in percentages calculated to produce an ore that was very close to Millers ultimate size distribution
(XMT-2). Miller (2002) shows the sieve analysis of this distribution.
Table II shows the actual products mixed to approximate the distribution of the XMT-2, and a simulated agglomerated product that was
also prepared, eliminating the fines for better permeability.

Copyright 2004 by SME

SME Annual Meeting

Feb. 23-25, Denver, Colorado
Table I. Particle Size Distributions from Miller (2002)


Model Setup
The model leach pad was constructed on a small platform build
of plywood. The platform dimensions are 94 cm by 102 cm with 5-cm
sides to prevent spillage. The platform was placed at small angle to
encourage the water to move toward the exit point. A plastic liner was
placed on the platform and covered by a layer 1 to 2.5-cm layer of
drain materials. The drain materials contained stone from 0.5 to 1cm
with no fines. This enabled water to quickly move to the outlet of the
pad after it had moved through the leach material. A 3.8-cm layer of
ore was then placed on the drain materials with the first level of thermistors on top. Then a 5-cm layer of ore, a second level of thermistors, a 5-cm layer of ore, a third level of thermistors, and finally a 2.5cm layer of ore were added in succession. The top of the pad had
dimensions of 37.5 cm by 45 cm. A basic diagram of this configuration can be seen in Figure 2.

Table II. Particle Size Distribution used in experiment

Figure 2: Basic Pad Setup

The temperature sensors used were J-type thermistor probes

made by U.S. Sensor. They were used because they were extremely
small (0.75cm x 0.15cm). It was important to have small probes to
minimize the effect they would have on fluid flow. They are insulated
in a polymide tube and coated with epoxy to make them waterproof.
This allows them to be very sensitive to quickly changing temperatures. Figure 1 is a graph showing the sensitivity of a thermistor
placed between fingers and then released. It is important to point out
that these thermistors were not all calibrated to read identical
absolute temperatures. However, when measuring the changes in
temperature these thermistors were quite precise. To negate the differences in absolute temperatures, scans were started just prior to
application of the new water so that analysis could be performed the
change in temperature from that first scan point.

Thermistor Array
As seen in Figure 2, the thermistors were placed in three horizontal levels in the model. The bottom level had 13 probes, while the
middle and upper levels had 12 probes each. The probes were placed
in three rows of four probes each, except in the bottom level where
the middle row had five probes. A top view of the middle level of the
thermistor grid with the position of the drip point can be seen in
Figure 3. The drip point is approximately 7.5 cm above the middle
level of probes. Each level had slightly different spacing but known
distances were maintained between the probes in each row and
between the rows for experiments 2 4. This grid was designed to try
to capture horizontal and vertical spread of fluids from the emitter
Three other thermistors were place in other positions to record
data important to the experiment. One probe was placed on the surface, directly in the water dripping from the emitter. Another was
placed in the outlet of the model heap. A final probe was in close
proximity to the model to measure the ambient air temperature during the experiments.


Temperature (Celcius)


Permeability Tests

A constant-head test for permeability was performed on both the

agglomerated and non-agglomerated ores. This allowed the calculation of the hydraulic conductivity constant (k) for each type of ore
under saturated conditions within one order of magnitude. Using
Darcys Law one can then determine the amount of water that would
need to be emitted to achieve saturated conditions. A leach pad must
remain unsaturated for the chemical processes to work properly, so
the flow rate must be below this level. The k value is needed as an
input variable for computerized simulation. This test also allowed the
sizing of the pump and emitter required in the experiment so that saturation did not occur.






Time (seconds)

Figure 1: Sensitivity of thermistors

Several other pieces of equipment were needed to complete the
experiment. They include a data logger to scan and record the thermistor data sets, a small pump and distribution system, a constant
temperature warm water bath, a cold water tub, and a max-emitter
made by OreMax. This equipment is described in detail by Gold

