3 questions to...
Nicolas Maes Orano Mining CEO
Why partner with BRGM?
N. M. — Orano Mining specialises in the nuclear fuel sector. The group was formed in 2016 following the refocusing of Areva, a company operating throughout the nuclear cycle.
With this collaboration we were seeking to improve the recovery rate of uranium in low-grade ores, specifically to reduce the operating costs and extend the life of the Somaïr mine in Niger. We had been familiar with BRGM’s expertise in bioactivation for a long time, and it seemed natural to work together. We had been in contact since 2012 in the context of feasibility studies on bio-oxidation for in situ leaching for uranium recovery at the Katco mine in Kazakhstan and heap leaching at the open-pit Somaïr mine in Niger.
What kind of expertise are you looking for and for what kind of work?
N. M. — The IRONBIOX project focuses on the development of a bioprocess to improve the cost-effectiveness and yield of extracting uranium from ore. It is based on the production of an oxidant (ferric iron Fe3+) generated by bacterial activity. BRGM contributes its expertise in mining processes using microorganisms. It has a very good understanding of bio-environments.
Our collaboration first involved the subcontracting of thermodynamic studies and the identification and adaptation of critical parameters. BRGM then provided knowledge transfer for a pilot plant in a testing centre, including assistance for the testing and plant scaling. The assistance for the pilot plant was provided by joint teams between BRGM and CIME (Innovation Centre for Extractive Metallurgy). Orano Mining has invested extensively in a facility in Bessines sur Gartempe, north of Limoges, with a new pilot hall for the entire uranium cycle, metallurgy in a broad sense and recycling.
What did you learn from the project?
N. M. — IRONBIOX is an innovative project. It began in 2013 and is exclusively funded by Orano Mining. We are now at the last stage: an industrial-scale pilot plant is being built. A decision to invest has been made with a view to beginning production in the first half of 2022.
Our collaboration was strong, based on great trust, a shared determination to make it work and extensive knowledge sharing. We wish to continue working together.