Copyright 2004 by SME

SME Annual Meeting

Feb. 23-25, Denver, Colorado
A full discussion of the results of this research is found in Gold
(2004). The analysis here will concentrate only a summary of how the
data was analyzed and on deciding whether or not the goals mentioned earlier in this paper were achieved.
An analysis of the heat transfer and other thermodynamic
processes inside the pad were beyond the scope of this project.
However, it was recognized that these processes could greatly affect
the analysis of the fluid flow in these types of experiments. Some
properties of water, especially viscosity, change quite significantly
over a range of 50oC. To neutralize these effects, only data with
waters of approximately the same temperature and with approximately the same change in temperature were compared.
A large amount of data was produced by the experiments. The
raw data was imported, formatted, processed, and graphed using
Microsoft Excel. A summary of important events and comparison
points follow:
Graphs of time versus temperature for each scan
Graph of straight line distance from the drip point to a thermistor versus time till each thermistor had major (15%) change in
Time until the first water begins to flow out of the model
Total amount of water put into the model and water that flowed
out of the model
Examples of the graphs that were generated for analysis can be
found in Figures 4 & 5. New ways of analyzing and comparing this
data continues to be explored.
The primary goal of this research was to determine whether this
method would allow mining companies to learn something about the
fluid flow of their leach ore before full scale leaching begins. At this
time, it appears that this procedure could provide significant information about the fluid flow in leach pads. By setting up these type of
experiments and comparing results between different size distributions and types of ore, a mining company could potentially optimize
the size distribution needed for even fluid application and flow in their
leach pads. However, more research is needed to confirm and quantify the results and see if the results on this small model are scalable
to mine size.
The secondary goal of this research was to determine if common problem areas in a leach pad flow system could be located.
These problem areas are perched water tables and channeling of fluids. Evidence of channeling was seen in all of the experiments. In
experiment 4 the blocking devices placed into the model produced
significant changes in the time required for temperature changes at
the effected thermistors as well as in the overall results when compared to experiment 2.

Figure 3: Top view of the middle level of the thermistor grid

used in experiment 2 - 4. (7.5 cm spacing)

Experimental Runs
A total of five experiments were performed. The first experiment
was a test run to ensure all the equipment was working properly. The
results of this test were not analyzed; however, several important
things were learned. These include thermistor grid spacing, proper
duration of hot or cold water application (100-minutes), number of
times water temperature should be changed during an experiment
(4), and the optimal time interval for scans (5-seconds). The drain
materials were changed to a coarser size and the angle of the pad
increased for the remaining experiments, based on findings from
experiment 1.
Experiments 2 & 4 used a heap built of non-agglomerated ore
while experiments 3 & 5 used agglomerated ore. Experiment 4 had
two impermeable caps, or blocking devices, one placed below a
thermistor to pool water around it, and one placed above a thermistor to keep flow from the thermistor. Experiments 3 & 5 were built to
see if similar results could be duplicated using all the same techniques. The same grid spacing, scan intervals, water temperatures,
application rate, application method, and construction techniques
were used in all three experiments so the data could be analyzed
based on these known differences.
These four experimental runs allowed three different comparisons. A comparison between the results of experiments 3 and 5
would indicate whether or not the models could be built in manner
which would produce similar results. This was not yet complete at the
time of publishing, but will be found in Gold (2004). Comparing the
results of experiments 2 and 3 or 5 would indicate whether differences between agglomerated and non-agglomerated ore can be
seen with this technique. Comparing the results of experiments 2 and
4 would allow one to see if the technique could be used to identify
problem areas in a leach pad.


The technique of placing a 3-D grid of thermistors into a model
leach pad shows significant potential in helping identify how a particular leach ore will affect fluid flow. It also appears that this type of
experiment could help to optimize emitter spacing and investigate the
interaction of multiple emitters or other application methods. At this
time, more research is needed to prove the results are conclusive, but
there is enough evidence to spur future research.
Continuing research should include the following:
Additional experiments in a controlled environment to quantify
ways of identifying problems with the fluid flow
Larger scale allowing multiple emitters, more thermistors, and
tighter thermistor grid to be investigated
Thermodynamics of the experiments and how they effect the
fluid properties and results

Copyright 2004 by SME

SME Annual Meeting

Feb. 23-25, Denver, Colorado

Miller, J.D., Lin C.L., Garcia, C., and H. Arias. 2002. Ultimate
recovery in heap leaching operations as established from mineral
exposure analysis by x-ray microtomography. SME Annual Meeting.
Preprint 02-170.
Miller, J.D., Lin C.L., Roldan, C., and Garcia, C. 2003.
Estimation of ultimate recovery in heap leaching operations using
high resolution cone beam x-ray microtomography (XMT). SME
Annual Meeting. Preprint 03-066.
Scheffel, R.E. 2002. Copper heap leach design and practice.
Proceedings Mineral Processing Plant Design, Practice, and
Control. Vol. 2. 1571-1605.

Support for this research program was provided by donations

from the following organizations:
Geneva Rock - Draper, UT Aggregate products
A.J. Dean Concrete - SLC, UT Aggregate products
OreMax - Fresno, CA Max-Emitters
AMEC - SLC, UT Lab for permeability tests

Gold, G.G. 2004 (to appear). Fluid flow analysis of a model
leach pad using a 3-D thermistor array. M.S. Thesis. University of
Utah, Salt Lake City.

Copyright 2004 by SME

SME Annual Meeting

Feb. 23-25, Denver, Colorado


(Middle Level)


Temperature Change (Celcius)












Time (minutes)

Figure 4: Example of the graphs for analysis

Figure 5: Example of the graphs for analysis

Copyright 2004 by SME